How U.S. Policy Shifted Energy & Technology Hegemony to China

Plant Vogtle

By James Kennedy, President of and John Kutsch, Executive Director of Thorium Energy Alliance, October 3, 2022.

Ordinally appearing in LinkedIn Pulse. Reproduced for educational purposes and with permission.

The Pentagon recently halted the delivery of F-35 fighter jets when it was discovered that they contained Chinese rare earth components. If the Pentagon would look a little more closely, they would find that Chinese rare earth derived components are ubiquitously distributed throughout all U.S. / NATO weapon systems.

It isn’t only U.S. weapon systems, China controls global access to rare earth metals and magnets (and other downstream critical materials) for EVs, wind turbines, and most other green- technology.

However, China’s vision is much more ambitious than controlling the supply-chain for high-tech commodities, they are leveraging their dominance into the clean energy sector. Last month Chinese authorities authorized the startup of what should be considered the world’s only Generation-5 nuclear reactor: a reactor that is inherently safe, non-proliferating, and can consume nuclear waste.

The goal of Net-Zero, and any potential economic benefits, are entirely under China’s control.

China’s leadership position in both of these areas can be traced back to irrational policies and legacy prejudices specific to thorium, a mildly radioactive element that is commonly found in heavy rare earth minerals.

The words that follow, detail the history of how China surpassed the U.S. with its own nuclear technology and displaced its historic leadership position in rare earths.

A Short History on U.S. Nuclear Development

In 1962 Nobel Prize Winning scientist Glenn Seaborg responded to President John F. Kennedy’s request for a Sustainable U.S. Energy Plan. The report titled “Civilian Nuclear Power” called for the development and deployment of Thorium Molten Salt Breeder Reactors.

This overarching report on the role of nuclear power in the U.S. economy was requested by U.S. President John F. Kennedy in March, 1962. The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was charged with producing the report, gaining input from individuals inside and outside government, including the Department of Interior, the Federal Power Commission, and the National Academy of Sciences Committee on Natural Resources. The study was to identify the objectives, scope, and content of a nuclear power development program in light of prospective energy needs and resources. It should recommend appropriate steps to assure the proper timing of development and construction of nuclear power projects, including the construction of necessary prototypes and continued cooperation between government and industry. There should also be an evaluation of the extent to which the U.S. nuclear power program will further international objectives in the peaceful uses of atomic energy.

Civilian Nuclear Power, a Report to the President by Glenn T Seaborg, Atomic Energy Commission, U.S.A. 1962

These ultra-safe reactors are nothing like the legacy reactors that make up today’s Light Water fleet (LWR). When deployed globally, many believe they will be the primary backbone of Green Energy – replacing the existing natural gas dispatchable power that makes up over 70% of the ‘balance-of-power’ in renewable systems.

Unfortunately, Seaborg’s plan died with Kennedy. The cold-war preference for uranium and plutonium over thorium in the 1960s and 70s, coupled with the 1980s modification to U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Committee (NRC) and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) regulations that also impacted how thorium is classified and processed, led to the termination of the U.S. Thorium Molten Salt Reactor program and, effectively, the U.S. (French and Japanese) rare earth industry.

Today, China controls the downstream production of rare earth metals and magnets (used in EVs, Wind Turbines and U.S. / NATO weapon systems) and is boldly pursuing Glenn Seaborg’s plan for clean, safe energy. China’s nuclear regulatory authorities have cleared the 2MWt TMSR-LF1, China’s first Thorium Molten Salt Reactor (Th-MSR), for startup. There is no U.S. equivalent program on the horizon.

Considering that the U.S. initially developed this reactor, it begs the question of why China is leading with its commercial development. That requires a bit of a history lesson.

The goal of harnessing nuclear energy began shortly after World War II. At that time, a number of Manhattan Project scientists were tasked with quickly developing civilian nuclear power. One of the mission goals was to distribute the ongoing cost of producing bomb-making materials across our secretive Manhattan Project campuses onto a ‘civilian’ nuclear energy program. That program eventually morphed into the Atomic Energy Commission and then to the Department of Energy.

From an accounting standpoint, the DOE’s primary purpose was to divert the balance- sheet cost of our nuclear weapons programs off the military’s books.

For its entire history, 70% or more of the Department of Energy’s budget has been directed towards nuclear weapons development, maintenance, and research programs (and cleanup funding of legacy Manhattan Project sites). As the budget priorities demonstrate, solving America’s energy needs was never the first priority of the DoE. Accept that reality, and the long history of DoE mal-investment begins to make sense.

James Kennedy

Results came quickly. The first reactor designs, still in use today, are essentially ‘first concept reactors’: something more than a Ford Model T, but possibly less than a Model A, as economies of standardization were purposely never attempted in the USA, and therefore the USA never achieved the economies of scale that comes from making only 1 type of reactor model like the French and Japanese do.

The rollout of Thorium MSRs will be the equivalent of a modern-day automobile (with standardization of parts and licensing, automated assembly-line production and centralized operation permitting).

