Fukushima’s Refugees Are Victims Of Irrational Fear, Not Radiation

Amid the Fukushima hysteria Germany has decided to shut down its nuclear reactors and import more natural gas from Putin and more nuclear energy from France and the Czechs. This does not make sense, either economically, politically or with respect to safety. If Germans or Japanese are that worried about radiation then a more sensible course of action would be to stop eating potato chips, beets, brazil nuts and bananas, all of which are relatively high but ultimately harmless sources of radiation.

The first anniversary of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami has brought on a silly season of sensational, uninformed fear-mongering (Rod Adams has a representative rogues gallery at the end of his critique). So today I was pleased to see a science-based analysis by Dr. James Conca, an international expert on the environmental effects of radioactive contamination.

Every time I eat a bag of potato chips I think of Fukushima. This 12-ounce bag of chips has 3500 picoCuries of gamma radiation in it, and the number of bags I eat a year gives me a dose as high as what I would receive living in much of the evacuated zones around Fukushima. But unlike the Fukushima refugees, I get to stay in my home. We live in a nuanced world of degree. Eating a scoop of ice cream is fine, eating a gallon at one time is bad. Jumping off a chair is no big deal; jumping off a cliff is really stupid. The numbers matter. It’s the dose that makes the poison. There is a threshold to everything.

The radiation in those potato chips isn’t going to kill me. Likewise, no one is going to die from Fukushima radiation. Cancer rates are not going to increase in Japan. The disaster wasn’t hidden like the Soviets did, so that people unknowingly ate iodine-131 for two months before it decayed away to nothing. No one threw workers into the fire like lemmings because they didn’t know what to do.

(…) This idea, known as the Linear No-Threshold Dose hypothesis (LNT), was adopted in 1959 as the global regulating philosophy and remains entrenched against all scientific evidence. It is an ethical nightmare. And it will destroy Japan’s economy.

It‘s keeping 100,000 Japanese citizens as refugees, as it did almost a million Ukrainians. It will waste $100 billion that’s needed to rebuild the devastation from the tsunami, not protect against a large intake of potato chips. It will cause more injury to Japan’s already beleaguered population and damaged economy, for no benefit.

We set thresholds to protect people against harm, and we’ve done a good job. The Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, seat belts, coal flue scrubbers, all have saved millions of lives and made the quality of life better for everyone. But thresholds need to be set with reason. We don’t stop driving just because 50,000 people still die on the roadways each year, or stop heating our homes because 1,000 people die every month from coal particle inhalation. We try to make it safer and we deal with things as they occur.

For radiation this philosophy has failed. The LNT theory has been long since disproven. We are bathed in radiation every day and we know that low levels of radiation or even ten times background levels have never hurt anyone. It doesn’t cause cancer. Yet the global fear of nuclear energy and radiation has diverted billions of dollars from more serious health issues. The amount of funding the U.S. spent since 1990 protecting against what, in many parts of the world, are background levels of radiation, could have immunized the entire continent of Africa against its three worst scourges. Instead we saved not one life. This is an ethical issue. The science is easy, the politics are not.

Highly recommended. Read the whole thing »

James L. Conca is Director of NMSU Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center (CEMRC), his CV including publications.

Princeton PAW: Nuclear power’s safety

While researching the anti-nuclear history of Frank von Hippel I noted a brief interview on Fukushima April 27, 2011 with the Princeton Alumni Weekly. His comments irritated another Princeton alumnus — US Navy nuclear expert Ted Rockwell. Ted’s response to von Hippel is here:

Published on June 1, 2011

Knowing Princeton’s historic contributions to early nuclear-energy technology, I’m sad that nuclear commentary from Princeton is now generally from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. Frank von Hippel’s response to the question of safety at Fukushima (A Moment With, April 27) is typical:

“These reactors were not designed for inherent safety. These are the descendants of submarine propulsion reactors, where safety has been an add-on … I think this technology could be safe. But I don’t think that the people running these plants, and the people regulating them, are producing that result.”

