Paul Blustein: Everything you thought you knew about the risks of nuclear energy is wrong

Brookings scholar Paul Blustein reviews Pandora’s Promise from Kamakura, Japan:

Chances are pretty high, based on prevailing public opinion, that you will think my wife and I are a tad crazy, maybe even guilty of child abuse. During the March 2011 accident at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, which is a couple hundred miles from where we live, we stayed put while thousands of others fled the Tokyo area and many foreigners left Japan for good. Not only that, we buy as much of our fruits and vegetables as possible from Fukushima Prefecture, the Connecticut-size jurisdiction where the plant is located (we even specially order boxes of Fukushima produce) while millions of others in Japan take extreme care to consume only food from the far west and south of the country. And yes, our whole family, including our 12- and 10-year-old sons, eats Fukushima food. We’re convinced it’s perfectly safe, and we like helping people whose products suffer from an unjust taint.

Are you recoiling in horror, perhaps even wishing the Japanese child welfare authorities would seize custody of our kids? If so, you are the ideal audience member for a provocative new film, titled Pandora’s Promise. This documentary focuses on five thoughtful environmentalists who were once terrified of radiation, and thought nuclear power was imperiling the planet’s future, but after educating themselves, they gradually realized that their assumptions were wrong. For people who are instinctively opposed to nuclear power but open-minded enough to consider evidence that goes against their predilections, this film will, and should, force them to question their certitude.

(…snip…) 

As someone who had to learn about radiation in a hurry after Fukushima, I was gratified to see how the educational process worked with these five environmentalists. Stewart Brand, founder of The Whole Earth Catalog, recalls being bewildered at first by the plethora of radiation exposure measurements (in millirems, microrems, millisieverts, microsieverts etc.). “You’re looking and squinting. ‘Okay, that looks like a large number. Is that a number I should worry about?’ Compared to what? What’s the background radiation level relative to all this?”

Like me, the enviros in the film were astonished to come across extensive evidence about the minimal physiological impact of contamination from major nuclear accidents. The best example is Chernobyl, where the radiation emissions in 1986 were by far the largest in history; nearly three decades later, studies show that the main effects on the general population in the area have overwhelmingly been on the mental and emotional health of people who thought they were doomed to cancer and succumbed as a result to maladies such as depression and substance abuse. (The chief documented exception is the 6,000-odd cases of thyroid cancer contracted by children after drinking milk from cows fed on grass contaminated with radioactive iodine. Soviet authorities failed to warn people of this danger, though only a handful of the victims have reportedly died of the ailment, which is one of the least lethal forms of cancer.)

Paul Blustein was formerly the Tokyo correspondent for the Washington Post.

11 thoughts on “Paul Blustein: Everything you thought you knew about the risks of nuclear energy is wrong

  1. Same old nonsense spin – been hearing these words from day 1 – a film is now the supposed reason? Nah – just another failure to understand.

  2. Although the author makes good and valid points, I continue to believe that our current nuclear technology, i.e., the pressurized water reactor (PWR), is a serious mistake. There are better nuclear technologies available, including the liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR) which is safer and produces far less nuclear waste. We should be migrating to a better nuclear technology.

    That said, even our present PWRs are far less risky than global warming; it is unlikely that we could reduce CO2 emissions sufficiently without nuclear power.

  3. Really? Do you understand that people closest to the incident were evacuated from the Chernobyl area, and so you see fewer cases of disease than if they stayed there? One of the effects noted in research is on populations that consume local produce, so so much for your buying local hypothesis. Significant effects have been found for thyroid disease, thyroid cancer, thyroid nodules, certain forms of eye deterioration, leukemia, clastogenic effects, cutaneous neoplasms. Apparently you read the one paper where its states that the “only” effect is thyroid cancer — as if you should reject that given the ages of your children — and that most of the effects are psychological. That is not what the literature implies.

    You also need to consider the effect on local animal populations, especially since local animals don’t move, but stay local. In local animal population, long term genetic mutations are recorded that remain elevated despite declines in the level of radiation, these studies also indicate that the long term effects are greater than short term studies predicted.

