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.


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.


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 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),}.

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!


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

Thanks to Randall XKCD

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:


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.

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

In a word, no – though it isn't a good idea to eat the bottom fish feeding within a few kilometers of the Daiichi harbor. And if you made your living fishing in the ocean right around Daiichi, your livelihood has been destroyed until the cleanup is completed. While there are serious threats that deserve our intense focus, Fukushima is not anywhere on my list, which starts with antibiotic resistance, energy poverty, and climate change. But turn on a TV anywhere and you will soon see newsreaders talking about radiation leaking from Fukushima Daiichi into the Pacific Ocean. If there are any numbers mentioned they will be Very Big Numbers voiced to make it clear these are unbelievably scary.

On the other hand, talk to any scientist familiar with radiation health physics: they will be unconcerned, but monitoring. Why is it that the level of fear is inversely proportional to understanding? In brief, it is because with understanding comes the appreciation that life is adapted to the levels of ionizing radiation common around the planet. Those background levels vary by more than an order of magnitude, and surprisingly, residents of the areas with highest background radiation do not have elevated levels of cancer. So radiation is not scary, unless the dose exceeds the tolerance of our DNA repair systems. To put the numbers and units in an easy to grasp frame, please spend some time absorbing the brilliant relative radiation chart developed by XKCD. For reference, keep in mind an annual dose limit of roughly 50 mSv (here is some background on exposure limits at the Health Physics Society).

Since the current focus of fear is Fukushima I've gathered a few science resources that I hope will help the reader lose at least those particular fears. First we have scientist Ken Buesseler, with Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Ken maintains a Woods Hole website FAQ: Radiation from Fukushima. Ken's most recent update is 28 August:

On March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake—one of the largest ever recorded—occurred 80 miles off the coast of Japan. The earthquake created a series of tsunamis, the largest estimated to be over 30 feet, that swept ashore. In addition to the tragic human toll of dead, injured, and displaced, the earthquake and tsunamis badly damaged the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, eventually causing four of the six reactors there to release radiation into the atmosphere and ocean.

Since mid-2011, I have worked with Japanese colleagues and scientists around the world to understand the scope and impact of events that continue to unfold today. In June 2011, I organized the first comprehensive, international expedition to study the spread of radionuclides from Fukushima into the Pacific, and I or members of my lab have participated in several other cruises and analyzed dozens of samples of water, sediment, and biota. In addition, I began my career in oceanography by studying the spread of radionuclides from Chernobyl in the Black Sea. These are a few of the most common questions that people have been asking me lately.

-Ken Buesseler, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

What is the state of fisheries off Japan and along U.S. West Coast?

The coastal fisheries remain closed in Japan near Fukushima, where there is a concern for some species, especially the bottom dwelling ones, which are being tested and many have been found to be above the Japanese government's strict limits for cesium in seafood. These contaminated fish are not being sold internally in Japan or exported. Because of the dilution that occurs even a short distance from Fukushima, we do not have a concern about the levels of cesium and other radionuclides in fish off the West Coast of the U.S.

More about the state of Japanese fisheries (pdf).

Are fish such as tuna that might have been exposed to radiation from Fukushima safe to eat?

Seawater everywhere contains many naturally occurring radionuclides, the most common being polonium-210. As a result, fish caught in the Pacific and elsewhere already have measurable quantities of these substances. Most fish do not migrate far from home, which is why fisheries off Fukushima remain closed. But some species, such as the Pacific bluefin tuna, can swim long distances and could pick up cesium in their feeding grounds off Japan. However, cesium is a salt taken up by the flesh that will begin to flush out of an exposed fish soon after they enter waters less affected by Fukushima. By the time tuna are caught in the eastern Pacific, cesium levels in their flesh are 10-20 times lower than when they were off Fukushima. Moreover, the dose from Fukushima cesium is considered insignificant relative to the dose from naturally occurring polonium-210, which was 1000 times higher in fish samples studied, and both of these are much lower relative to other, more common sources, such as dental x-rays.

More about the dose and associated risk (pdf) of radiation from Fukushima to marine life and humans.

(…)Is radiation exposure still a concern?