Over a period of two human generations (50-plus years), our nuclear navy has driven 526 nuclear-reactor cores 150 million miles without a single ­radiological incident. The commercial nuclear-power program based on that technology has safely and reliably ­generated 20 percent of America’s electricity. Half of that electricity is fueled by uranium taken from converted Russian missile warheads. No one has been killed by radiation from either our naval or our commercial nuclear programs. I believe the same is true of the Japanese program, including Fukushima. How would von Hippel improve on that record?

He mentions the Soviet Chernobyl reactor, “the one big accident we’ve had so far.” That’s irrelevant. No one is planning to build more Chernobyls. But von Hippel’s statement that this reactor meltdown “shortened the lives of about 10,000 people by cancer” is false — a shuffling of A-bomb data improperly applied to Chernobyl. As the U.N. ­Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, WHO, and Red Cross reports have been demonstrating for 25 years, the actual number of ­cancer cases was not increased by the accident.

Theodore Rockwell ’43 *45 p’70

Chevy Chase, Md.

Editor’s note: Rockwell’s six decades of involvement in nuclear power include work as technical director of the Naval Nuclear Propulsion Program. The U.S. Department of Energy recently made his 1956 Reactor Shielding Design Manual available free to the public on its website.

Ted’s letter elicited three comments from other Princeton alums — all favorable. The last posted September 1st is by Rick Mott, who proposes that Princeton install a SMR:

Rick Mott ’73 Says: 2011-09-01 11:27:31

I’ve been traveling all summer, or I’d have responded sooner. We’ve heard from the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s — I guess it’s time for the ’70s to chime in. I gave a talk at my kids’ school for Earth Day, six weeks after Fukushima, entitled “A Rational Environmentalist’s Guide to Nuclear Power”. A greatly expanded version of that talk is available here: I’m throwing down a challenge. If Princeton truly believes carbon emissions are a problem, it should install a small modular reactor to power the existing cogeneration plant, and reduce its emissions from electricity consumption not to 1990 levels, but to near zero. The detailed case is made here: http://www.nucleartigers.org The problems with this are not technical, but political, legal and regulatory. It will take a decade for the discussion to play out, but Princeton is uniquely qualified to educate the public on this issue. The best way to do that is in the context of a concrete proposal which is the opposite of NIMBY. Do we fear students would refuse to attend a nuclear-powered Princeton? Then we should tell them it’s already 50% nuclear. Half of New Jersey’s electricity comes from Oyster Creek. Any responses from the four decades after us old-timers?

Rick knows radiation (he is PulseTor’s Chief Technical Officer). I recommend Rick’s Earth Day slideshow at SCRIBD  “A Rational Environmentalist’s Guide to Nuclear Power”. It is scientifically correct and an effective presentation. E.g., after presenting the facts about life cycle risks for each energy source, including a detailed review of Chernobyl, Rick asks:


In the radiation section of Rick’s tutorial he explains why LNT is wrong. One of his quips was perfect

80 aspirin at once will kill half the people “exposed” ́ to them. LNT would therefore predict 2 aspirin would kill 1.25% of users. So don’t take two aspirin and call me in the morning.

Another excellent piece by Rick is published by PubMed Central reviewing the paper “Can Psychiatric Approaches Help to Address Global Warming?”

Richard B. Mott, Ringoes, New Jersey ; Email: rickmott@pulsetor.com

To the Editor:

As it turns out, I am an engineer involved in radiation detection systems. This past Earth Day, I gave a talk at my kids’ school advocating the greatly increased use of nuclear power instead of fossil fuels for electricity generation. New Jersey derives about 50% of its power from nuclear energy. If the entire country did the same, we would stop the emission of perhaps 400 million tons of CO2 per year. The entire country of France gets about 75% of its electricity from nuclear power.

Many people who think of themselves as environmentalists oppose nuclear power out of what can only be called a phobia, a wild overestimation of both the risk of accident and the actual level of risk even in the event of an accident. Chernobyl was horrible, yet 20 years later the excess cancers can only be statistically detected in 2 groups. First, there were about 4000 excess childhood thyroid cancers over 10 years, which is particularly shameful because most could have been prevented with potassium iodide prophylaxis had the population been notified promptly. Second, a physician in Scotland has found a statistically detectable increase in cancers among the children of mothers at an early stage of pregnancy, when the developing fetus is known to be highly sensitive to radiation. Spread over the entire population of Europe and 20 years, this is regrettable but hardly the Black Death all over again. The scary numbers you see bandied about are statistical projections over the entire population for its entire lifetime, and undetectable against background cancer rates.

