Category Archives: Nuclear Risk Assessment

How life cycle risks of nuclear power compare with other energy sources.

Government’s role in shutting down the US nuclear industry

A November 15, 2007 Heritage backgrounder “Competitive Nuclear Energy Investment: Avoiding Past Policy Mistakes” provides a brief history of anti-nuclear activists and regulatory turbulence, counseling that, this time around, we must act to avoid those enormous costs.

Amory Lovins loves to say “there are no private investors interested in nuclear power”. That is manifestly untrue. But the fact that utilities and venture capitalists are investing in nuclear today is a miracle considering the massacre experienced by investors in the period 1970 through 1994 (when Clinton killed the Integral Fast Reactor). Excerpts from the Heritage true history:

(…) Investors hesitate to embrace nuclear power fully, despite significant regulatory relief and economic incentives.

This reluctance is not due to any inherent flaw in the economics of nuclear power or some unavoidable risk. Instead, investors are reacting to the historic role that federal, state, and local governments have played both in encouraging growth in the industry and in bringing on its demise. Investors doubt that federal, state, and local governments will allow nuclear energy to flourish in the long term. They have already lost billions of dollars because of bad public policy.

The United States once led the world in commercial nuclear technology. Indeed, the world's leading nuclear companies continue to rely on American technologies. However, in the 1970s and 1980s, federal, state, and local governments nearly regulated the U.S. commercial nuclear industry out of existence. U.S. companies responded by reallocating their assets, consolidating or selling their commercial nuclear capabilities to foreign companies in pro-nuclear countries.

This paper reviews how overregulation largely destroyed the nuclear industry and why it remains an obstacle to investment in the industry. This dynamic must be understood and mitigated before the true economics of nuclear power can be harnessed for the benefit of the American people.

(…) Investors are right to be wary. Anti-nuclear activists have already exploited the authority of public institutions to strangle the industry. Now these same public institutions must be trusted to craft good public policy that reestablishes the confidence necessary to invite investment back into America's nuclear industry. To be successful, the new policies must create an industry that does not depend on the government. They must mitigate the risks of overregulation but allow for adequate over sight while preventing activists from hijacking the regulatory process.

(…) Activists Gone Wild

Anti-nuclear groups used both legal intervention and civil disobedience to impede construction of new nuclear power plants and hamper the operations of existing units. They legally challenged 73 percent of the nuclear license applications filed between 1970 and 1972 and formed a group called Consolidated National Interveners for the specific purpose of disrupting hearings of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Much of the anti-nuclear litigation of the 1970s was encouraged by factions within the government.[4] Today, activist organizations determined to force the closure of nuclear power plants, such as Mothers for Peace, continue to use the legal process to harass the nuclear energy industry.

Activists went well beyond simply challenging nuclear power in the courts. On numerous occasions, demonstrators occupied construction sites, causing delays. For instance, in May 1977, the Clamshell Alliance led a protest that resulted in the arrest of more than 1,400 people for trespassing at the Seabrook plant site in New Hampshire.[5] In California, the Abalone Alliance adopted similar tactics and frequently blocked the gates of the Diablo Canyon power plant.[6]

A watershed victory for the anti-nuclear movement occurred in 1971 when a federal appeals court ruled that the construction and operating permits for a nuclear power plant violated the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969. As a result, util ities were required to hold public hearings before obtaining a permit to start a project.[7] This decision created a major opening in the process that anti-nuclear activists could exploit.

Changing the Economics of Nuclear Power

(…) In addition, the role of the judiciary cannot be overemphasized. Congress's loss of enthusiasm for nuclear energy led to more aggressive regulation, and because jurisdiction over nuclear issues was divided among multiple committees, there was no unified congressional direction. The result was an expansion of costly and often unnecessary rules.

In June 2006, the NRC listed over 80 sources of regulation,[8] including over 1,300 pages of laws, treaties, statutes, authorizations, executive orders, and other documents.(…) Because the interpretation of NRC regulations was left to the discretion of individual NRC technical reviewers, each license application would often result in its own unique requirements.[9]

(…) This inconsistency increased costs, further sour ing Congress on nuclear power and leading to an endless spiral of legislation, regulation, and still more added costs. Between 1975 and 1983, 430 suits were brought against the NRC, leading to 2,349 proposed rules and regulations–each of which required an industry response.[10] The addi tional and unexpected controls created industry wide uncertainty and raised questions about the long-term economics of nuclear power. They also drove up capital costs.[11]

This was all done by the NRC without adequate information. The NRC recognized as early as 1974 that it was issuing regulations without sufficient risk assessment training or cost considerations. It did not even have a program to train employees in how to conduct a review using NRC guidance.[12] Yet the commission continued to issue regulation after regulation.