Is radiation exposure still a concern? I stood on a ship two miles from the Fukushima reactors in June 2011 and as recently as May 2013, and it was safe to be there (I carry radiation detectors with me) and collect samples of all kinds (water, sediment, biota). Although radioactive isotopes in the samples and on the ship were measurable back in our lab, it was low enough to be safe to handle samples without any precautions. In fact, our biggest problem is filtering out natural radionuclides in our samples so we can measure the trace levels of cesium and other radionuclides that we know came from Fukushima.

Where does radiation from Fukushima go once it enters the ocean? The spread of cesium once it enters the ocean can be understood by the analogy of mixing cream into coffee. At first, they are separate and distinguishable, but just as we start to stir the cream forms long, narrow filaments or streaks in the water. The streaks became longer and narrower as they moved off shore, where diffusive processes began to homogenize and dilute the radionuclides. In the ocean, diffusion is helped along by ocean eddies, squirts, and jets that broaden, mix, and continue to dilute the cesium as it travels across the ocean. With distance and time, radionuclide concentrations become much lower in the ocean, something that our measurements confirm.

More information about our oceanographic studies off Fukushima (pdf).

Are the continued sources of radiation from the nuclear power plants of concern?

The site of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant is an ongoing source of radionuclides (pdf) in to the ocean “something I've seen evidence of in my data and published about since 2011. Although the numbers sound large (300,000 gallons of water leaked or 20 trillion bequerels per liter), we calculated in 2011 when radiation levels were much higher than today that the dose to someone on a ship or in the ocean was not of concern. For the workers at the site, direct exposure from leaking storage tanks is of greater health concern because exposure from these concentrated sources is much higher. For the general public, it is not our direct exposure, but uptake by the food web and, hence, the potential for human consumption of contaminated fish that is the main health concern.

Will radiation be of concern along U.S. and Canadian coasts? Levels of any Fukushima contaminants in the ocean will be many thousands of times lower after they mix across the Pacific and arrive on the West Coast of North America some time in late 2013 or 2014. 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.

Is debris washing ashore on the US/Canadian West Coast of concern? Debris washed out to sea by the tsunami does not carry Fukushima radioactive contamination”I‚Äôve measured several samples in my lab. It does, however, carry invasive species, which will be of serious concern to coastal ecosystems on the West Coast.

Have there been increased deaths as a result of radiation from Fukushima?

Reports of increased deaths are simply not true. Read this reasoned response in Scientific American to the most often-cited “scientific” paper about erroneously linking deaths to radiation from Fukushima. That article ends “This is not to say that the radiation from Fukushima is not dangerous (it is), nor that we shouldn't closely monitor its potential to spread (we should).” I agree with that statement.

Where can people go for reliable information?

Here are some other links I have passed to others. Fukushima's Radioactive Water Leak: What You Should Know

Latest Radioactive Leak at Fukushima: How Is It Different?

See also following article from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (w/ links to many others) From the special issue of Oceanus Magazine devoted to the cause and impacts of Fukushima:

Consider supporting our new Center for Marine and Environmental Radioactivity and check out CMER public education links, such as ABCs of radioactivity

Last updated: August 28, 2013

I'm working on a followup post that is intended to provide a reference set of resources to help readers get comfortable with radiation and risk.


Tim Wu reviews Pandora’s Promise: If You Care About the Environment, You Should Support Nuclear Power

Tim Wu at Slate has another excellent review of Pandora’s Promise: If You Care About the Environment, You Should Support Nuclear Power. Snippets: 

A good, politically charged documentary often seizes on what the audience already believes and throws fuel on the fire (see, e.g., the work of Michael Moore). A better such documentary tries to convince its audience that what it takes for granted is flat-out wrong. Pandora’s Promise, which premiered at Sundance, does just that. It makes the utterly convincing case that anyone who considers themselves an environmentalist or takes climate change seriously should favor more nuclear power.

In the 1980s, nuclear power, never truly popular, contracted an image problem to rival Lance Armstrong or even Penn State football. Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were so downright terrifying that the public immediately lost its appetite for the stuff. Invisible, cancerous, deadly: Radioactivity hits all of our deepest fears. Hiroshima, Fukushima, Silkwood—the words themselves seem to poison the air.

