Thursday, May 2, 2013

Radiation Superstition: Guest Post by Bob Hargraves

Radiation Superstition by Robert Hargraves

Nearly a million people each year die of breathing particulates from burning coal; the climate temperature may increase 2°C this century; more than a billion people have no electricity.  Yet within

our reach is a solution to these global crises of increasing air pollution deaths, climate change, and the
Coal Mine, Wyoming
growing populations of nations trapped in energy poverty.

The welcome growth of the global middle class increases energy demand. If the world's economy prospers enough to allow everyone to enjoy just half of the electricity benefits that Americans now take for granted, world electric power generation will triple. Most electricity will come from coal burning, which grew 8% worldwide in 2011. Germany leads the way, building more coal plants. Wind and solar power are too intermittent and too expensive to displace coal worldwide.

Nuclear power is the solution within reach; it's safe and affordable, with low environmental impact. Yet opposition to it borders on superstition, defined by Merriam-Webster as a "belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation ... a notion maintained despite evidence to the contrary".  Let's explore evidence.

People rationally fear possible accidents spreading deadly radioactive materials. Indeed massive doses of radiation did kill 38 emergency workers at Chernobyl, and the fallout of short-lived iodine resulted in 4000 cases of thyroid cancer and 15 deaths. However there is no evidence of the thousands of hypothetical deaths predicted by extrapolation of deadly exposures to lower radiation doses. Opponents of nuclear power have now hyped this death number up to one million, without observable evidence.

Low-level radiation
Using simplistic mathematical extrapolations from the effects of high-radiation accidents, nuclear power opponents claim that no amount of radiation is safe -- not even the low-level natural radiation that comes from the sky and from earth's radioactive potassium, uranium, and thorium created billions of years ago. Potassium is in our food and our bodies. Rocks contains the thorium and uranium that decays to radon or fuels electric power plants.

Reporting about the Fukushima accident created hysteria without basis. A UN scientific committee charged with investigating the accident's health effects reported in December that no radiation health effects have been observed among public or workers, and it cautioned against extrapolation to predict health effects of low-level radiation. Radiation superstition causes great harm. Japan is wasting billions of dollars preventing repopulation of radiologically safe areas. Hundreds have died from evacuation stress. Importing liquified natural gas to replace nuclear power has driven Japan's balance of trade negative.

People unnecessarily fear low-level radiation from accident-dispersed material, buried waste, or medical procedures. EPA required Yucca Mountain engineers to limit accidental releases to just 1/20th of natural radiation for 10,000 years. Dental X-ray technicians routinely drape lead blankets on patients to protect them, but it would take over 10,000 such X-rays to observe any health effect.

Prolonged radiation exposure is safe at natural environmental levels; each cell rapidly repairs DNA strand breaks: one per second per cell. Early life evolved when the natural radiation rate was 3 times greater than now. Today people living in places where natural radiation is 5 times normal exhibit no more cancers. People living in mile-high Denver get more cosmic radiation, but exhibit no more cancers.

Thorium, Energy Cheaper than Coal
Available Through Amazon
Radiation dose rates are as important as doses. High radiation rates overwhelm natural cellular defenses. Doses deadly to Chernobyl workers would have no effect if spread over a lifetime. Cancers are destroyed by multiple concentrated radiation treatments, allowing time between for less-irradiated tissue to recover. In 2012 MIT radiation researchers discovered no DNA damage from exposure rates 30 times as great as natural radiation, and Lawrence Berkeley Lab scientists actually observed how low-level radiation stimulated repair within cells. Long-term, low-dose radiation is benign.

Nuclear industry and shipyard workers exposed to low-level radiation developed fewer cancers. Accidental contamination of building steel by recycling a medical radiation source exposed 8000 Taiwan residents to radiation 7 times natural levels over 30 years, and cancer rates were dramatically reduced. Last year the Dose Response Journal and the American Nuclear Society published compendia of articles evidencing how low-level radiation is benign or healthful.

The vague radiation regulation, "as low as reasonably achievable" encourages ever more costly impediments to affordable nuclear power. This could be fixed with "as high as reasonably safe" limits that are set with evidence, as practiced for other environmental hazards. Nuclear power can solve our energy, climate, and poverty crises. Should we forsake the future of the planet by clinging to a superstition?

