The Buzz

How a Nuclear Attack on North Korea Would Spark a Global Cancer Epidemic

With tensions high between the United States and North Korea, there is the possibility that the U.S. would launch a “tactical” nuclear strike in the Korean peninsula. There would be consequences far beyond damage to military sites proposed in such an attack.

There is, of course, the danger that North Korea would retaliate and that tensions would escalate. That’s serious political fallout. As a physician scientist who has has worked with radiation for more than 30 years, I am also concerned about a cancer epidemic that would result from such an attack’s nuclear fallout.

Even without a nuclear war, the incidence of cancer is already rising around the world, up by 33 percent worldwide in the past decade. This is largely due to aging of the population and environmental and behavioral patterns such as cigarette smoking. The last thing we need is more of this dreadful disease.

In my research laboratory, we use extremely small doses of radiation to image very small molecules in order to understand how the body works. All of us who work with radiation know about the lethal effects of large doses, but the radiation exposure to the scientists in my laboratory is monitored very closely. Strict federal guidelines define how much radiation is considered “safe.”

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During early morning walks in Seoul last year, while on sabbatical at Yonsei University, I could sense the city’s vulnerability as I heard target practice from the top of nearby hills. Seoul, with a population of 22 million, is a mere 35 miles from the North Korean border and would be affected by nuclear fallout. Indeed, it is a medical likelihood that cancer rates in Seoul and the Korean peninsula would be increased for decades following a nuclear attack.

How nuclear fallout causes cancer

Nuclear fallout occurs when the debris from a nuclear bomb explosion rises up in the familiar mushroom cloud into the atmosphere and is then dispersed by winds over a large area. Much of what we know scientifically about nuclear fallout comes from testing nuclear bombs in remote areas, such as the Marshall Islands in the Pacific in the 1950s, where high exposures resulted in increased in colon and stomach cancers. We have also learned about the effects of nuclear fallout from cancers that occurred years after the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and from cancers diagnosed after nuclear plant meltdowns at Chernobyl and Fukushima.

High doses of radiation can cause cancer by damaging DNA, the carrier of the genetic code. The damage to DNA caused by radiation is magnified in children because they are growing, and thus their DNA is dividing faster.

It takes years for most types of radiation-induced cancer to develop, and we might not know the full toll for decades. One long-term study found that about 5 percent of solid cancer cases were attributable to radiation. And for those people who were exposed to high doses of radiation (>1 gray, or about 1,000 chest x-rays), as much as 48 percent of solid tumors in survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were attributable to radiation exposure.

Because radioactive iodine released during nuclear power plant accidents is taken up by the thyroid gland, increased incidences of thyroid cancer have been observed, for example, after the Chernobyl meltdown. Indeed, the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986 has caused an approximately 30 percent increase in thyroid cancer. And, Fukushima prefecture residents are already exhibiting increased rates of thyroid cancer seven years after the radiation exposure there.