And that was a worst-case accident. New technology makes the loss-of-coolant accident typified by Chernobyl and Three Mile Island impossible, and also makes it much harder to divert the fuel for nuclear weapons. See the article “Heavy Metal Nuclear Power” by Eric Loewen. The technology is also briefly described at http://www.ne.anl.gov/research/ardt/hlmr/, which discusses small reactors for third-world application that don’t need refueling for 15–20 years.

No less an environmental icon than Stewart Brand, author of the Whole Earth Catalog, has turned in favor of nuclear power. See http://www.technologyreview.com/Energy/14406/. Nuclear power is the only technology that has a chance of substituting for a significant fraction of fossil-fuel consumption over the coming decades. China is building one new coal-fired power plant every week. So if you really want psychiatry to help stop global warming, cure our national phobia of nuclear energy![1]

James Hansen on Kool-Aid, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy

Don’t miss the latest dispatch from James Hansen, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. You will learn that Jim has no patience with the Easter Bunny fable whereby carbon emissions can be eliminated entirely by “renewable” energy sources. Here are a few excerpts (emphasis mine):

(…) people who accept the reality of climate change are not proposing actions that would work. This is important, because as Mother Nature makes climate change more obvious, we need to be moving in directions within a framework that will minimize the impacts and provide young people a fighting chance of stabilizing the situation.

The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy

The insightful cynic will note: “Now I understand all the fossil fuel ads with windmills and solar panels – fossil fuel moguls know that renewables are no threat to the fossil fuel business.” The tragedy is that many environmentalists line up on the side of the fossil fuel industry, advocating renewables as if they, plus energy efficiency, would solve the global climate change matter.

Can renewable energies provide all of society’s energy needs in the foreseeable future? It is conceivable in a few places, such as New Zealand and Norway. But suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.

This Easter Bunny fable is the basis of ‘policy’ thinking of many liberal politicians. Yet when such people are elected to the executive branch and must make real world decisions, they end up approving expanded off-shore drilling and allowing continued mountaintop removal, long-wall coal mining, hydro-fracking, etc. – maybe even a tar sands pipeline. Why the inconsistency?

Because they realize that renewable energies are grossly inadequate for our energy needs now and in the foreseeable future and they have no real plan. They pay homage to the Easter Bunny fantasy, because it is the easy thing to do in politics. They are reluctant to explain what is actually needed to phase out our need for fossil fuels.

(…) Amory Lovins is the most popular person that I know and has received uncountable awards. He deserves them. But I believe his popularity is in part because he says everything people want to hear. He even says there is no need to have a tax on carbon. Thus even fossil fuel companies love him. Fossil fuel companies are happy to support energy efficiency, which places the onus on the public and guarantees fossil fuel dominance far into the future.

(…) Recently I received a mailing on the climate crisis from a large environmental organization. Their request, letters and e-mails to Congress and the President, mentioned only renewable energies (specifically wind and solar power). Such a request offends nobody, and it is worthless.

Jim included comments on nuclear energy in five footnotes – where he concisely dispatches the common anti-nuclear activist talking points. Note that Jim is quite up to speed on the 4th generation IFR (Integral Fast Reactor), including the 1994 cancellation:

Pushker Kharecha and I will write a paper with an objective post-Fukushima assessment of the role of nuclear power, but first we must complete papers 2 and 3 (Energy Imbalance and Case for Young People). However, a few comments on safety5, technology status6, nuclear waste7, fuel supply8,and cost9 are warranted to balance the opportunistic barrage of misinformation from dedicated ‘anti-nukes’ and an undiscerning sensation-minded media.

5 Safety: The lobbying organization Union of Concerned Scientists on 25 July broadcast a request to all citizens to write their governors and congress-people to demand improved nuclear power safety. Huh? The number of people who have died from nuclear power in the U.S. is zero. How to improve on that? The safety record of the nuclear industry is the best of all major industries in the U.S.