(…) The shifting regulatory environment gave rise to additional reviews from numerous public institutions.(…) between 1956 and 1979, the average construction permit review time increased fourfold. The average time required to bring a plant on line from the order date increased from three years to 13 years during a similar time period.[15]

(…) As more inspections and inspectors were required, delays often resulted from inadequate regulatory manpower. Workers had to spend inordinate amounts of time waiting for inspections rather than building the project. The oft-changing construction specifications also led to mistakes, which created further delays.Even after construction was complete, delays often continued. Delaying plant completion could cost up to $1 million per day.[17] Stories of costly and unnecessary delays litter the history of U.S. nuclear power. Plants such as the Shoreham nuclear plant on Long Island were completely built but never used because extremists succeeded in scaring the public and political leaders.

Overregulation Leads to a Declining Industry

Overall, regulation increased the cost of constructing a nuclear power plant fourfold. [19] Such cost escalation would have been justified if it had been rooted in scientific and technical analysis. Regrettably, it was largely a function of anti-nuclear activism, agenda-driven politicians, activist regulators, and unsubstantiated public fear. A total of $70 billion was added to the cost of nuclear reactors constructed by 1988, and this cost was passed on to the ratepayers. After 1981, the cost of constructing a nuclear power plan rose from two to six times, [20] which means that either consumers paid significantly more or utilities incurred losses if they did not charge market prices. Neither circumstance was sustainable.

(…) In total, $30 billion was spent on nuclear plants that were never completed,[26] which is more than the value of most of the companies that are considering new plant orders.

 

Letter to American Nuclear Society: Resolving The Issue Of The Science Of Biological Effects Of Low Level Radiation

As I write we have over 220 signatures on the captioned letter, hosted at the Ted Rockwell Memorial site. We need many more signatories supporting this vitally important initiative. Please sign and invite your colleagues to sign. Following is an update via email from John A. Shanahan, President, Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy – USA. John sent a list of signatories as of July 20th. I put a copy of the list here on Dropbox.

Hello,

Everyone is on bcc to maintain your privacy.

Thank you for signing the letter to the American Nuclear Society about the Linear No-Threshold Hypothesis requirements for the nuclear and radioisotope industries.

Attached is a current list of signers, including each of you.

Please review it and consider inviting colleagues who are not listed. The long-term success of nuclear power and nuclear medicine depends on moving away from LNT to more realistic standards.

It is important for you to know that there are several wide categories that can include many people who are not members of the professional societies mentioned. Here are some examples:

- (Friends of Nuclear Energy / Radioisotopes) can include elected officials, teachers, people outside nuclear related professions who support nuclear power and nuclear medicine. Worldwide.

- (Employees in Nuclear Energy) This includes everyone from mining uranium and thorium to operations of nuclear power plants to radwaste storage and professors in nuclear engineering, who are not members of ANS, etc. Worldwide.

- (Employees in Radioisotopes for Nuclear Medicine etc.) This includes everyone involved in producing radioisotopes to using them in all applications, not just nuclear medicine. Of course it includes doctors in diagnostic and therapeutic medicine. Worldwide.

Please invite your colleagues who are not listed in the attached document. We want all countries who use nuclear energy and nuclear medicine to have as strong a presence as possible. Encourage your colleagues / peers to go to:

tedrockwellmemorial.org

read and sign the letter.

It is very important that as many voices are heard from as many organizations as possible, Worldwide. Special encouragement to Women in Nuclear, WiN and Young Generation in Nuclear organizations, Worldwide.

Thanks

John


John A. Shanahan

President, Environmentalists for Nuclear Energy – USA
President, Go Nuclear, Inc.

Scaring The Japanese People With Radiation Is Criminal

I realize many journals and on-line publications need sensational headlines to attract readers. It seems necessary in these times of social media and 24-hour news cycles.

