WILLIAM TUCKER: Will the Dangers of Radiation Exposure Ever Make Sense?

By William Tucker

You have to wonder how there can be a scientific issue of extreme public importance where the disputing parties differ by about 10,000 orders of magnitude.

That’s the way things stand over the question of whether low doses of radiation are harmful and whether there have serious health effects from Chernobyl and Fukushima.

Jim Conca, writing in Forbes, thought the matter had been settled a few weeks ago. The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation – UNSCEAR – had just brought out its annual report.  For the first time since World War II, UNSCEAR stated specifically that it does not make sense to try to project the effects of high doses of radiation down to the very low levels.  Here’s what the report had to say:

In general, increases in the incidence of health effects in populations cannot be attributed reliably to chronic exposure to radiation at levels that are typical of the global average background levels of radiation.  This is because of the uncertainties associated with the assessment of risks at low does, the current absence of radiation-specific biomarkers for health effects and the insufficient statistical power of epidemiological studies.  Therefore the Scientific Committee does not recommend multiplying very low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or lower than natural background levels.  [Emphasis added]

There it is.  The nuclear community has been waiting for such an admission for almost half a century.  In the 1980s, the nuclear industry was forced to spend billions of dollars in order to reduce the emissions at the property line of a nuclear reactor from 5 millirems per year to 1 millirem.   All this was performed in communities where the normal background levels stand at anywhere from 200 to 500 millirems.  It was about the equivalent of paying $1 billion to prevent someone from smoking a single cigarette in your living room.

The evidence against the linear no-threshold (LNT) hypothesis is overwhelming.  There has never been any data to support it.  Evidence from Japanese bomb survivors shows a clear dose-response relationship down to 10 rems.  Below that the incidence disappears against the background noise of normal cancer rates.  There are plenty of studies showing the body has repair mechanisms that can handle low doses of radiation or is even strengthened by them.  One recent study at Berkeley actually filmed damage cells migrating to the repair sites within 30 seconds of exposure. Another showed that mice exposed to 400 times natural background showed no DNA damage.

So you’d think the UNSCEAR report might finally make a small dent in hysteria about nuclear radiation.  But no, Conca’s two columns have unleashed a firestorm of criticism from people claiming there is all kinds of evidence that Chernobyl and Fukushima have already wreaked harm on nearby populations.  Dr. Timothy Mousseau of the University of South Carolina claims to have discovered that birds living in the Chernobyl evacuation zone have smaller brains due to low levels of antioxidants. Dr. Wladimir Wertelecki from the University of South Alabama spent ten years investigating newborn birth in the Ukraine and found all kinds of spinal and nervous system defects, including an increased incidence of Siamese twins.  Then there was a study just a month ago where a Japanese doctor claims that 41 percent of 57,000 children have tested positive for early signs of possible thyroid cancer, and four out of five evacuees are experiencing thyroid abnormalities.”

I have no trouble dismissing Greenpeace’s wild claim that 985,000 people have already died from Chernobyl.  Nor do I have any difficulty in casting a skeptical eye on the notorious New York Academy of Sciences publication, Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment.  I recall opening that volume and immediately discovering a study by the notorious Dr. Ernest Sternglass, who used to command so much attention in the 1990s showing that every blip in cancer rates around the country was a result of nuclear fallout.  This time Sternglass was claiming that an uptick in breast cancer rates in Connecticut in the 1990s must have been due to Chernobyl.

Still, I must admit, some of these studies send my head spinning.  Are all these people just making stuff up?  Is it that they don’t know how to establish control groups?  Can a doctor from Alabama really spend ten years monitoring all newborn babies in the Ukraine and not know how to interpret his own data?

In the end, I have to go back to my own experience.  In 2006 I spend a week sitting in the Free Enterprise Radon Mine in Boulder, Montana, absorbing 400 times the EPA’s “action level” of radon gas.  Radon spas have long been the rage in Europe and had their heyday in the United States for awhile until the EPA began its scorched earth campaign against radon in the 1990s.  (Apparently frustrated because it couldn’t regulate cigarettes, the EPA now attributes 20 percent of lung cancers to household radon.)  

At Free Enterprise I met people who had been coming to the mine every summer for 25 years to treat arthritis and other ills.  Some claimed to have arrived in wheelchairs.  There was one memorable delegation of Amish with white beards and glistening teeth who had taken the train all the way from Pennsylvania because their religion doesn‘t allow them to travel by air.  Nevertheless, they made the trip to Boulder every summer to brush up on their health.  Patricia Davis, whose family has owned the mine since the 1950s, says they have never been sued in all that time.  I noticed she was one of the first people to congratulate Conca on his article.