The National Academy of Sciences estimates that the Pennsylvania population exposed to radiation by the Three Mile Island accident may experience one or two resulting cancer deaths; that population will experience about 40,000 cancer deaths due to other causes. However, the estimate of 1-2 deaths is from the “linear no threshold” (LNT) approximation, i.e., an assumption that known radiation effects for large doses continue proportionally for small doses. That assumption is uncertain – there is at least as much anecdotal evidence suggesting that small radiation doses are beneficial to health (some mentioned here: http://www.humanevents.com/article.php?id=42347) as the contrary. However, no adequate scientific study with proper controls has been made.

Curiously, people seem to ignore the far greater dangers of fossil fuels. Mountain-top removal for coal alone has been linked to 60,000 cancer cases. The United Nations has estimated global deaths due to fossil fuel air and water pollution to be of the order of one million annually.

6 Technology: Fukushima nuclear power plants are a 50-year-old technology. They withstood a powerful earthquake, but were washed over by a 10-meter tsunami that wiped out the power sources used to cool the reactors. Modern 3rd generation light-water reactors can use passive cooling systems that require no power source.

No people died at Fukushima because of the nuclear technology. Four people died from other causes (one fell from a crane, one died of a heart attack, and two were drowned by the tsunami). When a plane crashes and kills 100 people do we choose to terminate the airline industry? No, we take steps to make planes safer. Already nuclear power has the best safety record of any energy technology, and the newest nuclear plants have great improvements.

7 Nuclear “waste”: it is not waste, it is fuel for 4th generation reactors! Current (‘slow’) nuclear reactors are light- water reactors that ‘burn’ less than 1% of the energy in the original uranium ore, leaving a waste pile that is radioactive for more than 10,000 years. The 4th generation reactors can ‘burn’ this waste, as well as excess nuclear weapons material, leaving a much smaller waste pile with radioactive half-life measured in decades rather than millennia, thus minimizing the nuclear waste problem. The economic value of current nuclear waste, if used as a fuel for 4th generation reactors, is trillions of dollars.

Nuclear reactors deployed in the next 1-2 decades would be primarily improved light-water reactors, with passive cooling capability and other safety improvements, because these are ready for commercial use. However, it is important to also deploy the first 4th generation reactors to demonstrate that the nuclear waste problem can be solved and to optimize the 4th generation technology.

8 Fuel supply: anti-nuke environmentalists argue that it takes energy to mine and process uranium, and that the uranium supply is limited. In fact, 4th generation nuclear technology, by using more than 99% of the energy in the fuel, expands the fuel supply by a factor of the order of 100.

China has just announced its first 4th generation nuclear reactor, thus increasing the expected lifespan of their proven uranium reserves from 50 years to more than 3000 years.

The United States was the first country to develop 4th generation nuclear technology. But, when General Electric and Argonne National Laboratory disclosed that they were ready to build a commercial scale reactor in 1994, anti- nuke people persuaded the Clinton administration to terminate the program. The U.S. still has top brainpower in this technology, but, unless there is a change of policy, China will soon leave the United States behind.

9 Cost: the ‘real solution’ to the climate/energy problem allows the market to determine winning technologies. Westinghouse AP-1000 advanced 3rd-generation nuclear power plants are being built in China Although anti-nukes may do everything they can to make nuclear power as expensive as possible in the United States, they are not likely to affect nuclear power development in China.

I was also pleased that Jim referenced Bill Gates’ recent interview with Chris Anderson.

Bill Gates is so distressed by the irrational pusillanimous U.S. energy policy that he is investing a piece of his personal fortune to help develop a specific 4th generation nuclear technology.

Read the whole thing »

LNT: Diagnostic radiologist Bill Sacks on hormesis effect

Dr. Sacks is the author of the BraveNewClimate.com guest post titled “Lessons about nuclear energy from the Japanese quake and tsunami.” I thought his associated comment on the training of US radiologists clarifies why the LNT hypothesis is not more frequently criticized in the literature.

