A Brief History
The first Environmental Impact Statement for a nuclear power plant was for Calvert Cliffs. Norm Frigerio started gathering cancer data and natural radiation background levels, as required under the law. When it became clear that the cancer rate was inversely proportional to the radiation level (more radiation, less cancer) someone decided that this information was unwelcome, and canceled Frigerio’s project. The report was never published. Why?
In early 1997, when the Washington Post hired a new environmental reporter named Joby Warrick, I brought him over to my house and spent several hours showing him data on our radioactive, hormetic earth. He wrote a major article, cited on page 1, describing how participants in open-air nuclear weapons test were outliving their unirradiated companions, nuclear shipyard workers had lower cancer rates than non-nuclear workers, etc. His article received great international attention, and we planned further pieces. But then he failed to return my calls, and started writing page-one anti-nuclear pieces, for which he ultimately won a Pulitzer prize. Why this reversal of the truth?
When Ted Quinn was outgoing ANS President and Andy Kadak was incoming, they and I and others carefully worked out a new ANS Position Statement on low-dose radiation and LNT. After sending it in to ANS HQ to be published, strongly warning that not a word should be changed, it was canceled without explanation. We were told merely that others had to be satisfied, but these others were never named, nor required to state their case. What truth were we being protected from, and why?
Cohen’s radon data are discounted because of generic limitations of epidemiological studies, though in practice, these concerns are not applicable to his specific case. But, we are told that the only really reliable type of evidence is case-control studies where individuals are followed to their death. So Otto Raabe gives us a solid population of radium dial painters whose individual body burdens of radium has been measured. Immediately, funding to follow these individuals further is canceled. Why is this data not welcome?
Now, today, I am being told that we dare not tell people about hormesis, even though no knowledgeable scientist I know would argue against it. Why do we try to hide this open secret? I don’t find, in talking with people in various circumstances, that they find this concept hard to understand or hard to accept. We can’t stop people from looking at the data, though we seem to be trying awfully hard. Google will tell anyone who asks that natural radiation levels are high in mountain resorts, where the cancer level is low. Radon spas brag about their high radioactivity and many governments pay for their hormetic effects. How long can we hide such information? Why would we want to?
In a government report published March 5, 2012, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao announced that China will "put an end to blind expansion in industries such as solar energy and wind power in 2012."
The most interesting part of the report to me was the last two sentences, that deserve careful reading, in view of some of the glowing promises and predictions that have been written about solar and wind during the past several decades. A great deal of important information is revealed in just these few words:
"The operating hours of wind power generating units plunged by 144 hours in 2011, despite an increase of 48% in on-grid wind power output."
"The operating hours of solar power generating units also declined, in spite of the tripling of installed capacity of solar PV power."
How about THAT?!
There is a lot of chatter about how fast windpower is growing. We're told that windpower is the fastest growing source of electricity, and that we could live on nothing but breezes and sunshine forever, if we really wanted to.
But let’s not get so involved in the various specifics as to lose the basic truth here: windpower needs spinning backup, ready to leap in at any instant. Therefore, the only way that windpower can sell electricity is to replace a source that was already reliably doing the job, and make that reliable source less efficient. This is true whether that reliable source is coal, gas, hydro or nuclear. Windpower can never add to our energy supply.
[This is an up-date on some previous discussions we've had here]
How Much Is Science, How Much “Prudence”?
U.S. Regulatory Report NCRP-136 examined the question of establishing permissible radiation limits. After looking at the data, it concluded that most people who get a small dose of nuclear radiation are not harmed by it, and in fact are benefited. That’s what the science said: Most people would benefit by receiving more radiation.
But curiously, the report’s final conclusion was just the opposite. It recommended that our regulations should be based on the premise that any amount of radiation, no matter how small, should be considered harmful. It made that recommendation just to be “conservative” or “prudent.”
Let’s think about that. Why is it prudent do just the opposite of what the science indicates? Why is exaggerating a panicky situation considered prudent? I’ve never seen a good answer to that question. Whatever the reasoning, that’s where we’ve ended up.
We’ve had three uncontrolled releases of radioactivity from serious malfunctions of nuclear power plants: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. In each of these, fear of radiation proved to be much more harmful than the effects of radiation itself. And announcing that no amount of radiation is small enough to be harmless was certainly effective in creating and nurturing phobic fear of radiation, when none was justified by the facts.