  4. @ Dr. Lynch,

    These problems also occur in people who are not exposed to artificial radiation. Showing that the effects have been caused by artificial radiation would require very careful statistical work to compare the incidence of the effects in people who have been exposed to artificial radiation with people who have been exposed only to natural radiation.

    I am not saying that the radiation at Chernobyl caused no problems. What I am saying is that one must be exceedingly careful when analyzing conclusions to determine whether they are the result of careful studies done my more than one group and that those doing the studies are not biased in either direction. People who want to make the risk look small may neglect to examine long term effects whereas people who want to make the risk look high may bias the results in that direction.

    In any case, Chernobyl was far more serious than Fukushima. It may be that Fukushima resulted in low risk even if Chernobyl resulted in high risk.

    Until there are studies which exclude bias and emotion and which are based only on sound science, I feel that I cannot reach valid conclusions.

    • Read the scientific literature then. Its large. Average background radiation is 310 millirems (mrem) per year in the US or 3.1 millisieverts (mSv). At Chernobyl, the worker received 80,000-1,600,000 mrems, and 21% of them died. Radiation dose from Fukushima were 400 mSvs or 40,000 mrem per hour — half of the low end of Chernoby — and quiet large on an annual basisl. In April, dangerous levels of radiation have been found in food grown and produced 225 miles from Fukushima at levels high enough to exceed annual suggested maximum radiations doses with only a few weeks of food exposure. Studies will, of course take perhaps a decade to emerge because the effects of radiation, other than death, take years to develop since the effect route is through biological changes and the development of disease. So, in ten years, at best, when they come back and find that the exposure level causes disease, its going to be too late for you to do anything about it. This is particularly a problem for your children, since children have much lower radiation exposure maximums than adults. That’s because children are growing at faster rates than adults, and the process of genetic mutation that produces disease under those conditions is greater.

  5. @ Dr. Lynch,

    Of course some studies will take many years. However, the effect on the workers at Chernobyl is irrelevant; we all know that such extreme doses of radiation are fatal. What is relevant is the long term effect of much lower doses. The means by which the suggested maximum permissible doses for long term exposure are somewhat questionable.

    The Chernobyl design was totally irresponsible; there was not even a containment structure. The accident occurred while safety devices were disabled. Chernobyl cannot be used to evaluate the risk of a nuclear accident for more responsible designs. However, it can be used to evaluate the risks of long term exposure to moderate doses of radiation.

    The Fukushima melt down occurred because of failure to allow for a tsunami of a height the same as historical tsunamis. Therefore, the Diesel generators were flooded out. Even the antiquated designs would not have failed if the generators had been located where they would not be flooded. No doubt a few people did receive excessive doses of radiation, but only a few. It looks as though the impact of evacuation was, for many people, much greater than the risk of radiation.

    New reactor designs are much safer; the new Westinghouse AP1000 reactor does not require power for emergency cooling. There are even better nuclear technologies that should be tested and probably implemented, but we are doing virtually no R & D for alternative nuclear technologies. Better technologies would reduce risks and costs in addition to reducing the amount of nuclear waste.

    Although it is impossible to know for sure, it is likely that the world will, by the year 2200, require four times as much power. Unless we expand nuclear power, much of the additional power will come from fossil fuels thereby exacerbating the problem of global warming.

    Incidentally, my sister also has a PhD. However, she uses the letters only in professional circles because she sees them as irrelevant and ostentatious under other circumstances.

    • Yes, Ph.D. carries some authority. Its useful for that purpose. It implies a level of development of education. I won’t bore you with my numerous environmental publications.

      You are ignoring that long term, persistent radiation, even at low levels, causes disease and illness. This is well known. The point of the Chernobyl data was to illustrate that the level of exposure in Japan, though not as high, was still very high. What we need is safe, renewable energy, not more of the same old “remedies.” You seem to believe that energy must be provided by a centralized utility. That’s dated thinking. We need ways of decentralizing power generation and delivery and redesigning how we use power and how it gets conserved.There are all kinds of energy systems — they just aren’t necessarily good for big businesses who will lose their monopoly on power creation and delivery.