One other point to GCB who had the nuclear medicine imaging study: In the U.S. at least, and I don’t know about Australia, radiologists and nuclear physicians, as well as technologists who take the images, are all trained in the principle ALARA, which stands for as low as reasonably achievable, when it comes to doses of ionizing radiation. I know, because I’m a diagnostic radiologist, and I trained for one year in nuclear medicine, as well. When I first learned of the hormetic effect 8 years ago, from a health physicist, I was already 18 years into my radiology career. I cannot find a single other radiologist who is aware of even the concept of hormesis, never mind whether they believe it. We are all trained in the LNT approach. So if Dr. Karamoskos believes in it, it may be because Australian radiologists and nuclear physicians are also not trained in hormesis.

For me LNT was a case of cognitive dissonance that was dispelled in an instant, when I first heard about hormesis. After all, I knew that the body is capable of developing defense reactions to invasion of germs, chemicals, and other invaders, so it made instantaneous sense that the same would hold for radiation, particularly since humans evolved in a sea of radiation.

Dr. Karamoskos, in short, may be a victim of his training. The best that radiologists and nuclear physicians with that training can do is weigh the assumed risks of radiation against the known probably benefits, and that indeed is adequate for them to advise patients that the radiation will do them more good than harm. For me, it’s simply a distortion of the truth, and without an understanding of hormesis in virtually all chemical and physical influences it is difficult for many people to accept nuclear energy.

LNT: Gregory Meyerson on “no safe dose” and theoretical corpses

I think the LNT hypothesis is wrong. But developing a compelling statistical refutation of LNT requires a hugely expensive study — for which there is no funding (who would be motivated to fund?) In another informed comment on the Mark Lynas site, reliable BNC discussant Gregory Meyerson wrote the following:

The LNT (no safe dose) view assigns in one version of it .04 statistical deaths per sievert of radiation. Such a statistic does not discern any hormetic effects accompanying low dose radiation (DNA repair mechanisms) despite massive scientific evidence of its existence and it does not distinguish between a high dose to one person and a tiny dose to many that would add up to the high dose. so it does not distinguish between one person getting a dose of 1 million millirem from one million people getting a dose of one millirem.

Now: the difference between global average background radiation and U.S. average (620 mrem due to nuclear medicine and testing) is about 260 mrem. The way no safe dose works is that you can calculate the statistical deaths of this excess 260 mrems (which most people think saves many lives) by multiplying 300 million (pop. of U.S.) by .0026 (in Sieverts. One sievert equals 100,000 mrem).

If you do the calculation, you get 780,000 Sieverts, which you then multiply by .04 to get 31,200 excess deaths annually.

Those who doubt no safe dose thus tend to think that people employing it are crying wolf. Even as both sides agree that beyond a certain threshold, there is a correlation between increasing dose (dose rate obviously matters a lot) and increased cancer incidence.

To complicate matters, the reality of the rhetorical situation is that on average, liberals and leftists oppose nuclear power and assume no safe dose. Among right wingers who know a little about this stuff, they are attracted to nuclear power, despite often being climate denialists, because they’re technocrats/because liberals hate it–very mature behavior etc. and they are attracted (often without exercising due care) to the theory of radiation hormesis for similar reasons.

So, on the one side, if you are anti nuclear, you can generate what one author (a libertarian) on hormesis called theoretical corpses. Think about the statistical deaths that can be produced by taking the difference between high and low radiation areas and multiplying by respective populations (to get deaths per 100,000 people for example per unit of time). Just take the difference between denver and new orleans (5-600 mrem), multiply by your .04, multiply by 50 years and see lots of statistical deaths, deaths THAT IN REALITY NEVER APPEAR as Denver’s cancer incidence is significantly lower than New Orleans, in contradiction to LNT.

On the other side, you have people like Ann Coulter, who defends the idea of radiation hormesis in order to accuse the liberals of paranoia and exaggeration–with the purpose of whitewashing general corporate criminality.

Anyhow, I think LNT is wrong, however convenient it may be as a standard (the alternative would involve huge amounts of government research to determine with some precision the hormetic zone in terms of dose rates for different cancers: very complicated and open to dispute). So I don’t buy the excess deaths per year generated by the LNT coefficient. I don’t think it’s at all analogous to the 440,000 deaths per year from smoking in the U.S. Or the several million we can lay at the door of fossil fuels (not including deaths from global warming, which pro integral fast reactor people could gin up in monumental numbers to lay at the doorstep of renewables proponents, however unethical this might be).

