Radiation and nuclear technology: safety without science is dangerous

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Oxford nuclear and medical physicist Wade Allison is the author of Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear. Recently Prof. Allison wrote an op-ed that explained very succinctly why low levels of radiation are not to be feared; why ionising radiation from nuclear reactors is fundamentally the same as the UV from the sun. 

I recommend this brief essay as a resource for those who have friends and family who are fearful about nuclear energy. With this as background, perhaps the fearful will be better prepared to understand the stories of former anti-nuclear activists who are now campaigning for nuclear power (e.g., Stewart Brand, Mark Lynas). This is the theme of the soon-to-be-released documentary Pandora’s Promise by film maker Robert Stone (also a former anti-nuclear activist). 

Scientists are currently mired in a bogus safety culture that stifles innovation, acts as a brake on economic growth and actually makes the world a more hazardous place. How has this happened?

Until recently much prosperity flowed from new developments in chemistry and electronics that exploit the outer part of atoms. Only medicine has whole-heartedly engaged with the inner nuclear part. Following the work of Marie Curie the health of people around the world today has improved out of all recognition thanks to radiation and nuclear technology.

Unfortunately many people — politicians, the media, the wider public, even many scientists — believe that this same technology when used in other contexts is dangerous; the reasons for this are historical and cultural without any basis in science. This belief should be challenged and we should examine the evidence, based on simple ideas, personal experience and the published results of nuclear accidents. Otherwise this source of innovation will dry up with significant economic consequences.

Life has evolved to be stable under changing conditions, for example when attacked by moderate exposure to radiation, that is ionising radiation such as ultraviolet in sunshine. As we have all learnt, a little too much and we suffer from sunburn. If repeated too often, we can get skin cancer later on and that can be fatal. Other forms of ionising radiation have a similar effect except that they may penetrate below the skin.

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Regions of the radiation spectrum [left]

The diagram illustrates how the spectrum of radiation includes visible light (shown as a rainbow), the infrared range on the right, and the ultraviolet on the left merging into the X-rays and gamma rays that we know as types of nuclear radiation. Like other radiation on the right, infrared just heats living tissue and is harmless unless it overheats. However, ionising radiation, shown to the left can result in molecular damage and the creation of oxidants, dangerous chemical fragments similar to those produced in normal metabolism. These break the DNA molecules which control the cells of living tissue. In sunburn skin cells are damaged in large numbers but the DNA is repaired or the cells replaced with new. Cancer develops when faulty DNA repairs escape the vigilance of the immune system. In 2009 there were over 9000 skin cancer deaths in USA, based not on some hypothetical calculation but on actual annual mortality figures.

Nevertheless, some significant exposure of the skin to ultraviolet is important for the production of Vitamin D and the avoidance of Rickets. Sunbathing in moderation is an accepted pleasure in life and people do not take their vacations exclusively by starlight or deep underground, just to avoid the radiation with its small cancer risk. There is no plethora of international committees to discuss this danger – just gentle public education from doctors and pharmacists pressing families to use blocking agents and to restrict their time in the sun at midday. So, everybody learns of the danger without a great ballyhoo and the risks are in the same range as others encountered in life (in USA annual deaths per million population: skin cancer 30, road traffic 110). It may be a matter of life and death for the individual, but, in spite of a fair number of identified deaths every year, nobody would choose to threaten the economy or social health of a whole society on this account.

By contrast, the closely related nuclear radiation from the accident at Fukushima (damaged in the 2011 Japanese tsunami) has killed nobody and the intensities are so low that no case of cancer is likely in the next 50 years. Unlike figures for skin cancer the only estimates of risk come from discredited calculations of a tiny number of deaths that appear only on paper. Yet the authorities have reacted in a way that reduces economic output and increases damage to the environment.

(…) 

Modern scientific experiments establish beyond doubt that moderate doses of radiation do no harm. Biologists have learnt how in a billion years life has evolved defences against such attacks and even benefits from modest stimulation of these defences by low chronic doses.

So why are official attitudes and regulations so dangerously inappropriate? They cause serious social harm and benefit nobody – and by closing nuclear power plants they have caused major damage to the environment and the world economy.

The fear of a nuclear holocaust at the time of the Cold War spawned many committees, national and international, who still offer advice to governments to regulate any exposure to radiation to levels “As Low As Reasonably Achievable”. This is about 1000 times lower than a level that would be “As High As Relatively Safe” — which, after all, is the way that the safety of a bridge or ship might be assessed.

Such safety factors are unaffordable in nuclear technology, as elsewhere, and excessive safety is intimidating. These overlapping committees, should be reduced and should re-dedicate themselves to dispensing explanatory education and improved public trust in science. Only then may the known benefits of nuclear technology (access to clean power, clean water, food preservation, as well as advances in healthcare) be widely accepted and realised. Those countries that first break the mould and start fully exploiting this technology will have a great economic advantage – and they will be safe too. 

3 thoughts on “Radiation and nuclear technology: safety without science is dangerous

  1. Wade Allison is a health physics denier and is in the same class as evolution and global warming deniers. Shame you are spreading his nonsense.

    I’m not implying that low level radiation is to be feared. It’s not. But there is a cancer risk, just like there is with sun exposure.

  2. Hmmm. Let’s see, a great way to permanently clear out Grand Central Station (and the Empire State Building’s lobby and other granite buildings in NYC) is to perch a Geiger counter in the main hall by the ticket circle and tape a big sign to it stating “Every tick you hear rips a millisecond off your life because any radiation exposure is a bad exposure! The UCS says so! So catch your train while you can still have kids — or just live with it, like humans have since the dawn of time.”

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

    • >perch a Geiger counter

      I think you are on to something there. We are innumerate regarding normal background radiation levels. As a thought experiment, suppose everywhere temperature is displayed, associated is the millisievert per year readout. Or percent-Denver-dose. Needs to always be in same units so that everyone gets familiar with normal (background). I like mSv/yr because I’m familiar with those numbers.

      I still don’t know how to bring the general population to an understanding of the radiation level that could increase lifetime cancer risk by say 1%.

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