But it becomes unethical to push bad science without doing at least a little due diligence. I understand anti-nuke ideology cares little about science and is never held to any technical standard, but in some cases reporting bad science hurts people who need good science to make personal decisions for themselves and their families.

James Conca explains in depth why the latest instance of media fear mongering is a “textbook case of this malfeasance is the Fukushima-induced thyroid scare in Japanese children”.

Since few in the public read peer-reviewed journals or have the patience to plow through jargon-filled papers, it is the responsibility of scientists to communicate clearly and for journalists to have reputable sources.

Ironically, it has repeatedly been shown that the worst health effects from Fukushima have come from the fear of radiation and the forced evacuations, not from any radiation effects (Gaji 2013;Japan Daily PressWHO ReportNYTimes). Not one person has, or likely will, die from Fukushima radiation. But many people have died from the forced evacuations, fear and depression resulting from both well-intentioned and politically-motivated ignorance on radiation doses and effects following the accident.

Is radiation a must for cells’ normal growth?

This may be important work towards a science-based approach to low level radiation: both studies demonstrated a stress response when cells were grown under reduced radiation conditions

The March, 2011 issue of Health Physics published an interesting paper titled “Exploring Biological Effects of Low Level Radiation from the other Side of Background” summarizing the results from a Low Background Radiation Experiment carried out in Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP), an underground lab at New Mexico and those from a sister experiment conducted at the Lovelace Respiratory Research Institute, Albuquerque.

This was part of a $150 million, five-year long, low-dose research project recommended by 26 scientists highly regarded in radiobiology research community and representing competing radiation effects hypotheses.

WIPP is located at a depth of 650 metre in the middle of a 610 metre thick ancient salt deposit that has been stable for more than 200 million years. The radioactivity content of the salt deposit is extremely low.

The radiation levels in the lab are ten times lower than the normal natural background radiation levels. The contribution to the background from potassium-40, the only identifiable radionuclide present in the lab can also be reduced further by using a modest amount of shielding. Massive, 650 metre thick, salt reduced the cosmic ray background.

Researchers incubated Deinococcus Radiodurans, a bacterium which is highly resistant to radiation, above-ground and in WIPP in a 15 cm thick pre-world war II steel chamber; that steel is not contaminated by traces of radio-nuclides from nuclear weapons fallout.

(Snip)

The researchers found that shielding cells from natural radiation upregulated ( initiated the process of increasing the response to a stimulus) the expression of two out of three stress proteins and follow on x-ray exposure further upregulated expression.

They obtained similar results with the bronchial epithelial cells. Both studies demonstrated a stress response when cells were grown under reduced radiation conditions. Does it show that radiation is necessary for normal growth of cells?

A few years ago, mainstream scientists should have shown a smirk on their face followed by a grin if they heard this conclusion. Not any more. Many outstanding specialists feel that at the end of five years, they may be able to develop a model based on exposing organisms to near zero levels of radiation, a model based on sound science.

It may lead to increasing the levels of radiation considered safe; it will have a profound impact on the economics of decommissioning nuclear facilities, long term storage of radioactive waste, construction of nuclear power facilities among others. This requires drastic changes in public perception.

 

Inside the slow and dangerous clean up of the Fukushima nuclear crisis

NewImage

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we take you to a place that garnered headlines around the world three years ago, but has hardly been seen since, because it’s so dangerous.

Is it possible to make a negative $ contribution to PBS? The February 28th PBS Newshour on Fukushima is shocking. Imagine a script written by Arnie Gunderson and Helen Caldicot, designed to create maximum fear and anxiety. 

Hiroshima Syndrome has posted a March 4th critique titled PBS Fukushima Report is Fear-mongering at its Worst which begins:

The February 28 PBS report, Inside the slow and dangerous clean up of the Fukushima nuclear crisis, is fear-mongering at its most disturbing extreme. The obvious intent is to scare and upset the viewer with exaggeration, innuendo, and thinly-veiled conspiracy theory, all predicated on proliferating fear, uncertainty and doubt. (FUD) There seems to have been little or no effort towards rational informing of the viewers.

Even the lead-in by anchor Judy Woodruff drips with fear and doubt, “Now we take you to a place that garnered headlines around the world three years ago, but has hardly been seen since, because it’s so dangerous.” Hardly seen since? Who is she trying to kid? Fukushima has been in the Japanese Press every day for three years, and the internet has been inundated with apocalyptic scenarios made by leading international antinukes on a regular basis. Plus, what about the Fukushima radioactivity reporting coming out of the Pacific coastline of North America the past two months? “Hardly seen”? Give me a break. In addition, the implication that the Press in Japan isn’t covering Fukushima “because it’s so dangerous” is a complete fabrication! They are all over it… like white on rice.