But our fears may be way out of proportion to the actual risks, Pandora’s Promise says. Truth is, no one has actually died in the United States as a consequence of a nuclear power accident, while coal kills more than 14,000 people a year (mainly through particulate pollution). In terms of worldwide mortality rates, nuclear is scary, but it kills fewer people per watt of power than coal, oil, and even solar. (People fall off rooftops when installing solar panels.) Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in history, though it killed many people at the time, has had surprisingly limited long-term effects, according to scientists. Perhaps, like many people, I picture Chernobyl as Hell on earth—but animals and people are actually living there again, and the radiation is at merely background levels.

It’s a question of alternatives. The film centers on a new breed of scientists and environmental activists who were once ardent foes of nuclear power, but now think there is no better option. Greens are all against fossil fuels, but the new breed think that pinning our our hopes entirely on wind and solar actually increases our dependence of such environmentally devastating energy sources. Everyone loves the idea that we could just install more efficient light bulbs and live off windmills and solar panels, but that’s a dangerous fantasy, one that makes us blind to the hard choices we face.


The Making of a Radiation Panic

Breakthrough Institute founders Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus examine some of the range of journalism on Fukushima. Of particular interest is background on Japanese politics – why has the government reaction been so weak?

(…) Despite the over-reaction in Japan and Europe, Fukushima has not slowed the pace of new nuclear plant construction globally (something we predicted last year). Against claims made in this week’s Economist, the number of reactors planned and under construction is virtually unchanged. In the US, the main obstacle to the expansion of nuclear has not been fear of radiation but rather the abundance of cheap natural gas from shale — a reality which similarly challenges the expansion of renewables.

There was nothing inevitable or natural about Japan’s panicked reaction to Fukushima. Growing mistrust of the government long pre-dates the tsunami. “The hysteria about radiation reflects a breakdown in trust, as witnessed by endless media accounts quoting people who doubt the government’s monitoring of food and soil,” wrote former Tokyo correspondent for the Washington Post, Paul Blustein. “Tokyo’s political class, which was eager to appear unified after the disaster, is consumed anew with score-settling and power maneuvers of the sort that have given the country six prime ministers in the past five years.”

Perhaps the most important lesson to be drawn from Japan’s radiation scare is the need for new, credible sources — independent of both electric utilities and governments — able to soberly put the risks and benefits of energy technologies in context. Alas, if the Natural Resource Defense Council’s slickly demagogic “nuclear fallout crisis” map is any indication, such credible sources won’t likely come from the traditional environmental movement.

See NPR’s coverage, which cites Breakthrough analysis by Jesse Jenkins, here: Nuclear Woes Push Japan Into A New Energy Future.

You can find our full collection of nuclear analyses and coverage here.

[From The Making of a Radiation Panic]

How Mark Lynas riled the green movement

“They believe in what they’re doing, but these people are nuts,” says Lynas. “And they’re doing real harm by spreading fear.”

What we know from Chernobyl is that the psychological impacts of fear of radiation are worse — in terms of health outcomes — than the actual damage of the radiation itself. We need to learn the lessons of this and that nothing is without consequences, nuclear scare-mongering included

Mark Lynas, author of  The God Species, was recently interviewed by Yale Environment 360 contributor Keith Kloor. Don’t miss this interview:

(…) Lynas talked about his change of heart, his embrace of genetically modified crops as a key solution to possible food shortages, and his disgust at seeing some environmentalists largely ignore the devastation from the recent Japanese tsunami while over-hyping the dangers of radiation from the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant.

(…) Yale Environment 360: The main thesis of your new book is that humans have to take an active role in managing the planet if we want to keep it from being “irreparably damaged.” But much of what you prescribe, such as wider deployment of nuclear power and genetically engineered agriculture, is anathema to many greens. This also flies in the face of your own history as an environmental activist, in which you were anti-nuclear and anti-GMO until just a few years ago. What’s caused you to do an about-face?

Mark Lynas: Well, life is nothing if not a learning process. As you get older you tend to realize just how complicated the world is and how simplistic solutions don’t really work … There was no “Road to Damascus” conversion, where there’s a sudden blinding flash and you go, “Oh, my God, I’ve got this wrong.” There are processes of gradually opening one’s mind and beginning to take seriously alternative viewpoints, and then looking more closely at the weight of the evidence. It was a few years ago now that I first started reassessing the nuclear thing. But I didn’t want to go public then. I knew that would be the end of my reputation as an environmentalist, and to some extent, it has been.

e360: Really?

Lynas: I mean, I’ve lost friends over this. And I’ve made some new ones. It’s an issue that divides almost like no other.