TOWNHALL Q&A: NUCLEAR CHAMPION BERNARD COHEN – NADER TO THE RENAISSANCE
Probably no one has labored longer and harder to convince the public that the dangers of nuclear power are being exaggerated than Dr. Bernard Cohen, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Pittsburgh. In the 1970s and 1980s, Dr. Cohen worked tirelessly to refute the exaggerated claims of critics, both through careful research and through popular articles. He also had a flair for the dramatic. On “The Tonight Show” he offered to eat as much plutonium on camera as Ralph Nader would eat caffeine. Nader never took the challenge.
A recipient of the Tom Bonner Prize from the American Physical Society, the Walter Zinn Award from the American Nuclear Society, the Distinguished Scientific Achievement Award from the Health Physics Society, and a member of the National Academy of Engineering, he is still active in promoting the need for nuclear power, sitting on the advisory board of the U.S. Nuclear Energy Foundation. One indication of his enduring appeal: His 1990 book, The Nuclear Power Option, which once went for $8 on Alibris, was selling a year ago for $185 a copy. Even now there are copies going for $129. Maybe people are finally paying attention to what Dr. Cohen has to say.
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: You've been working perhaps longer than anyone else to try to educate the public about the overblown dangers of radiation. Do you feel there's been any progress on that in the last twenty years?
COHEN: There has been a lot of progress in the scientific community in that most involved scientists now are convinced that low-level radiation is harmless. Many even believe it may be beneficial. This contradicts the old "linear-no threshold theory” which is the origin of the statement "no level of radiation is safe". Hopefully, this has filtered down to the public, but I am not in a position to personally measure that. Polls are showing that public acceptance of nuclear power is improving and is now in the 70 percent range, and politicians of both parties are supportive. Other factors are at work here, but this may also indicate a reduced fear of radiation.
NT: We're now in the midst of what people are calling a "Nuclear Renaissance?" Do you think that such a thing can really happen?
COHEN: It is happening all over the world and the Obama Administration is promoting it in U.S. with no Republican opposition. There have been about 30 applications for construction and operating permits submitted by Utilities to Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and financing is available at low interest rates from U.S. government guarantees. Worries about global warming are an important promoting factor. I am therefore optimistic that new nuclear plants will soon be started in U.S.
NT: The Linear-No-Threshold (LNT) hypothesis for radiation exposure is still going strong. It is the basis, for example, of a book recently published by the New York Academy of Sciences claiming a million people died from Chernobyl. The French have rejected the LNT hypothesis and others are challenging it. What's the state of the science there?
COHEN: That book was published by NY Academy of Sciences but they did not author it. The scientific case for rejecting LNT is very solid. I have published several recent papers on this. You can view them on my website.
NT: Why is it people have an inordinate fear of nuclear power? We have gas explosions, carbon monoxide poisonings, coal mine accidents, oil well blowouts, and the EPA says fossil fuel exhausts still kill 24,000 people a year. Yet nuclear's almost perfect safety record seems to generate more fear. Why is this?
COHEN: The media give far more coverage to nuclear and radiation risks than to other energy-related risks. They refuse to draw a comparison between the two in the same story, even when they report interviews with me in which I very strongly emphasize that point. TV programs compete for Nielsen ratings and they have decided that heavy reporting on the dangers of radiation is always an attraction. That makes for a vicious circle with more media coverage generating more viewer alarm, which in turn generates more media coverage.
NT: One of the things that distracts people from the choice between fossil fuels and nuclear power is the illusion that we can get all or a great deal of our energy from windmills and sunshine. What's your response to that?
COHEN: They are getting lots of government subsidies so let them try. I wish them well. But with rare localized exceptions, they are not competitive in the near future, so that is not a reason to hold back on nuclear at this time.
NT: Back in the 1990s, when the EPA was starting to argue that radon gas was causing cancer, you did an extensive study of the entire country and found that lung cancer was actually inversely related to the presence of radon gas in homes. Yet the President's Panel on Cancer recently said radon is the third leading cause of cancer and that x-rays and medical imaging are another major environmental insult. Has there been any more evidence to reinforce your observations that radon is not a threat?
COHEN: There are other studies, in Massachusetts and in Europe, that agree with my conclusion that radon levels found in the great majority of homes are not a threat. The idea that they are a threat derives from the LNT theory, and there is widespread evidence that LNT is not valid in that dose region. Evidence claiming to support that threat from radon is extremely fragile.
NT: You became famous known in the 1980s for challenging Ralph Nader's assertion that plutonium was "the most toxic substance known to mankind" by offering to eat as much plutonium on television as Nader would eat caffeine. Did he ever respond to this challenge? Did you ever eat any plutonium?
COHEN: I was never given an opportunity to do this on the “Tonight” show. I had published a widely quoted scientific paper on Plutonium toxicity. Nader was on the “Tonight” show and said that I was "trying to declassify plutonium with a pen." I sent an open letter to all TV networks and offered my challenge to Nader.
I do not recommend eating plutonium. You can suffer ill affects. I calculated, however, that the chances of my contracting cancer were about the same as the odds that an American soldier had of being killed in World War II. Since I believed that I the fate of my country depended very strongly on our acceptance of nuclear power, I believed it was worth taking the risk. However Nader never took me up on it.
By the way, my book, The Nuclear Energy Option, can now be downloaded for free on my website.
NT: Thanks much for your time Dr. Cohen and once again, congratulations on all the great, pioneering work you have done over the years.