The report itself begins with end-of-the-world insinuations by PBS’ Miles O’Brien, when he says the evacuation zone around F. Daiichi “remains a post-apocalyptic landscape of abandoned towns, frozen in time. We were on our way to one of the most hazardous places on Earth, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.” Who wrote the script? Harvey Wasserman? Arnie Gundersen? Helen Caldicott? This is straight out of the antinuclear persuasion’s “Fukushima 101” rhetorical guidelines. The apocalyptic beginning follows with a quote from the plant manager posed in a fashion that makes it seem as if he is not taking his job seriously enough, “After all, if you are just cleaning up after an accident, there is a lack of quality, meaning speed is the only concern. I feel that isn’t enough. We need to look ahead, 30 to 40 years.”

Next comes two misleading statements – “Engineers believe some of the nuclear fuel has melted right through the steel containment vessels on to a concrete basement floor, where it is exposed to groundwater.” (Which it isn’t) – “As the ground water passes through the pump, it gets mixed in with the contaminated water that is used to cool the melted-down cores.” (What is O’Brien talking about? What pump? How is the pump mixing the waters? Is he making this up, or does he simply not have a clue?)

Read the whole thing…

The REAL reason some people hate nuclear energy

I heard Carl Sagan argue today (in a Science Friday archival interview from May 1996) that entrenched-power is not motivated to encourage critical thinking in the population. I’m afraid Dr. Sagan hit the bulls-eye on that one – the political logic is obvious. 

Today I also read Martin Nicholson’s new and important article at BraveNewClimate on human misperception of risk. Martin’s essay is based on David Ropeik’s essential book How Risky Is It, Really? Human evolution did not prepare us at all for a world where we must make choices amongst imperfect alternatives that have complex future consequences. Evolution did not select for skill at making decisions with century-time-scale impacts. Nor for choosing between alternative risk-benefit pairings. The beginning of Martin’s concluding section makes this clear:

Closing the Perception Gap

Making policy decisions based on fears rather than facts can lead to decisions that feel good (e.g. no nuclear) but increase the overall risk to the population (more deaths and health risks from burning fossil fuels and climate risks from greenhouse gas emissions).

Ropeik tells us that risk perception is an intrinsic, biologically rooted, inescapable part of how the human animal behaves. We need to accept this and use what we know about the way humans respond to risk in order to help ourselves make better, healthier choices. We need to bring the risk perception factors out of the subconscious shadows and use them as practical tools to allow our rational thinking to have more influence in the process.

We need to keep an open mind and give ourselves time to get more information from neutral and reliable sources – those that have no obvious bias. We need to consider all components of our response to the risk – not just the facts. We need to consider the pros and cons of various risk-management options. Why not factor feelings and values into the equation instead of trying to factor them out? Think about which policies will do us the most good.

Poor risk communication from government or agencies that are supposed to protect us like the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) or the World Health Organization (WHO) can sometimes fail to account for people’s risk perceptions. This was a key factor in the long-term social/psychological/economic consequences of Chernobyl. A similar situation may have occurred at Fukushima.

Unfortunately, “feel good” is the most salient feature of politically successful policies. How does this connect to Carl Sagan’s argument? Only our critical thinking skills can save us from “feel good”. One thing we know for sure is that it is rare in western education systems to see critical thinking encouraged.   Read Martin’s essay, you’ll be glad you did.

Fukushima: WHOI senior scientist studies North Pacific Ocean effects

WHOI senior scientist Ken Buesseler

WHOI senior scientist Ken Buesseler began his career in oceanography by studying the spread of radionuclides from Chernobyl in the Black Sea. Not surprisingly, today one of his research interests is the impact of Fukushima contaminants in the North Pacific Ocean. Ken and the WHOI staff have been investing a lot of personal time in science communication — to help the general public better understand whether they need to be worried about Fukushima effects.

