Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Low Dose Radiation: Keynotes, Initials and History

Alan Walter opens the conference.
October 1, Pasco WA
Rod Adams post:

Rod Adams and I are covering the Low Rad meeting.  I urge everyone to read his post (which he posted just a few minutes ago) and comment on it.

Would you evacuate your home in the middle of the night because of a radioactive release? This question was during at the meeting. Read the answer here: Making sense from radiation protection controversy

Nonstop Learning

I am now in the morning of the third day of the Low Dose Radiation conference, and it has been non-stop learning. In between the sessions and the poster sessions, it has been hard to post.   To give you an example of what I mean, on Monday morning there were eight presentations, not counting various welcoming remarks.  At lunch, Michael Shellenberger gave a stirring talk.  In the afternoon, there were two panel discussions and four presentations. The poster session is also extraordinarily interesting.  And I haven't even mentioned the handbell concert at breakfast.  When I say "nonstop," I mean nonstop.

I cannot possibly summarize this conference.  That's the bad news.  The good news is that since I can't possibly cover the whole thing, I will just hit some high points, and add plenty of commentary. Starting with Monday morning.

Goals and First Set of Keynotes

Goals: Mike Lawrence, former director of the Hanford site,  described the goals of the conference.  The conference attempts to pull together scientific data on the effects of low-dose radiation.  A major goal is to ensure that radiation protection through evacuation after an accident is done only on scientific grounds, not on primal fear of radiation.  The doses encountered at Fukushima would have led to no deaths or very few, but the evacuation killed over a thousand people. (Some estimates are only 800 people,  but you get the idea. The difference between no deaths and hundreds of deaths is a lot of deaths.)

Brenner talk: The first keynote was by David Brenner of Columbia University.  He supported LNT as the proper measure for low-dose radiation. The two arguments that he used to support the LNT theory really struck me, but not in a good way.  He used the idea that there is a cell, and it gets zapped with radiation.  We know quite a bit about high doses, but as we lower the dose, we can expect that each cell will only be zapped one time.  Then, as we lower the dose further, fewer cells will be zapped, but each cell which is zapped will be zapped pretty much the same way.  He admitted that repair mechanisms exist, but felt they were the same (or could be considered to be the same) if every cell was zapped once, or if only half the cells were zapped.  Therefore, he considers LNT to be correct.

My opinion: this was an overly-simplistic gedanken experiment. Later in the meeting, I heard many scientists describing the complex interactions of radiation, expression of genes, DNA repair, and so forth.

He also claimed that radiation damage to a fetus was another reason to support LNT, because fetuses do not have the confounding factors that adult humans have: no smokers, drinkers, etc. So damage to a fetus can stand in for damage for adults.  My opinion: "I'll drink to that. And while I am at it, I will have a thalidomide pill, if I can find one, in case I get a little nauseated."  In other words, many things that harm a fetus (alcohol, thalidomide) are not harmful to an adult, especially at low doses.  Many choices that would have been unwise for me to make while I was pregnant are no particular problem to me now. His fetus-centric argument strikes me as a thin reed to hold such an immense regulatory structure.

McClellan talk. The second keynote was by Roger McClellan, an internationally known expert in inhalation toxicology. He has worked in both radiation toxicology and chemical toxicology, and understands the difficulties of obtaining good data at low doses.  Brenner's conclusions about low dosages were clear (but wrong in my opinion), while McClellan was nuanced. McClellan said that all industries, de facto, use ALARA (as low as reasonably achievable) for exposure, basically because no CEO wants to get sued.  He concluded that poverty is far more dangerous to human health than the low-dose issues of nuclear energy.  (I hope I am reporting this correctly.) I enjoyed his talk, and hope to read it in full at some time, to report on it more accurately.

The March of the Initials

The next part of the meeting was what I call the March of the Initials. At this point, I need to encourage people to go to the program tab of the Low Radiation Dose Conference website.

Website for Program:
Pdf of program:

The March of the Initials is the list of regulatory agencies, marching by in rapid fire, who presented their approaches to radiation protection. They had twenty minutes per agency.  These agencies included NRC, IAEA, UNSCEAR and others.  I was somewhat surprised (I am naive) about how different these agencies are in their approach.  David Pawel of EPA could have been giving Brenner's talk, while  Patricia Wieland of UNSCEAR acknowledged the limitations of understanding any possible levels of good or harm at low doses. She ended her talk by recommending that "regulators...use the old concept of ‘de minimis non curat prætor’ and exempt from regulations low-dose exposure situations that do not warrant control."  (Lots of us wanted to kiss Ms. Wieland, but we refrained.)

Note: Wieland was standing in for Abel Gonzalez, whose name is on the paper but could not attend the meeting.

As this point, I encourage people to go the website for the program, go to the program tab, and download the zip file of the Flash Drive for more information.

Micheal Shellenberger and History

Michael Shellenberger, founder of Environmental Progress, spoke at the luncheon, with a fascinating talk on "The Making of Radiation Panic."  History teaches us the way forward.  To some extent, the bomb-making scientists (such as Oppenheimer) found themselves displaced in the public esteem by the reactor-making leaders (such as Rickover). They did not necessarily like this fact. Also, many of the older scientists, including Einstein, had the Utopian idea that the bomb would lead to a world government, which would mostly supersede the nation-states.  This also did not happen. It's a complex story, and Shellenberger told it well.

It became a battle between the idea of promoting world peace through promoting fear of radiation, and promoting world prosperity through the use of nuclear power.  I believe Shellenberger is writing a book on this subject.  I will be eager to read it.

So Much More

There's so much more to say. But if I don't post now, I will be late to the meeting!


Ken Chaplin said...

The first of Brenner's comments needs confirmatory evidence. Which biological study supports that particular viewpoint? Certainly after all these years he must be able to rattle off 10-20 studies supporting the hypothesis that repair mechanisms effectiveness have a linear response to the amount of radiation.

The second of Brenner's comments seems to suggest that studies on exposed fetuses would show effects more clearly. In support of Meredith's comment, He needs to show studies showing the immune system does not mature, or grow less effective, from just after conception to late middle age.

McClellan's comments about ALARA I think are wrong. There is a very well known legal responsibility to reduce doses as per LNT. NPP are shut down in preference for coal plants. What if coal plants were managed to produce the same level of expected harm from in-house/off-site emissions as a nuclear plant. i.e. ALARA for particulate, acid gases, etc.

AuldLochinvar said...

It occurs to me that for a mere physicist to express opinions on what a cell will do is less convincing unless he or she can show some actual acquaintance with cell repair mechanisms.

Alex Cannara said...

Always remeber: (Muller's lie)