Nuclear power & scary radiation

Australian climate scientist Barry Brook has become an advocate for nuclear power. In Radiation: facts, fallacies and phobias Barry addresses radiation fears:

I note a recent article in Opinion Online by Dr Helen Caldicott was linked to in the Is Our Future Nuclear? comments thread, and this subsequently generated a fair amount of heated discussion. The focal claim from Caldicott in this piece is that it is dangerous to live near to nuclear power plants (NPP), because they supposedly increase rates of leukemia.

My basic response to such a claim is quite simple, and I think useful, because it cuts through the somewhat arcane and context-laden epidemiological arguments. It’s this: The additional radiation exposure of those living in the vicinity of NPP is ~0.0002 millisieverts (mSv), versus a background level of 2 to 4 mSv (depending on where you live) the latter due to everything from cosmic rays, to ground-derived radon emissions, to eating bananas (this last one gives you more radiation than the NPP). So that’s 1/15,000 of your total yearly dosage coming from the ambient levels produced by nuclear power (in the US). Living near a coal-fired power station would give you 100 to 300 times more radiation exposure, and even that is trivial and not the reason coal burning is damaging to your health.

So, here is an apparently straightforward intellectual challenge. Can proponents of such an argument as Caldicott’s explain how something which adds 0.007% to an existing effect (background radiation) is somehow critically important, when adding 100 to 300% (or more) to an effect by simply moving from a house built on sedimentary rocks to one built atop granite, or moving from the state of New York to Colorado, is irrelevant? More here. Remember, radiation is radiation (principally alpha particles [helium nuclei], beta particles [high-speed electrons], x-rays, gamma rays [high-energy electromagnetic radiation] and neutrons), whether it comes from exploding stars, naturally decaying heavy metal atoms, CAT scanners, fission reactors, bananas, granite boulders, whatever. There is no unique ‘signature to the radiation from NPP.

Continue reading… and there are all the in-depth resource links you could ask for. In particular, the David Wigg paper is a reference you will want to archive:

The other recent review you should definitely read is “Radiation: Facts, fallacies and phobias” 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, but it is available free online (see link) and was written quite deliberately for a general audience.

Prof. Wigg explains why the Linear No Threshold (LNT) policy is ridiculous, including superior references:

…(LNT) model applied to the low doses in the dose regions of public concern, such as occurring in uranium mining, waste disposal and the nuclear industry and nuclear power generation. This assumption has resulted in excessively conservative and expensive recommended dose limits for occupational and public exposures. Radiation phobia is also being perpetuated, inadvertently or deliberately, by the generally poor media coverage. The consequences of this have been profound.

“Has Radiation Protection Become a Health Hazard?” Prof. Gunnar Walinder, the eminent radiobiologist originally with Rolf Sievert at the Institute of Radiophysics in Stockholm, Chair of the Swedish Radiobiology Society, Member of UNSCEAR (1973-86) and US National Cancer Institute and European Late Effects Project Group task forces, in his book of this title, urges policies concerning low-level radiation be re-examined, stating:

“not only do the current models of radiation carcinogenesis disagree with modern oncology but most important they have contributed to a number of misconceptions about radiation risks. What concerns me most is whether the radiological doctrines have sometimes caused greater health and environmental problems than those we seek to avoid.”

Prof. Walinder has also stated:

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