Our Radioactive Ocean: Recently they launched the remarkable new website ourradioactiveocean.org. This is almost a “one stop shop” for accurate and accessible information on radioactivity and our oceans. The site is also the home of CMER’s crowd-sourced project to sample and analyze North Pacific Ocean waters. The crowd-sourcing innovation seems to be getting off to an encouraging start — you can see the current results here

CMER Pacific Ocean monitoring

Anyone (you?) can propose a sampling location, take samples of 20 liters of sea water, ship it to CMER at WHOI for analysis – and help raise the funds for the procedure (beginning with the expensive shipping). The fund raising is especially important as Ken’s lab already has more samples than they have budget to analyze. Excerpt from their crowd-sourcing page:

There currently is no U.S. or international agency monitoring the arrival of radioactive water from Fukushima along the West Coast. Although we don’t expect levels to be dangerously high in the ocean or in our seafood as the plume spreads across the Pacific, this is an evolving situation that demands careful, consistent monitoring to make sure predictions are true.

We at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution already have dozens of seawater samples from the coast of Japan out to the middle of the Pacific, but now we need new samples—from up and down the West Coast of North America and anywhere else we can get them. The trouble is, these samples are expensive to collect and analyze. That is why we are turning to you, your community, and your social network for help.

If you want to propose a sampling location near you, all you have to do is raise the cost of testing and shipping ($550 to $600 depending on location) and we will send you a sampling kit with everything you need. We’ll also help by setting up a fundraising webpage that you can email to your friends or post on your favorite social media site that will allow you to spread the word and track your progress.

Once you have your kit, sampling is easy (see video). When we get your sample, we will add it to the queue of samples to be analyzed. This isn’t a quick process (it takes 24-48 hours just to measure the radiation in a sample after processing), but we will fast-track samples from people like you. Depending upon how many are ahead of yours, however, it may take 5 to 10 weeks before we send you an email with the results and post your data on our interactive map.

In November 2013 Cape Code Online published a short interview with Dr. Buesseler, where he discussed the new Pacific monitoring initiative:

(…snip…) He predicts the radiation will be so diluted after the long journey across the Pacific that it will pose no threat to American fisheries or recreational activities.

“It’s very much a coastal Japan contaminant problem,” Buesseler said.

But he knows that’s not enough to reassure the public.

Given what’s happened at Fukushima, Buesseler asked, “Wouldn’t you want to have some measurement?”

This effort is science-motivated. But I think there is a science-education benefit that could be important. I predict that the  monitoring results will prove conclusively that the hysteria about the “Fukushima killing the Pacific Ocean” was hype, not science. And these are not results published by “them”, the results will clearly be produced by caring individuals in a completely transparent process. It make another generation to turn around the public radiophobia, but this looks like a solid contribution.

On Twitter you can see the latest updates on the Pacific monitoring project by following @whoi_cmer. Read Ken’s new paper Oceanography paper Fukushima and Ocean Radioactivity {if that link expires, search on the citation: Buesseler, K.O. 2014. Fukushima and Ocean Radioactivity. Oceanography 27(1), http://dx.doi.org/10.5670/oceanog.2014.02}.

Here are some related Seekerblog posts on the public health risks associated with Fukushima contamination. In particular I suggest starting with these:

Do we need to worry about Fukushima contamination in the ocean? (part 1)

Fukushima, radiation and risk: what is scary and what is not

Fukushima contamination “poses no risk” to U.S. West Coast

Tony Barboza writing for the LA Times has a straightforward and accurate account of U.S. West Coast real risks associated with Fukushima contamination. Not every media source is spreading fear, Mr. Barboza is doing an excellent job of sourcing information from real experts such as Nicholas Fisher of Stony Brook University, Kim Martini of University of Washington, and Ken Buesseler, of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Excerpts:

Radiation detected off the U.S. West Coast from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan has declined since the 2011 tsunami disaster and never approached levels that could pose a risk to human health, seafood or wildlife, scientists say.

Experts have been trying to dispel worries stemming from a burst of online videos and blog posts in recent months that contend radiation from Fukushima is contaminating beaches and seafood and harming sea creatures across the Pacific.

Those assertions are false and the concerns largely unfounded, scientists and government officials said last week, because Fukushima radionuclides in ocean water and marine life are at trace levels and declining — so low that they are trivial compared with what already exists in nature.

“There is no public health risk at California beaches due to radioactivity related to events at Fukushima,” the California Department of Public Health said in a statement.