Every U.S. Light Water Reactor (LWR) facility is uniquely engineered from the ground up— maximizing its cost. Every permit application is unique. Permit requirements, timelines and outcomes are fluid. The timeline from initial funding for permitting to buildout can take decades. This equates to tying up tens of billions of dollars in financial commitments over a very long time for an uncertain outcome (a number of reactor projects were terminated during the buildout phase, with some near completion). There is an incentive to drag projects out because the EPC builders of the plan are not the operators, so they have to make all their money in the build. For example, the most recent U.S. nuclear buildout is 8 years behind schedule and at twice the estimated cost. This is a recipe for failure.

The original LWR designs, largely developed by Alvin Weinberg, boiled water under immense pressure to turn a shaft, similar to the turbines of a coal fired power plant. The use of water as a coolant is one of the largest contributors to LWR system complexity, risk and costs.

Water’s liquid phase range at normal pressure is 1 to 99°C. Water’s natural boiling temperature does not generate sufficient pressure to economically operate traditional steam turbines so all LWR type reactors use high pressure to force water to remain liquid at higher temperatures. The need to contain coolant failures in such a high-pressure operating environment greatly effects the safety and cost of the entire system. All water-cooled reactors have an inherent design risk, no matter how small, built in.

Weinberg knew there must be a better design, but government and military support rushed in to prop up the development of the Light Water Reactor design. Admiral Hyman Rickover was the leading advocate, quickly developing the first nuclear-powered submarine. The U.S. Army also got in the game, developing a prototype mobile field reactor. The Air Force, feeling left out, looked to Alvin Weinberg to develop a nuclear-powered aircraft.

The Air Force Reactor project required that he develop something entirely new; keeping in mind that this reactor would operate inside an airplane with a crew and live ordinance. These are truly remarkable constraints in terms of weight, size, safety, and power output. Weinberg’s insight led to a reactor that used a liquid fuel instead of solid fuel rods. It was simply known as Alvin’s 3P reactor, all he needed was a Pot, a Pipe and a Pump to build his new reactor design.

Elegant in its simplicity, its safety was based on physics and geometry – not pumps, values, backup generators and emergency protocols.

The Air Force Reactor program was able to prove out all requirements of the program. It was / is possible to build a nuclear-powered bomber aircraft and keep the crew ‘reasonably safe’. However, the development of nuclear-launch capable submarines and the Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile supplanted the need for a nuclear bomber.

The original Air Force Reactor Experiment evolved into the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment (MSRE) developed at Oak Ridge National Lab. This moderated reactor operated for 19,000 hours over 5 years. The reactor was designed to run on a Thorium-uranium mixed fuel. Prior to termination of the project, all operational, safety, material science, and corrosion issues were resolved.

More importantly, the MSRE project proved that you could build a revolutionary nuclear reactor that eliminated all of the inherent safety concerns of the LWR while minimizing the spent fuel issue (what some people call nuclear waste).

The new reactor, commonly known as a Molten Salt Reactor (MSR), used heated salt with a liquid-to-boil temperature range that can exceed 1000°C (a function of chemistry), to act both as coolant and fuel. The recirculation of the liquid fuel/coolant allowed for the fuller utilization (burn up) of the actinides and fission products. The salt’s higher temperature operation that did not need water for cooling, eliminated the need to operate under extreme pressures.

The Molten-Salt Reactor Experiment

This salt coolant cannot overheat, and meets the definition of having inherent safety – MSR’s are inherently safe reactors that eliminate scores of redundant systems, significantly increasing the simplicity of the overall system while lowering risks and cost and increasing its safety profile.

Another advantage is that MSR’s higher operating temperatures allow it to utilize liquid CO2 (or other high compression gases), thus eliminating H2O steam from the system. Moving away from the Rankine turbine system to much smaller and more efficient Brayton turbines delivers a much higher energy conversion at lower costs. The real promise of the MSR was that it produced process heat directly, for hydrogen, desalination, fertilizer, steel production – avoiding inefficient electricity production all while utilizing 100% of the heat energy directly.

Another beneficial feature is the reduced quantity and timeframe of storage requirements for spent fuel (aka: nuclear waste). Inherent to their design, MSRs use-up nuclear fuel far more efficiently than LWRs, less than 1% of the original fuel load can end up as spent fuel, and due to acceleration of decay under the recirculation of the fuel/coolant load the residual spent fuel decays to background (radiation levels equal to the natural environment) in as little as 300 years.

LWRs utilize about 3% of the available energy in solid fuels and the spent fuel does not decay to background levels for tens of thousands of years.

The most promising MSR design feature was found to be that fission criticality (a sustained chain reaction) is self-regulating due to the reactor’s geometry and self-purging features that dumped the fuel/coolant into holding tanks and regulated fission rates (again, based on geometry) if the reactor exceeded design operating temperatures. These features made a reactor “meltdown” impossible and “walk-away safe”.

Because the salt coolant has such a high liquid phase the system can be air cooled (in any atmosphere: the artic, the desert , even versions for space). The elimination of water from the system eliminates the primary failure-point of all conventional nuclear reactors, including explosive events that can occur with water cooled reactors.