In addition, the problem is aggravated by the fact that we’ve been told for sixty years (two human generations) that nuclear terror is infinitely more dreadful than any non-nuclear threat, particularly when you blur the distinction between power plants and bombs.
But what Fukushima tells us is that this abstract, academic position looks very different when you’re telling people they can’t go home – perhaps for years, because, well, it seems more prudent that way, even though radiation hasn’t actually hurt anyone there.
Radiation expert Professor Wade Allison, author of “Radiation and Reason,” has cast the question in a new light. He suggests, let’s set the permissible radiation limit the same way we set all other safety limits. Not by asking how little radiation we can get by with, but how much can we safely permit? There’s no intention of lowering the safety margin, and it will not be lowered. That’s not the issue. It’s a matter of working with the scientific data, rather than from a generic fear not supported by the science.
Prof. Allison concludes that setting the permissible radiation limit, with a good margin of safety, results in an annual permissible level about 1000 times the current figure.
To see a brief video of Prof. Allison’s talk to the Japanese people, click on:
New lessons are beginning to emerge from Fukushima. Each new concern leads to additional safety requirements. But some contradictions are beginning to raise questions: Amid tens of thousands of deaths from non-nuclear causes, not a single life-shortening radiation injury has occurred. Not one! And while some people in the housing area are wearing cumbersome rad-con suits, filtered gas-masks, gloves and booties, there are many people living carefree in other places like Norway, Brazil, Iran, India where folks have lived normal lives for countless generations with radiation levels as much as a hundred times greater than forbidden areas of the Fukushima homes.
At Fukushima this is no abstract issue. People are being told they cannot return home for an indeterminate period – perhaps years. And efforts to decontaminate their home sites may require stripping off all the rich top-soil and calling it RadWaste. People who were evacuated have been reduced to economic poverty, clinical depression, and even suicide.
There is good scientific evidence that, except for some hot spots, the radiation levels at these home-sites are not life-threatening. The current restrictions are based on a desire to be “conservative.” No matter how well intended, this “conservatism” is cruelly destructive. The respected radiation authority Wade Allison, author of Radiation and Reason, has proposed that the current annual radiation dose limit be raised 1000-fold, which he says is still well below the hazard level of clinical data on which he bases his proposal. Other radiation protectionists are beginning to feel unhappy about the harm their rules have caused and are joining in the cry for quick action as the Japanese head into winter.
It’s time that the draconian measures be revoked. A simple declaration of the known health facts about radiation from the proper authorities would be a good first step.
A Washington Post column in the Sunday, April 25, 2010 "Outlook" Section, stirred up a lot of discussion among its readers. One can take issue with almost any claims about energy these days, but I thought the points the columnist raised were worth thinking about. I commend them to your attention and consideration:
People ask me, "Where does all that nuclear subsidy money go? I've never seen any of it." Well, some of it goes to research that may or may not have an impact on the real world. But more of it goes for activities that nobody but a nuclear advocate would think up. No other community, with such a commendable record for safety and reliability, would keep thinking up ways to make themselves look bad. Nukies themselves started it with the Price-Anderson Act, which assumes that only nuclear power could suffer an accident so horrendous that it would overwhelm all the resources of the world's insurance companies and require the government to cover the losses. Then, they set up a program that involved several nations in a coordinated, billion-dollar research effort over several decades, to determine the consequences of the worst realistic accident or terrorist act. That program proved that the worst we could expect would result in "few if any deaths off-site." In other words, there is no substantive basis for the Price-Anderson Act.
"You don't understand," I'm told. "We need that law so that, in case of an accident, people don't sue the supplier of every little widget in the plant." Well, we shouldn't have to create an apocalyptic myth to accomplish that simple task. What I do understand is, that the tougher and more mysterious a task is, the more grant money you get.
But the topper is this one: When Bill Richardson was Secretary of Energy, a council of economists was set up (yes, economists!) that studied "some previously discredited reports" (their words) by people like Ernest Sternglass, Steven Wing, and Alice Stewart. Despite valid evidence to the contrary, they decided that radiation was killing workers in DOE facilities and persons living as far as several hundred miles downwind of A-Bomb tests. Richardson made great publicity from this, stating that although his predecessors had covered up this information, he was going to compensate these "cold war heroes" for their involuntary suffering. He then sent out teams of eager investigators to visit retirement communities and old age homes, and ask former nuclear employees there if they were suffering from any health symptoms. If any of the symptoms could possibly be attributed to the radiation they were exposed to fifty years previous, they were urged to apply for the new program, where they would get a minimum of $150,000.