  6. I live in Albuquerque NM and at this altitude, the natural background radiation is significantly greater than it is at lower altitudes. Although data may exist that indicates that those of us who live at high altitudes may experience more radiation-related health problems, I am unaware of such data. Unless such data can be found, it seems reasonable to question both the linear no threshold theory of radiation risk and the idea that persistent low-level radiation below a certain level carries any risk at all. Of course that is no excuse for carelessness.

    Decentralized, intermittent, and diffuse sources of energy would require huge amounts of storage and interconnection over large areas to provide reliable power. Although I have spent hours searching, I have been unable to find convincing evidence that renewable sources of power are practical as a significant source of power for large countries with the exception of a few countries which have abundant hydro power. There are, of course, claims that wind and solar power will do the job. If there were a study in which sensors had been placed where it would be practical to locate wind and solar systems and the data were thoroughly analyzed and proved that it is practical, I would accept it.

    On youtube, I watched a lecture by a UC Davis professor. His lecture convinced the majority of people in the audience that wind and solar would do the job, but yet he provided no evidence. He simply stated that it would work; that was sufficient to convince the doubters in the audience, as evidenced by before and after questionnaires. I am not that easily convinced and question the wisdom of spending untold billions of dollars on energy systems which have not been proven to be practical.

    The fact that centralized systems are dated is irrelevant. I could list a number of very old ideas which are, for good reason, still widely accepted. The age of an idea has nothing to do with its practicality; asserting otherwise is simply an emotional argument.

    Regarding publications and credentials, I am much more likely to accept hard evidence resulting from careful studies carried out by multiple organizations. There have been entirely too many cases where highly credentialed experts have been wrong. For well over a century, highly respected doctors bled patients even though there was no evidence that, except in rare circumstances, bleeding was beneficial. For years theories promulgated by highly respected “experts” in psychology and psychiatry were widely accepted only to be proven later to be incorrect. The man who popularized lobotomies got a Nobel prize for it.

  7. Why don’t we just shut down all the nuclear reactors in the world for 24hrs and see what happens. Wikipedia did that same stunt and gained world recognition of its importance. Ok Mr Lynch PhD (piled higher and deeper)?

  8. @ Heather,

    That wouldn’t work. The anti-nuclear crowd would simply claim that we shouldn’t have built so many nuclear plants in the first place and that the solution is to phase them out gradually as more wind and solar system are installed.

    Probably the only thing that would make them understand the imperative of nuclear power would be to spend billions upon billions of dollars implementing wind and solar and still be dependent on fossil fuels to back up the wind and solar. We need to be able to get almost all of our power from clean sources, not simply a substantial part of it and it is highly unlikely that that could be done at a politically acceptable cost.

    As I have asserted many many times, and as you will probably agree, there have been no adequate quantitative studies that show that wind and solar can do the job reliably at an acceptable cost. I have several times challenged the anti-nuclear crowd to direct me to such a study, but none have. The “studies” to which I have been directed are simply statements insisting that wind and solar can to the job, but there is never any proof. What is called proof is no more than statements of people who have advanced degrees or who have been well-published, and that is not proof. We also read statements about how much energy the earth receives daily from the sun which is presented as if it proved something. Although that is an interesting statistic, it is no more relevant than the distance between Jupiter and Europa.

    We can prove that velocity = acceleration times time, or that isothermally compressing a gas to half of its volume doubles the pressure. We proved that smallpox vaccine worked before undertaking to vaccinate billions of the world’s people. We have proven with statistics that a good diet and adequate exercise reduces the incidence of heart disease. But we have not proven that wind and solar power can adequately provide at a politically acceptable cost for the power needs of most large countries, yet we are urged to spend billions of dollars on them. Apparently it is believed that incessant repetition is all the proof that is needed.

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