Blue Dog [sic], three years ago I was the usual leftist anti nuclear person. I’d read just enough books to have this view reinforced. The more I learned, the more I changed my mind. And if nuclear is not part of the answer, powerdown here we come, which I hope will not be another word for Die Off.

Your post where you try to shame environmentalists like Lynas and Goodall is typical of anti nuclear rhetoric. You act like you’re actually a superior human being to them because you have a disagreement on LNT. Is it possible for you to avoid questioning people’s basic decency and integrity due to a complex disagreement? You treat them like they’re the worst of corporate criminals.

You come across as really self righteous. I think.

For “Blue Dog” I think Gregory had in mind the anonymous commenter identified by “BlueRock”.

LNT: Effects of Cobalt-60 Exposure on Health of Taiwan Residents…

For reference, here is a Taiwan study of apartment residents exposed to cobalt-60 contaminated steel buildings. The study seems to support the thesis of radiation hormesis “It is an adaptive response of biological organisms to low levels of radiation stress or damage – a modest overcompensation to a disruption – resulting in improved fitness.” The Discussion section begins thusly:

The results of this study strongly suggest that whole- body chronic irradiation, in the dose rate range that the apartment residents received, caused no symptomatic adverse health effects, such as radiation sickness, or the increased cancer or increased congenital disease that are predicted by ICRP theories. On the contrary, those who were exposed had lower incidences of cancer mortality and congenital malformations.

UPDATE: Hank Roberts reports on a followup on that study discussed in a Mark Lynas comment. As I read this, the amended conclusion is no hormesis effect was demonstrated by this data set:

“Assuming the age and income distributions of these persons are the same as for the general population, it appears that significant beneficial health effects may be associated with this chronic radiation exposure”

I read a paper that adjusted for age and its conclusions show an increased risk, although they do not quantify it in a way to give me any clue as to how significant ‘significant’ is:


“the biggest problem with the Taiwan study was that its findings were confounded by age differences. When the first analyses were conducted, the researchers did not have data on the ages of apartment residents. Thus, in describing their statistics, they explicitly noted that their conclusions are contingent on “assuming the exposed population has the same age distribution as the population of Taiwan”, an assumption they identify as “a critical factor.” However, subsequent studies of this case have shown that, in fact, the age demographic of apartment residents was much lower than that of the general Taiwanese population. On its own this would be expected to result in lower cancer rates. Accordingly, a more complete revised analysis was subsequently published in the International Journal of Radiation Biology. When age differences between apartment residents and the general Taiwanese population were finally controlled for, the data showed a significant dose-response effect whereby radiation exposure was associated with increased rates of cancer morbidity(disease, not death) among apartment residents compared to in the general population”

Over the age of 30, the residents did not show higher morbidity rates.

from paper:

Cancer risks in a population with prolonged low dose-rate γ-radiation exposure in radiocontaminated buildings, 1983 – 2002 2006, Vol. 82, No. 12 , Pages 849-858 (doi:10.1080/09553000601085980)

We should stop running away from radiation

More than 10,000 people have died in the Japanese tsunami and the survivors are cold and hungry. But the media concentrate on nuclear radiation from which no-one has died – and is unlikely to.

Wade Allison is a nuclear and medical physicist at the University of Oxford, the author of Radiation and Reason: the impact of science on a culture of fear. This essay on BBC News World attempts to counter the radiation hysteria:

(…) On the 16th anniversary of Chernobyl, the Swedish radiation authorities, writing in the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter, admitted over-reacting by setting the safety level too low and condemning 78% of all reindeer meat unnecessarily, and at great cost.

Bottled water was handed out in Tokyo this week to mothers of young babies

Unfortunately, the Japanese seem to be repeating the mistake. On 23 March they advised that children should not drink tap water in Tokyo, where an activity of 200 Bq per litre had been measured the day before. Let’s put this in perspective. The natural radioactivity in every human body is 50 Bq per litre – 200 Bq per litre is really not going to do much harm.

In the Cold War era most people were led to believe that nuclear radiation presents a quite exceptional danger understood only by “eggheads” working in secret military establishments.

