Category Archives: Nuclear Risk Assessment

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

David Ropeik: Will “Pandora’s Promise” Start a New Environmental Movement for Nuclear Power?

Risk expert David Ropeik, is the author of How Risky Is It, Really?, and coauthor of Risk: A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. So not surprisingly David's review of “Pandora's Promise” is very well-informed. I wish I could say the same of the comments on his piece at Scientific American – please contribute some perspective there.

David explains why Stone's film is so effective in terms of the human traits that lead us to misestimate risk:

(…Snip…) But Pandora’s Promise will probably persuade some environmentalists to rethink nuclear power not just because of the facts but because of how those facts are framed. The information in the film is presented in ways that resonate with many of the emotional, instinctive, affective characteristics that shape how people feel about risks in general, and about nuclear power and climate change in particular.

One of the most powerful of those characteristics is the influence of trust, and the central case of Stone’s main characters is “Trust us, we’re environmentalists and we hated nuclear power too.” Mark Lynas, author of The God Species, who helped organize radical environmentalist opposition to genetically modified food in Europe, says “We were against nuclear power. As an environmentalist, those two things go together.” Gwyneth Cravens, author of The Power to Save the World, says: “I grew up in an anti-nuke family. My parents were anti-nuclear.” Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalogue, goes further, and notes how for the baby boom generation, the fear of nuclear power grew directly out of the existential fear of nuclear weapons, and radioactive fallout from atmospheric weapons testing, and cancer, all of which fed the rise of the modern environmental movement. “I grew up having nightmares that my home was bombed into oblivion,” Brand says. “There was Duck and Cover. Those things cut pretty deep. You had the strong sense that this is not a primary energy source. This is a weapon that we feel pretty badly about.”

(…Snip…) The film also directly challenges the groupthink psychology that shapes our perceptions of risk, and certainly has shaped environmentalist opposition to nuclear power. The pro-nuclear environmentalists in the film confess that their original anti-nuke views were more the product of automatic tribal acceptance of what the group believed – Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader and Bill McKibben are against nukes? Then so am I. – than informed independent analysis. They acknowledge that it literally felt threatening to change their minds and go against the whole tribe; “I was at no doubt that my entire career as an activist was at risk if I went and talked (positively) about nuclear,” Lynas.

Stone’s effective presentation will resonate with other psychological aspects of risk perception as well. People worry more about risks that are human-made than risks that are natural. Pandora’s Promise highlights how this is more emotional than rational, showing organizers of a rally protesting against the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant handing out bananas, a single one of which contains more radiation than the daily radioactive water emissions from the plant they were so afraid of. (Radioactive potassium 40 is absorbed into the banana from the soil, see Banana Equivalent Dose.

We worry more about any risk we can’t detect with our own senses, an aspect of risk perception that Pandora’s Promise addresses by ‘visualizing’ radiation, having Lynas display a radiation detector in several locations where people are leading their normal lives; Tokyo, Paris, on a mountain top in New Hampshire, on a plane ride. We also see the levels at Chernobyl, and outside trailers in which Fukushima evacuees are living. In all those places, the now-visible radiation levels are similar, and low.

We worry more about risks to children than risk to adults, a psychological ‘fear factor’ relevant to the coming threat of climate change (which the film visualizes with dramatic graphics that show how much the climate has warmed over the last century). So there will be persuasive emotional effect when we see Lynas with his family as he says “Having kids has deepened my commitment to the future and concern about global warming.”

 

James Conca: EPA’s decision to allow risk-based decisions to guide responses to radiological events

Remarkably sane new EPA policy – James Conca explains:

(…) What these new guidelines really mean is use your head when all hell breaks loose. Don’t be distracted by an administrative limit set for conditions when everything is fine, when we have the luxury of setting absurdly-low limits. The only downside of the absurdly-low radiation clean-up levels at a Superfund site is a waste of a lot of money. The downside of applying those same levels to a population going through a disaster is unnecessary pain and suffering, and even death, as we’ve seen at Fukushima ( (Cuttler, 2013 http://db.tt/j5IDYGQX).

That’s why these new guidelines are so important. And correct. It’s the same reasoning that led to the United Nations’ change in attitude last year when they stated that the U.N. “does not recommend multiplying low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or below natural background levels” (UNSCEAR 2012; Radiation – No Big Deal).

Both changes at EPA and UNSCEAR result from a real administrative fear that LNT once again made things worse with Fukushima, as it did with Chernobyl. That more people died from the forced evacuation and continued refugee plight than will ever be affected by the radiation.

 

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.

radiationSpectrum.png

 

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. 