Background of this post:

This post first appeared on Rod Adams blog, Atomic Insights.

On Adams' blog, you can follow many related links about this post.

The post was written as an op-ed, but rejected by a large number of papers, despite its reasonable length and tone, and Hargraves' impressive resume.

On my own blog: Monday Blue Ribbon to Robert Hargraves
Vermont Yankee Explained (the animation) by Robert Hargraves
Plus, Hargraves excellent suggestion that Vernon leave Vermont and join New Hampshire (what's a river, anyhow?)

Hargraves Resumé:

Author: THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal
Energy policy study leader: ILEAD@Dartmouth
Vice president: Boston Scientific
Management consultant: Arthur D Little
Vice president: Metropolitan Life
President, DTSS
Assistant professor of mathematics: Dartmouth College

PhD, physics, Brown University
AB, mathematics and physics, Dartmouth College


Anonymous said...

I am a nuclear engineer and strongly pro-nuclear. I have heard previously that at very low levels, radiation may have a beneficial effect (though I have not seen the studies). Harmless I can certainly accept because cell repair rates can almost certainly overwhelm destruction rates. However, without seeing some statistically significant studies, I am not certain how to interpret this information. I don't know if the information cited is loosely gathered and may not be part of studies that had control groups and/or that were obtained by relatively "lucky" situations that occurred without planning which I suspect OR if there are studies or data that are much better than anecdotal or lucky. (Sorry I don't have or need the IDs you mention, so this may be an anonymous comment from a formal ID perspective, but my name is certainly no secret.) - Sam Hobbs

jimwg said...

This article delves it all. Good job! I dunno if there already are, but I wish some Vermont newspaper -- forget schools -- had the guts to feature a calm and cogent article like this!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Robert Hargraves said...

Sam Hobbs, One study of 70,000 shipyard radiation workers included 30,000 controls. The purpose was to determine the government's liability for causing injury by subjecting the workers to low levels of radiation from Co-60 in the steel. Surprisingly the study found a positive effect.

There are many more references in my book; here are some links.

DOE low dose radiation:

p 325 US DOE low dose radiation:

p 325 Cuttler Fukushima evacuation:

p 325 Cuttler Fukushima presentation:

p 325 New Mexico low background radiation experiment:

p 326 US DOE low dose research highlights:

p 326 Lawrence Berkeley Lab DNA repair:

p 326 Lawrence Berkeley Lab DNA repair:

p 327 MIT Engelward, Yanch, prolonged rad exposure: http: //

p 328 Int’l Dose Response Society:

p 328 Healthy worker effect:

p 328 Fukushima evacuation deaths:

p 328 Zbigniew Jaworowski, APS newsletter, radiation ethics:

p 329 Allison Radiation and Reason:

p 329 Allison 100mSv/month:

p 330 ANS special session on LNT (big download):

Andrea Jennetta said...

I don't get credit for the dental x-ray example? *pouts* Another great piece, Meredith! Thank you.

jimwg said...

Mr. Hargraves:

Thanks for that list that anti-nukes -- and media -- will never believe, but you know there's a very underused obscure real-life analogy to this I learnt in grade school which I wish was used more around nuclear blogs. For hundreds of years smallpox ravaged populations in Europe and Asia left and right, but curiously there was one vocation that often outstanding in their immunity during such outbreaks -- milkmaids and cow herders. It was long thought a freak anaomly before it was realized that milkmaids often encountered cowpox virus during their jobs and after a mild fever would be immune to smallpox epidemics. Some scholars long noticed this but declined to make it an issue least condemn milkmaids and herders with accusations of being witches. Understandable; Who'd be insane enough to say that exposure to a sick cow can prevent you from getting way sicker later on??

Keep up the good work!

James Greenidge
Queens NY

Kit P said...

“Nearly a million people each year die of breathing particulates from burning coal; ”

Of course that not true. Brilliant! Using junk science to counter junk science. What is sad is that someone who holds a phd in science.

“I am a nuclear engineer and strongly pro-nuclear. ”

Good for you but what does that mean?

Do you spend lots of time reading what non experts say.

People with engineering and science degrees should be able to do research and determine with a degree of certain the difference between a fact, an interesting theory, and a bold face lie. I have worked in the nuclear industry 40 years. It is very good way of making power. We do it without exposing our neighbors to radiation.