To cope with the friendly fire of such nuclear propaganda on the home front, ever tighter radiation regulations were enacted in order to keep all contact with radiation As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA), as the principle became known.

This attempt at reassurance is the basis of international radiation safety regulations today, which suggest an upper limit for the general public of 1 mSv per year above natural levels.

This very low figure is not a danger level, rather it’s a small addition to the levels found in nature – a British person is exposed to 2.7 mSv per year, on average. My book Radiation and Reason argues that a responsible danger level based on current science would be 100 mSv per month, with a lifelong limit of 5,000 mSv, not 1 mSv per year.

OECD/NEA: Comparing Nuclear Accident Risks with Those from Other Energy Sources

[As it is relevant to current radiation hysteria, I bumped the time-stamp on this Sept, 2010 post to bring it to the top — Ed.]

The Nuclear Energy Agency of the OECD published in 2010 Comparing Nuclear Accident Risks with Those from Other Energy Sources (PDF). The report is aimed at politicians (“policy makers”) with the goal of educating them on how incredibly safe nuclear power is compared to alternative energy sources. On the damages side, the report only examines severe accidents for all non-nuclear sources, comparing these to modeled latent fatalities from nuclear operations (because there are no real-world deaths in OECD experience). I’ll cover the full life cycle comparative health effects in a separate post – to include e.g., long term health damage from fossil fuel burning.

This OECD/NEA report is the most complete and up-to-date (that I know of) that addresses the anti-nuclear fear-mongering of the “China Syndrome”. Unfortunately, there is no two-minute “elevator pitch” that explains accurately why nuclear power is so safe — it is a complex subject.

From the Executive Summary:

Many countries are reconsidering the role of nuclear energy in their energy mix, as a means to alleviate the concerns over climate change, security of energy supply and the price and price volatility of fossil fuels. However, nuclear energy remains a contentious technology in some political circles and in the minds of many members of the public.

One of the issues that causes concern is that of the safety of nuclear power plants. However a rational choice of energy sources should involve an even handed comparison of the risks presented by the various energy chains available. There is little real value in rejecting one source if that which replaces it presents even greater hazards. The purpose of this document is to provide energy policy makers with quality data and information that will enable an understanding of how accident risks are managed in nuclear plants and also provide a rational analysis of the relative risks presented by the various major energy chains used for the production of electricity.

The report starts by considering a major component of the design philosophy adopted in nuclear reactors, explaining the concept of defence in depth. Defence in depth is implemented through the combination of consecutive and independent levels of protection that would all have to fail before harmful effects could be caused to people or to the environment. If one level of protection or barrier were to fail, the subsequent level or barrier is still available to provide protection.

Next, the report discusses the important issue of the safety culture of operating organisations in maintaining a low level of risk. The quality of an operator’s safety culture cannot be measured directly. The international community has developed a number of indicators which are tracked and compared to allow a judgement of the performance trends in nuclear power plants. The report presents data for the indicators of unplanned automatic trip rate, worker collective and worker individual radiation exposure. The data shows that there have been very positive trends in all of these indicators over the last two decades in all the regions of the world and in all types of reactors.

The risk associated with the operation of a nuclear plant is that radioactivity is released to the environment, resulting in exposure by and health effects to the population. Since significant releases of activity are extremely rare, reliance on statistics of events is not possible. The report uses the analytical technique of probabilistic safety assessment (PSA) by which potential accidents, their probabilities of occurrence and their consequences can be assessed. It is common to look at the outcomes in terms of the theoretical probabilities of core damage (an accident in which the fuel cladding is ruptured, for example by overheating and melting) and the more severe events in which significant radioactivity breaches the primary circuit and the secondary containment and is released to the environment. These two measures are termed the theoretical core damage frequency (CDF) and the theoretical large release frequency (LRF). While these are not actual statistics on accident rates, they serve to illustrate the trends.

The report looks at the “as originally designed” CDFs and LRFs over the evolution of reactor designs from Generation I to Generation II and on to Generation III/III+. It shows that, over this evolution, there has been a very significant reduction in both CDF and LRF. While this clearly indicates that modern designs are extremely safe, it is important to recognise that earlier designs have also been back-fitted with safety improvements, often evaluated using the techniques of PSA. If the world turns to nuclear energy in large measure to alleviate the energy issues it confronts, it can be expected that this evolution in CDF and LRF reduction will continue and it is desirable that it does so.