Rod Adams: Crash course in outrage management

Outrage Management is one of the most important posts Rod has written. Excerpt:

outrageI’ve been searching for a way to improve our ability to calm the fears that have made investments and careers in nuclear energy more risky than they should be. In the 1980s, Dr. Sandman formulated an equation for risk.

Risk = Hazard + Outrage

In his formula, hazard is the classic measure that risk assessment professionals have been taught: risk = consequences x probability of occurrence. Outrage is a measure of the risk that people believe an activity entails. It is just as real and may even be more measurable than hazard even though it does not normally result in any blood, injuries or dead bodies.

In contrast, outrage is often quite visible and measurable to an accuracy of several decimal places. At its extreme, outrage can result in injuries (people being trampled by a panicked crowd trying to leave a place of perceived danger), illness, and even death. It can cause long term negative effects and entail huge economic costs.

According to Dr. Sandman, outrage management is the type of risk communications effort that is needed when the risk of an activity is dominated by outrage. Even if there are rarely, if ever, any dead bodies, –indicative of a low level of hazard — nuclear energy often tops the lists of risky activities in polls that ask people to rank a set of activities.

(…)

I believe that nuclear professionals have a moral imperative to make vast improvements in our ability to manage and reduce outrage to a level that is more commensurate with the demonstrably low hazard of our technology. Our technology should be serving people, not causing them to live in fear or causing them to avoid beneficial applications because they have been taught to worry about what might happen if magical forces make layers of steel, water and concrete disappear or if “hot particles” somehow find their way, undetected, into their bodies.

Highly recommended!

The real catastrophe of Fukushima

Brian Eno on Fukushima:

To illustrate this, think about nuclear power. Start with FUKUSHIMA, that dread word. As a result of over-excited media reporting ('great story!' I heard one journalist say) that single word has probably condemned nuclear power for another generation, when in fact the accident produced no radiation-related deaths (and it's doubtful that it will produce a discernable statistical blip in cancers in the future). In a conspiracy which seems almost dishonest, most Green groups failed to acknowledge this – it was too good as propaganda for them to let the facts get in the way – and of course the press never returned to the subject with any correctional follow-up. It became one of those little nuggets of received, and totally incorrect, wisdom: Nuclear=Fukushima=Catastrophe.

That received non-wisdom has persuaded Green Germany to begin decommissioning its nuclear reactors – which means more coal-fired plants. Japan too will probably turn back to coal. Coal is – even Greenpeace would agree – the worst option, though they'd claim that the gap can be filled by renewables. It can't, not now and probably not for decades. In the meantime – and it may be a long, mean time – we'll use coal. It's cheap and very, very dirty.

So the real catastrophe of Fukushima is in the future, waiting for us in the form of vastly increased atmospheric CO2. An emotional over-reaction to a media storm has produced a thoroughly bad decision with longterm global consequences. It's a classic 'how not to' scenario. Is this how our future is going to be – lurching from one panic to another in a daze of 'just coping' and without the benefit of any long-picture wisdom within which to frame our actions? What would help us break out of that trap?

Thanks to Mark Ramsay (@Ionactive) and Rod Adams (@Atomicrod) for the tweet.

Richard Muller on Fukushima and the Denver Dose

Dr. Muller interviewed at Forum on Energy:

Forum on Energy: You’ve also talked about the Denver Dose and what that means for radiation dangers. Can you explain that idea?

Richard Muller: We are surrounded by natural radioactivity, which is no more or less dangerous than radioactivity from nuclear reactors. Depending on where you live, there may be more or less natural radioactivity. Denver is just a well-known location that happens to have high natural radioactivity. You might think this is a dangerous place to live because of that, but, in fact, the cancer rate in Denver is lower than the average in the rest of the country. It doesn’t mean that radioactivity is curing or stopping cancer. What it does mean is that at the level of natural radioactivity—the Denver Dose, as I call it—people simply shouldn’t be worrying about radioactivity.

Now, the fact is the Denver Dose is comparable to what most of the Fukushima region is now experiencing. We shouldn’t be evacuating that region if we’re not evacuating Denver. There’s really no difference. Likewise, much of the Chernobyl region is well below the Denver Dose. In fact, a study just a few years ago on the health effects of Chernobyl concluded that the major health effect came about from the panic and worry caused by the evacuation. There were places that should have been evacuated, but there were places that shouldn’t have been. It is conceivable that there were more deaths caused by excessive smoking and drinking caused by anxiety over what had happened.

This is what happens when there is meaningless exaggerated fear and overreaction. Meanwhile, there are so many things in our lives that are far more dangerous that we accept.

