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WILLIAM TUCKER: Amazing What You Can Do With ‘No Safe Dose’

By William Tucker

About a week ago I saw something in the paper about how someone at Stanford had calculated how many deaths would result from Fukushima and came up with the number 1300. Now that’s a pretty big number.  After all, the UN estimates for deaths from Chernobyl was only 60 – although Greenpeace still claims 75,000 and the New York Academy of Sciences has published a book projecting a possible 1 million.  (They obviously were hoping for a best seller.)

Now I admit I fell for the “Stanford” label and assumed there must be something respectable to all this.  “I’ll be they’re using the `no safe dose’ hypothesis,” was my only thought.  Then a week later I saw another article and realized that the Stanford scientist responsible for all this is none other than the venerable Mark Jacobson.

In case you haven’t been paying attention, Mark Jacobson is now vying with Arjun Makhijani, Helen Caldicott and Ralph Nader for the title of “Mr. Anti-Nuclear.”  You can see him in a debate with Steward Brand, where he puts up a chart showing the sun shines during the day and the wind blows at night, and so this proves renewable energy can power the entire state of California.  Jacobson obviously belongs to the Amory Lovins School of Engineering, which says if you can describe something on paper, then it can easily be done in reality.

In 2009 Jacobson wrote a cover story for Scientific American entitled “A Plan to Power the Planet with 100 Percent Renewables” in which he announced that powering the world with wind and sunshine would only cost $100 trillion over 20 years (not including transmission lines).  One reader applied a little math and calculated that if America were required to pay for half of this (probably a low estimate), it would cost every man, woman and child in America $10,000 per year for the next two decades.  Along the way Jacobson also posited that nuclear would produce 25 times as much carbon emissions as wind energy.  He did this by throwing in a nuclear bomb destroying one major city every 30 years and credited this to nuclear.

So can we expect an objective evaluation of the fallout from Fukushima from this source?  Well, let’s see.

Jacobson certainly knows how to throw around the terminology.  Here’s his description of how they modeled the dispersion of the fallout of radioactive cesium across the planet:

Cs-137 and Cs-134 were assumed to exist exclusively as particle components.  For Cs-137 the model treated size-resolved emissions, radioactive decay (with a half-life of 30.1 years), horizontal and vertical advection, cloud drop and ice crystal activation, aerosol-aerosol coagulation, aerosol-hydrometeor coagulation, tracking of Cs-137 in hydrometeor particles deposition, condensation and dissolutional growth/evaporation of gases into aerosol particles, and internal aerosol chemistry and hydration of aerosol particles.   

In other words, the authors tried to track down just about every particle emitted at Fukushima as it made its way around the globe.  Fallout was hypothesized for as far away as Africa.  

Yet even after tracking down all this particulate matter across the globe, the key question remains what assumptions do you use in trying to determine the effect on human health?  Jacobson and co-author John E. Ten Hoeve (his graduate student) carefully weigh the options:    

Epidemiological studies have shown a statistically significant increase in stochastic cancer risk for doses above 100 mSV [10 rems], however at doses below 100 mSv, significance or insignificance has not been demonstrated.  Similarly, linearity between dose and cancer risk has been detected for moderate doses with a lower bound of 45 mGy according to [4.5 rem] according to Japanese atomic bomb survivor data, but has not been demonstrated for low doses.  Some studies even suggest that low doses of ionizing radiation may instead be beneficial by stimulating immune response.  Yet, supporters of the LNT model claim that the difficulty in detecting and attributing a small number of cancers to low doses in a large pupation does not necessarily indicate there is an absence of risk at these low doses.  

And so they opt for – wouldn’t you know it? – the “linear, no threshold” (LNT) hypothesis, which says, purely on the basis of conjecture, that health affects that can be observed at very high doses of radiation can be projected straight down to zero for the lowest doses.  And of course once you assume that, you’ve got yourself a ballgame.    

The authors measure the estimated exposure for each continent, giving best-case/ median/ and worst-case figures.  In North America, the exposure in Sacramento, California, from both model projections and recorded measures shortly after the accident, was in the range of 1 Becquerel per cubic meter, meaning 1 nuclear decay per second.  (The radioactive potassium in your body produces 4,000 Becquerels.)  This is certainly a very small number.  When subjected to the magic of no-safe-dose, however, it’s enough to produce an estimate of 0.24 (best case), 1.4 (median) or 8.6 (worst case) cancer deaths over the next 50 years for the entire population of North America.  

Figures for all the other continents were lower than North America, except for Asia, where Jacobson and Ten Hoeve estimate 13/ 94/ 905 deaths over the next half century in Japan.  This brought the world total to 15/ 125 /1100, with 90 percent of the projected deaths in Japan.  (Somehow this 1100 got transmuted into 1300 deaths in the press.)  And that’s using the no safe dose hypothesis!

 It is absolutely absurd that such manipulations can dominate the discussion about radiation exposure.  Japan, for instance, has been swept with waves of panic every time a new “hot spot” is discovered (most of them were there long before Fukushima) or microscopic levels of radiation are detected in the food chain.  A recent headline in the US proclaimed:  “US West Coast to receive dangerous levels of Fukushima radiation.”  Yet if anyone tries to point out that even the modest numbers in the Jacobson study are an exaggeration, they are immediately accused of shilling for the nuclear industry.  

Someone in the health physics community has to have the courage to tell the public that the best estimate for the number of expected radiation deaths from Fukushima is zero.

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2 Responses to “WILLIAM TUCKER: Amazing What You Can Do With ‘No Safe Dose’”

  1. WBarmy Says:

    It has always amazed me how certain environ-Nazis condemn oil, gas and nuclear energy; but will not trade in their personal conveniences to make those kind of energy source non-profitable. Dams are evil because of the poor fish, and wind power kills the birds. Do these people really want to live back in the seventeenth century?

  2. ChrisFahlman Says:

    Well, lets admit that some anti-nuclear environmentalists do live as they preach. And to each his own.
    The trouble comes when any particular plan to mitigate climate change mandates that the vast majority of people walk the same walk.
    That’s a difficult thing to accomplish, and will likely fail. A problem akin to converting everyone to the same religion, with heretics dealt with severely.
    I’m pleased that recently more than a few environmentalists realize this problem, and speak out in favour of nuclear power, to help society mitigate climate change, while maintaining a good standard of living, good health, and lighter footprint upon the natural world.