The report then looks at real accident data from full energy chains, using an impressive collection of data assembled by the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Switzerland. Using this severe accident data (events that have resulted in 5 or more prompt fatalities that have actually occurred from 1969 onwards) it compares the outcomes with the theoretical accident outcomes from PSA analysis (since there are no real nuclear accident data from OECD countries and only one data point from non-OECD countries). This shows that, contrary to the expectation of many people, nuclear power generation presents a very low risk in comparison to the use of fossil fuels.

Latent fatality rates for modern nuclear plants can only be assessed using PSA. PSA studies available for the Mühleberg Swiss nuclear power plant show there is about a 1 in 1 million-year probability of an accident causing more than 2 000 latent fatalities. For OECD countries, frequency-consequence curves show that the risk of a nuclear accident with more than 100 latent fatalities is a factor of ten or more lower than the risk of an accident with 100 immediate fatalities from coal, oil, natural gas or hydro energy chains, and almost a factor of one thousand lower than the risk from LPG.

I also recommend this short summary of the study findings on Chernobyl, which saves me writing it. Excerpt (in the following I would add the qualifier “thoroughly discredited LNT hypothesis”):

Considering the long-lasting health concerns in areas affected by Chernobyl, the OECD quoted a range of 9000-33,000 eventual deaths from effects of Chernobyl over the next 70 years. These figures come from reports by the European Commission, World Health Organisation, International Atomic Energy Agency as well as Russian authorities, and they depend on the land area considered and how the effects of low radiation dose are understood.   

The report heavily qualifies these figures by pointing out that they are based on the contentious “linear dose response relationship with no threshold” (LNT) hypothesis, and that if the same logic is applied to the background radiation normally experienced by all of us, those figures would be insignificant. “For the 70 years over which the above fatality figures were calculated for the accident, the collective dose from natural background would be 910,000,000 person-Sieverts (assuming a constant population), some 1500 times larger, therefore theoretically causing 1500 times as many fatalities (some 50 million) due to exposure to natural background radiation. However there is no way to definitely confirm these figures for Chernobyl, since death rates from all cancers are very much higher.”

The report also says that “extrapolating these (Chernobyl) nuclear risks to current OECD countries is not appropriate because OECD plants use other, safer technologies that are operated under a stricter regime than was in force in Ukraine at the time of the Chernobyl accident.”

Radiation and the LNT hypothesis

For a readable, in-depth analysis of radiation and the “Linear No-Threshold” (LNT) hypothesis my first recommendation is Barry Brook “Radiation – facts, fallacies and phobias“. Therein Barry includes a number of references.

One of the most concise resources that Barry linked has the same title “Radiation: Facts, fallacies and phobias” [PDF] by Prof David Wigg, a clinical radiobiologist at the University of Adelaide. This is a 5-page review article published in 2007 in the peer-reviewed journal Australasian Radiology.

I’ve written a couple of earlier posts on public health radiation risks, one of which Nuclear power scary radiation ends with a favorite quote from Prof. Gunnar Walinder, Chair of the Swedish Radiobiology Society:

“I do not hesitate to say that the LNT is the greatest scientific scandal of the 20th Century”.

Rubbishing the LNT Hypothesis

Here’s one of the informed comments on the wonderful and wry little essay by Steve Packard. I would likely never have tumbled to this if Kirk Sorenson had not done a nice post on the Buzz essay. Thank you Kirk!

It not just nuclear energy that has suffered. At a minimum LNT has created astronomical expenses in the public and private sector attempting to protect the population from dangers that are not really there. It has severely limited the use of therapeutic radiation treatments and hobbled the development of new ones. It has severely limited the use of radiation to reduce spoilage in food, and to disinfest food shipments of vermin.

I love it when Stephen gives stupidity the treatment it deserves:

Depleted Cranium: On LNT and Nuclear Energy

[From Dr. Buzz goes after the LNT Hypothesis (YEAH!!!!)]