How I learned to stop worrying and embrace the atom

An astounding example of the skewed coverage of Fukushima could be observed last year during the “contaminated beef” scare. An NHK special broadcast featured a lengthy and worrisome introduction, footage from cattle farms in Fukushima, an examination of flaws in the inspection system, shrill announcements of becquerels in the hundreds and thousands, interviews with crying supermarket managers who had inadvertently sold the meat, and clips of young mothers fearfully clutching their babies and wondering about the safety of their families. Finally there was a 15-second clip of a university professor calmly stating that you would have to eat a kilo of that beef a day in order for the radiation to have any measurable effect upon your health.

It is that contrast — between 45 minutes of fear-mongering and 15 seconds of calm science — that tells you all you need to know about the nuclear “crisis” in Japan. 

Writing for Japan Times Michael Radcliffe shows how an inquiring mind can convert from anti-nuclear to pronuclear with a bit of reading and study. 

Like millions of other people in Japan, I watched the events of March 2011 unfurl with shock and trepidation. The massive earthquake, the terrible tsunami and then what seemed to be a dreadful nuclear disaster.

Yet now I wonder at my naivety, because the nuclear accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant triggered in me a critical review of everything I thought I knew about radiation and nuclear power. I am now firmly pronuclear, and not despite the Fukushima accident, but because of it.

UK environmentalist George Monbiot did his homework after Fukushima. His conclusions are here “Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power” from 21 March 2011.

You will not be surprised to hear that the events in Japan have changed my view of nuclear power. You will be surprised to hear how they have changed it. As a result of the disaster at Fukushima, I am no longer nuclear-neutral. I now support the technology.

Since then Monbiot has been a highly effective explainer and proponent of the essential role of nuclear power in a carbon free future.

Low-level radiation and LNT examined at Chicago ANS meeting

This is a really excellent ANS report from nuclear physicist George Stanford. George  summarizes the presentations of a half-dozen researchers working on low-level radiation :

At the ANS Annual Meeting in Chicago held June 24–28, I attended the “President’s Special Session on Low Level Radiation and Its Implications for Fukushima Recovery,” and also the follow-on panel “Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation.” The two sessions together could well have been subtitled “The Tragedy of LNT.” In case you’ve forgotten, LNT stands for “Linear No Threshold”—the popular misconception that radiation risk is proportional to dose all the way down to zero.

(Note: The units of radiation exposure are confusing even to professionals in the field. In this discussion, I will assume that all the radiation is low-LET, so that 1 cSv = 1 cGy = 1 rad = 1 rem. If you don’t already know what LET means, you don’t need to. For orientation, the average American gets about 0.3 cGy every year, background plus medical exposure. Some people in other countries get a lot more.)

The roster of speakers at the two sessions was impressive, and they seemed unanimous in the belief that basing policy and regulations on LNT has no empirical justification, and moreover has turned out to be a very costly blunder. They backed up their conclusions with data from a gamut of disciplines. Below is a brief synopsis. Some of the speakers participated in both sessions; in those cases I have lumped the two together.

{snip} Do read the whole thing

UK Parliament: Energy risks need better explanation by Government and regulators

It is gratifying to see that at least the UK recognizes that Fukushima was nothing like Chernobyl – hence the radiation event scale needs a complete overhaul.  Excerpt from the Parliament press release:

Andrew Miller MP, Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, said:

Fukushima was no Chernobyl, but the public were left with a confusing picture of the real risks from the accident partly because it was classed as the same magnitude.

Although tens of thousands died as a result of the earthquake and tsunami, to date nobody has died, or received a life-threatening dose of radiation, from the Fukushima nuclear accident and no one is expected to.

The accident has made it clear that the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale is not up-to-the-job. The International Atomic Energy Agency should come up with a better and more accurate way of communicating the risks involved in any future nuclear accident.”

The global body responsible for the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) should review the scale focusing on how to:

  • better represent orders of magnitude;
  • make the scale comprehensible to non-technical audiences;
  • ensure the technical basis of the scale incorporates sufficient information about risk as well as hazard.

The report also calls on regulators and other information sources to emphasise to the public that exceeding recommended minimal radiation exposure levels may not pose any risk to people or the environment – and that safety thresholds may allow for significantly greater radiation exposure to occur without significant risk to health or the environment.

Read the whole thing.

Radiation – is it green, yellow or red?

In his recent US of A report Barry Brook shared a quote from Steve Kirsch:

The head (or former head) of the radiation protection division of U.S.-NRC once stated (jokingly) at an IAEA reception in Vienna: There are three types of photons, namely ‘green’ ones, ‘yellow’ ones and ‘red’ ones.

The ‘green’ ones are plentiful and of natural origin. We are not concerned about them and we don’t regulate them.

The ‘yellow’ ones come from medical applications. They are usually less plentiful, but we are a bit concerned about them and thus we regulate them somewhat.

The ‘red’ ones are very rare, they find their origin in nuclear energy applications. We are very concerned about them and consequently we regulate the hell out of them.