I don't know whether these bounty-hunters had a quota, or were rewarded for bringing in large numbers of "victims," but there were several consequences from this program. The congresspeople who voted to hand out this largess gained support from this new special interest group, but the "victims" themselves were generally turned down when the facts were examined, because the radiation levels in question were not significantly above the natural background and other radiation sources we all encounter in daily living. Despite this, the taxpayers were still tapped for over a billion dollars so far, with more to come. And the nuclear enterprise was labeled by Congress an "ultra-hazardous activity" despite insurance statistics to the contrary. I presume that the money spent in this program is included in "subsidies to nuclear" to compare with subsidies to wind, solar, and other energy sources.
Now, I learn that there is a move by some senators to lower the eligibility barrier still further, to admit greater numbers of "victims."
And this is just ONE example. There's the case of a critic asking about terrorist-driven aircraft, right after 9/11. The nuclear spokesman replied that we had never previously considered such a problem. When a number of us pointed out that, in fact, the issue of aircraft collisions has been specifically dealt with, our spokesman replied, yes, but we had not thought about terrorist-driven aircraft.
Do you know any other industry that pays so much to shoot itself in the foot?
Despite our detailed knowledge of the subject, nuclear technology still suffers from a belief that it is more dangerous than anything else--by an immeasurable amount. This provides extra income for workers in the field, but it loads an unreasonable burden on its economic future. This problem is well illustrated by a few paragraphs in the book, "Prescription for the Planet" by Tom Blees, on the discharge of radioactive materials from power plants. Tom has agreed to let me quote those words here. I commend them to your thoughtful consideration. This is an exact quote, but I won't encumber each paragraph below with quote marks.
By the year 2040, cumulative releases of radioactive materials from these plants will have reached the following levels:
Why is this not splashed all over the front pages? Who in their right mind can consider this acceptable?
[And then Blees springs his punchline, citing a well-known report by Alex Gabbard of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (Feb 5, 2008)] : These are the radioactive release figures for coal-fired power plants!
Population exposure to radiation from coal-burning power plants is over a hundred times higher than anything conceivably coming out of nuclear power plants...[and then Blees quotes Gabbard:]
"Large quantities of uranium and thorium and other radioactive species in coal ash are not being treated as radioactive waste. These products emit low-level radiation, but because of regulatory differences, coal-fired power plants are allowed to release quantities of radioactive material that would provoke enormous public outcry if such amounts were released from nuclear facilities. Nuclear waste products from coal combustion are allowed to be dispersed throughout the biosphere in an unregulated manner. Collected nuclear wastes that accumulate on [coal-fired] electric utility sites are not protected from weathering, thus exposing people to increasing quantities of radioactive isotopes through air and water movement and the food chain."
[Blees continues:] If this isn't crazy enough for you, ponder this little factoid: The energy content of the nuclear materials released into the environment in the course of coal combustion is greater than the energy of the coal that is being consumed. In other words, coal consumption actually wastes more energy than it produces...[End of Blees quote.]
The important point here is NOT that the radiation from coal combustion is a public health problem. It is not. (Inhalation of the soot particles, production of acid rain, release of mercury, etc. are another story) But radiation from burning coal is not a hazard. And thus, treating radiation released from nuclear plants, which is at least 100 times lower, as a problem, is not scientifically defensible, and concern over radiation release from nuclear plants is not rational.
There has been a lot of speculating and theorizing about how few new nuclear power plants one can realistically plan on completing per year. The more the matter is pondered, the less capable we seem to become. So, in line with my policy of tackling political and theoretical questions by drawing on events in the real world, let's look at what we actually produced in the Naval Reactors program, in building the first, large-scale power reactors, first for ship propulsion, and then for the world's first fully commercial nuclear power station under President Eisenhower's Atoms for Peace Program. .
Yes, today we lack much of the manufacturing capability we had then, but we had almost none of the relevant knowledge and materials, and none of the experience. Without arguing the point, can't we get some inspiration from what we demonstrated could be done, with enough determination and organizational skill? That's what the French did, after the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. They decided to go nearly all nuclear, and they just did it. They did it safely and reliably, and they've been selling nuclear electricity at a profit ever since.