Even at its worst in the months after the disaster, the dose of radioactivity that Fisher's lab found in tuna caught off California was far lower than what people are exposed to from medical X-rays or eating bananas or other potassium-rich foods, which contain naturally occurring radioactive isotopes.

The latest concerns are mostly driven by online videos, blogs and social media — including a post titled “28 Signs That the West Coast Is Being Absolutely Fried With Nuclear Radiation From Fukushima.”

Kim Martini, an oceanographer at the University of Washington, noticed a surge in outrageous worries about radiation in Seattle last fall, including people who were afraid to go to the beach and stopped eating seafood.

“Every single environmental issue was being blamed on Fukushima,” she said. “And I thought there's no way that can be true.”

Since then she and other scientists have been posting information on the blog Deep Sea News, with posts including “Is the sea floor littered with dead animals due to radiation? No.”

A magnitude 9.0 earthquake off Japan on March 11, 2011, triggered a series of tsunamis that crippled the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, releasing radiation into the ocean and atmosphere. Studies show that leaks from the facility continue to send radionuclides into the sea. But they dilute quickly in ocean water, scientists say.

Once those contaminants disperse across the Pacific Ocean and reach the West Coast, their concentration will be many thousands of times lower and not of concern, according to an online FAQ by Ken Buesseler, a marine scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

“This is not to say that we should not be concerned about additional sources of radioactivity in the ocean above the natural sources, but at the levels expected even short distances from Japan, the Pacific will be safe for boating, swimming, etc.,” Buesseler wrote.

Good job Tony!

 

What scientific idea is ready for retirement? Answer LNT

At Edge.org John Brockman posed the Edge question 2014 “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?“. There are a number of important short essays in reply to the question. I want to highlight Stewart Brand’s essay nominating The Linear No-Threshold Radiation Dose Hypothesis:

 

STEWART BRAND
Author and founder of The Whole Earth Catalog; co-founder of The Well and The Long Now Foundation

In his 1976 book, A Scientist at the White House, George Kistiakowsky, President Eisenhower’s science adviser, told us what he wrote in his diary in 1960 on being exposed to the idea by the Federal Radiation Council:

It is a rather appalling document that takes 140 pages to state the simple fact that, since we know virtually nothing about the dangers of low-intensity radiation, we might as well agree that the average population dose from manmade radiation should be no greater than that which the population already receives from natural causes; and that any individual in that population shouldn’t be exposed to more than three times that amount, the latter figure being, of course, totally arbitrary. Later in the book, Kistiakowsky, who was a nuclear expert and veteran of the Manhattan Project, wrote: “… a linear relation between dose and effect… I still believe is entirely unnecessary for the definition of the current radiation guidelines, since they are pulled out of thin air without any knowledge on which to base them.”

Sixty-three years of research on radiation effects have gone by, and Kistiakowsky’s critique still holds. The linear no-threshold (LNT) radiation dose hypothesis, which surreally influences every regulation and public fear about nuclear power, is based on no knowledge whatever.

At stake are the hundreds of billions spent on meaningless levels of “safety” around nuclear power plants and waste storage, the projected costs of next-generation nuclear plant designs to reduce greenhouse gases worldwide, and the extremely harmful episodes of public panic that accompany rare radiation-release events such as Fukushima and Chernobyl. (No birth defects whatever were caused by Chernobyl, but fear of them led to 100,000 panic abortions in the Soviet Union and Europe. What people remember about Fukushima is that nuclear opponents predicted that hundreds or thousands would die or become ill from the radiation. In fact nobody died, nobody became ill, and nobody is expected to.)

The “linear” part of the LNT is true and well documented. Based on long-term studies of survivors of the atomic bombs in Japan and of nuclear industry workers, the incidence of eventual cancer increases with increasing exposure to radiation at levels above 100 millisieverts per year. The effect is linear. Below 100 millisieverts per year, however, no increased cancer incidence has been detected, either because it doesn’t exist or because the numbers are so low that any signal gets lost in the epidemiological noise.

We all die. Nearly a half of us die of cancer (38% of females, 45% of males). If the “no-threshold” part of the LNT is taken seriously, and an exposed population experiences as much as a 0.5% increase in cancer risk, it simply cannot be detected. The LNT operates on the unprovable assumption that the cancer deaths exist, even if the increase is too small to detect, and that therefore “no level of radiation is safe” and every extra millisievert is a public health hazard.