I have no way of confirming whether the rate of spinal bifida in the Ukraine is above what is to be expected or whether the number of children with early signs of possible thyroid cancer in Japan is outside the norm.  Not having yet experienced any ill effects from my own deadly exposure to radon, however, I can’t help but thinking that the doctrine holding even the smallest doses of radiation to be dangerous is highly suspect.  

  • mail.lan2wan.com

    Good Article. Recent peer reviewed published scientific studies on Fukushima and Chernobyl have undermined suspect data that report large numbers of cases of cancer in both the Ukraine and Japan. In the Urkaine, after the breakup of the USSR, the health system and quality of life greatly deteriorated but now is much improved; the cause of many of these illnesses are probably due to the quality of life and availability of good medical support. Most of these dubious studies are based on anyone’s guess since they have no controls to compare with. For those who continue to agrue the LNT limit and then extrapolate the consequences I can only say that this tack meets the law of illogical arguement: anything is possible if you don’t know what you are talking about. Tom in Maryland

  • stevek9

    Why LNT would have taken hold is a matter for historians, and has been discussed in many places. Many drugs are toxic or deadly at high dose, etc. People recognize this, but for some reason buy into LNT for radiation.

  • David

    This is indeed a subject where people disagree so radically that there is hardly a middle ground. It is also THE issue for Nuclear power. If Nuclear Energy is uniquely dangerous because of radiation hazards it should not be used. On the other hand, if we are so vulnerable to radiation that levels barely above minimal background levels will kill us then we will all die. Maybe that is why death is so universal. All life is exposed to this deadly radiation stuff!

    I doubt that. This is the issue that when I realized how low the levels were that Peter was crying WOLF about I understood that he had cried WOLF to many times. “Granddad, why are you carrying around that strange looking amulet?” “Why, son, it scares away Elephants.” “But Granddad, there are no Elephants here!” “See, it works well.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/sa.kiteman SA Kiteman

    The thing about being “tested positive for early signs of possible thyroid cancer” and “experiencing thyroid abnormalities” is that, if you look for them you will find them, in practically everyone. But they don’t go anywhere. The good(?) doctor-san is spreading FUD.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Cal-Abel/100002187683415 Cal Abel

    I think the EPA’s move on radon was way of increasing the radiotoxicity of Spent Nuclear Fuel. This simple act increased the statuary requirement of Yucca mountain by an order of magnitude. This made regulatory compliance that much more difficult and was used to justify the termination of the program by the current administration. LNT is the sole justification used for not increasing nuclear energy, and is the main contributor to regulatory warrant increasing the costs of the plants for compliance because virtually every aspect, including bicycles use on site falls under NRC pervue.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Leslie-Corrice/100001938983145 Leslie Corrice

    One of the best pieces on the so-called “controversy” I have seen in my 40+ years of nuclear involvement. Here’s my opinions as to “why?” First, everything nuclear and nuclear-related have been exaggerated since Trinity, and the exaggereations often reach apocalyptic levels. Second, nuclear plants have become a convenient skapegoat for public health anomolies, especially if the researchers look at it in isolation (out of convenience, in many cases). We should keep in mind the “publish or perish” incentive, with weakly-principled researchers using radition exposures as their convenient tool. Further, some authors are making serious money off their fear-mongering, and money is a powerful publishing tool. Then there is the obvious fact that Radiaton is a bogey man to multi-millions around the world, including (by my informal survey through a friend in Japan) some 45% of the Japanese public. Scary radiation articles are also good for business with the news media – a virtually-guaranteed lead story. Combine all the above and we see why the “controversy” obtainss despite a virtual mountain of evidence that ought to make it vanish.

  • Gwyneth Cravens

    Great piece!
    These researchers in the Chernobyl region are making claims that are without scientific basis. They’re operating under a handicap which was pointed out by Dr. Fred Mettler, who led a large, randomized, double-blind study there several years ago for UNSCEAR: little or no data on things like bird brain size and birth defects prior to the reactor accident. Mettler found that birth defects in Ukraine and Belarus did not increase and were at the same level as in control groups–villages and towns which did not receive any exposure. He also told me that the governments of these countries originally were hyping the number of cases despite lack of scientific evidence in order to ramp up charitable contributions.