Some evidence against the “no-threshold” hypothesis draws on studies of background radiation. In the US we are all exposed to 6.2 millisieverts a year on average, but it varies regionally. New England has lower background radiation, Colorado is much higher, yet cancer rates in New England are higher than in Colorado – an inverse effect. Some places in the world, such as Ramsar in Iran, have a tenfold higher background radiation, but no higher cancer rates have been discovered there. These results suggest that there is indeed a threshold below which radiation is not harmful.

Furthermore, recent research at the cell level shows a number of mechanisms for repair of damaged DNA and for ejection of damaged cells up to significant radiation levels. This is not surprising given that life evolved amid high radiation and other threats to DNA. The DNA repair mechanisms that have existed in yeast for 800m years are also present in humans.

The actual threat of low-dose radiation to humans is so low that the LNT hypothesis can neither be proven true nor proven false, yet it continues to dominate and misguide policies concerning radiation exposure, making them grotesquely conservative and expensive. Once the LNT is explicitly discarded, we can move on to regulations that reflect only discernible, measurable medical effects, and that respond mainly to the much larger considerations of whole-system benefits and harms.

The most crucial decisions about nuclear power are at the category level of world urban prosperity and climate change, not imaginary cancers per millisievert.

 

Fukushima, radiation and risk: what is scary and what is not

Thanks to Randall XKCD http://what-if.xkcd.com/29/

The purpose of this post is to communicate why the more you know about radiation the less you worry about nuclear radiation – even the consequences of the terrible accident at Fukushima Daiichi.

To get your skeptical circuits warmed up, let's begin with the above graphic, an excerpt from Randall Munroe's What-If XKCD where Randall “answers your hypothetical questions with physics, every Tuesday”.

What if I took a swim in a typical spent nuclear fuel pool? Would I need to dive to actually experience a fatal amount of radiation? How long could I stay safely at the surface?

Randall's exploration of the question is a useful introduction to how to think about risk and radiation dose – in relation to intensity, exposure time and mediation medium (water in this example). Randall begins

Assuming you’re a reasonably good swimmer, you could probably survive treading water anywhere from 10 to 40 hours. At that point, you would black out from fatigue and drown. This is also true for a pool without nuclear fuel in the bottom.

After you've enjoyed “Spent Fuel Pool“, I recommend Randall's Radiation Dose Chart, which has become a frequently-cited resource for an introduction to radiation dose and risk. The chart is useful for an overview of relative magnitudes. In addition to Randall's chart I recommend that you download for your archive Natural Radioactivity, published by the physics department of Idaho State University. That is “ground truth” on the details of background radiation in the oceans, or land – lots of numbers and units.

With that gentle introduction I hope you are ready to read some resources that go into Fukushima monitoring in a bit more detail. Are you worried about contamination from the Fukushima Daiichi reactors? E.g., turning the Pacific Ocean into a place too dangerous to swim? Too dangerous to eat the Blue Fin Tuna?

First you will find your hard data at Monitoring environmental radiation Nuclear Regulation Authority (NRA), Japan. In particular, you can find the weekly Sea Area Monitoring reports. As I write the latest report is for 10 December, 2013 (PDF).

To make sense out of all the Becquerels/Litre in the NRA tabulations I recommend Putting Fukushima in Perspective: A primer on radioactivity in the Ocean written by University of Victoria marine chemist Jay T. Cullen (@JayTCullen). Dr. Cullen is investing his personal time in science communication to inform the public about the real risks associated with contamination from the Fukushima site. From his primer article:

Talk of plumes of radioactivity being broadcast across the Pacific must take into account that the background radioactivity of seawater is about 14 Bq/L. It is important that although one can detect isotopes from the reactor in the environment the absolute levels are very low and will be lower as the ocean mixes, and the isotope decays.

Dr. Cullen is using 14 Bq/L as the global ocean radioactivity – what does that mean? Well, one Becquerel is that quantity of a radioactive material that will have 1 transformations in one second. So the unit Bq/L tells us there is a concentration of radioactive elements in each litre of ocean that emits at the rate of 1 count per second (cps). We don't know what the material is, but we know a Geiger counter would detect 14 counts/second from a typical litre of sea water. And we know empirically (by swimming in the stuff, eating the Tuna, etc.) that 14 Bq/L is perfectly safe. Even if we don't know exactly what the number means.

Click the thumbnail for full size graphic

So let's examine some of the extensive NRA monitoring, which publishes weekly sampling results from sites immediately around the Fukushima Daiichi breakwater, out to open ocean. The thumbnail to the left shows the worst/highest sample values for Cs-134 and Cs-137 that I could find in the open sea zone (full size).

In the next table I have compared the worst samples to typical ocean background radiation. What we see is that dilution and decay of the cesium isotopes has already reduced the radiation to levels that are insignificant in relation to normal. That indicates that US Pacific coast residents do not need to be alarmed.

 

Some like to use the radioactivity of a banana to make these units more familiar. A typical banana emits about 15 Bq due to the potassium isotope K-40. So radiation-wise eating a banana is similar to drinking a litre of typical ocean, ignoring retention rates. If you are comfortable with bananas and seawater, but are still concerned about the Fukushima contribution, think of it this way. Equivalent to eating that banana, you would have to drink between 3 and 6 cubic meters of pure water contaminated with the measured concentrations of Fukushima cesium. I think I prefer to get my radiation dose from the banana, but I appreciate they are equivalent.

But what about concentration of the insignificant levels by fish and mollusks into dangerous levels if consumed? Good question. I asked the same question, which led me back to Dr. Cullen again for the analysis of that issue, titled What Controls Levels of Fukushima Radioisotopes in Marine Organisms?

Scientists normally report the amount of a radioactive element in an organism in units of concentration where the mass or activity of the radionuclide is given relative to the weight of the organism or its tissue. The units of these measurements are, therefore, either kilogram (kg) or activity in Becquerel (Bq = disintegrations per second) divided by the mass of the organism or tissue (kg/kg or Bq/kg). We want to understand how much radionuclide ends up in the organism relative to the isotopes concentration in seawater which can be reported in either kg per liter of seawater or Bq per liter of seawater (kg/L or Bq/L). By determining the ratio of the concentration of a radionuclide in an organism to the concentration of the isotope in seawater we define the Concentration Factor (CF) which has units of L/kg:

concentrationperunitmass.png

So if the CF for an element in a given organism is a very high number then that radioisotope tends to bioaccumulate and is found at higher concentrations in the organism than in the surrounding marine environment. Conversely, if the CF is low there is little risk of bioaccumulation in the organism.

So what is the bottom line on seafood?

What can we expect on the west coast of North America?

Beginning in the new year we can expect seawater affected by the Fukushima disaster to arrive at our coast in the Pacific northwest. Peak concentrations in the heart of the plume of affected seawater are expected to be on the order of 0.001 to 0.020 Bq/L based on measurements and physical models of ocean circulation. The much lower radionuclide concentrations are the result of mixing and the decay of shorter lived isotopes. Given known CFs for marine organisms these seawater concentrations will result in much lower concentrations of radionuclides in organisms residing on the west coast compared to their Japanese cousins. The radioactive dose to these organisms or consumers of these organisms will be dominated by the naturally occurring radionuclide Po-210.

A confirming evaluation of the food chain question was published in the June 25, 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Evaluation of radiation doses and associated risk from the Fukushima nuclear accident to marine biota and human consumers of seafood [open access]. Excerpt from the abstract:

To link the radioactivity to possible health impairments, we calculated doses, attributable to the Fukushima-derived and the naturally occurring radionuclides, to both the marine biota and human fish consumers. We showed that doses in all cases were dominated by the naturally occurring alpha-emitter 210Po and that Fukushima-derived doses were three to four orders of magnitude below 210Po-derived doses. Doses to marine biota were about two orders of magnitude below the lowest benchmark protection level proposed for ecosystems (10 µGy⋅h−1).

My bottom line is — if you wish to monitor for any dangers developing when Fukushima seaborne contamination reaches California, then I suggest you subscribe to Dr. Cullen's blog MarineChemist. That's what we do (we subscribe to his RSS feed). If there is anything to worry about then Dr. Cullen will let you know. Or you can just subscribe to Seekerblog!

I promised to also discuss “what is scary?” My answer is the post-antibiotic world where antibiotics don't work any more. That is really, really scary, especially if you are a geezer like me. Climate change is very scary – but antibiotic resistance is spreading as I write. The big hurts from climate change will probably be after-death experiences for me.