NOTE: LWR reactor explosions are due to disassociation of water into hydrogen and oxygen when exposed to Zirconium at high temperatures during coolant system failure. The zirconium fuel casings act as a catalyst, causing a massive rapid atmospheric expansion. This atmospheric expansion was the cause of the explosive event associated with the Fukushima disaster.

The elimination of any high-pressure hydrogen event excludes the potential for widespread radiation release and thus, the need for a massive containment vessel.

Alvin Weinberg’s reactor design also solved another challenge of that time. Prior to the mid- 1970s the U.S. government believed that global uranium resources were very scarce. This new reactor, fueled with a small amount of fissile material added to the Thorium salt, could breed new fuel. In fact, it turned out that the reactor could also be used to dispose of weapons grade plutonium or even spent fuel (stockpiled nuclear waste).

The Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) option for burning fissile fuel from dismantled weapons is examined. It is concluded that MSRs are very suitable for beneficial utilization of the dismantled fuel. The MSRs can utilize any fissile fuel in continuous operation with no special modifications, as demonstrated in the Molten Salt Reactor Experiment. Thus MSRs are flexible while maintaining their economy. MSRs further require a minimum of special fuel preparation and can tolerate denaturing and dilution of the fuel. Fuel shipments can be arbitrarily small, all of which supports nonproliferation and averts diversion. MSRs have inherent safety features which make them acceptable and attractive. They can burn a fuel type completely and convert it to other fuels. MSRs also have the potential for burning the actinides and delivering the waste in an optimal form, thus contributing to the solution of one of the major remaining problems for deployment of nuclear power.

ORNL – Thorium MSRs From Using Dismantled Weapons, 1991

Unlike natural mined Uranium, which needed intensive processing to concentrate the fissile U235, Thorium is widely abundant and a byproduct of phosphate, titanium, zircon and rare earth ores. Thorium can be used in a nuclear reactor after minimal processing, all benefits that were unheeded in the 60s and 70s.

Since MSRs run at a much higher temperature than LWRs, the greatest benefit would be the direct utilization of thermal energy for industrial processes requiring thermal loads (allowing for the carbon free production of steel, cement and chemicals that make up nearly 25% of all CO2 emissions). Possibilities seemed endless.

Glenn Seaborg’s 1962 report to President Kennedy devised a national plan for sustainable civilian nuclear power. Evaluating the relative safety, efficiency, and economy of the Th-MSR vs. the LWR, Seaborg recommended that the U.S. phase out LWRs in favor of Alvin Weinberg’s Th- MSR Thorium “breeder reactor”.

So why didn’t this reactor design prevail? Considering its economic advantages, the Th-MSR would cause the phase out of the existing nuclear fleet and would be more cost competitive than coal or natural gas (and could replace petroleum via a nuclear-powered Fischer Tropes process), it is no wonder that the reactor was rejected by the prevailing political-economy of cold-war industrialism and what was primarily a hydro-carbon based economy.

The production cost for these reactors was a key concern. The relative cost of assembly line built MSRs reactor would be a fraction of traditional LWRs (these are small modular reactors). As such, MSRs could bring installed cost per megawatt in line with coal fired power plants.

The construction cost advantages are numerous: inherent safety based on geometry (translates into simplicity of design and construction), small, modular, assembly-line built, roll-off permitting, air cooled (eliminating the primary critical failure risk of LWRs and, thus the possibility for a wide-spread radiation event), no need for a massive containment vessel, and small Bryton turbines.

The Thorium fuel would be a byproduct of rare earths (no enrichment is necessary). Rare earths would be a byproduct of some other mined commodity.

Regardless of the economic opposition, there was also a geopolitical conflict. Fueled with Thorium, the MSR did not produce plutonium (fissile bomb making materials) or anything else that was practically usable for the production of nuclear weapons. The reactor was highly proliferation resistant—and who would not like that?

The Nixon Administration, for one. American politics in 1968 were largely influenced by the U.S.’s relative status in the nuclear weapons arms race with Russia. Nixon, a nuclear hawk, killed the MSR program and committed the country to the development of fast spectrum breeder reactors (the program was a total failure), circa 1972.

As early as 1970 a new, safe, clean, cost-efficient, and self-generating energy economy was technically possible but was sacrificed to the objectives of the cold war and preservation of the existing LWR fleet.

If the U.S. had followed Seaborg’s advice the entire world could be pulling up to the curb of Net-Zero today and U.S. energy hegemony would be preserved long into the future.

Instead, today, China is leading the world in the development of Thorium fueled reactors and Thorium based critical materials. They intend to use it as a geopolitical tool: the Chinese version of “Atoms for Peace”. This would end U.S. energy hegemony.

Sadly, most Americans can’t fathom how that would impact their standard of living and create a domestic energy source that would cement their position in the world.

But the story of how Thorium politics and policy derailed U.S. energy and national security interests does not end there.

The Story of Rare Earths

A decade later, the production and proliferation of nuclear weapons material became an international matter of concern. In 1980 the NRC and IAEA collaborated on regulations to ratchet down on the production and transportation of uranium. The regulatory mechanism 10 CFR 40, 75 applied the rules and definitions specific to the uranium mining industry to all mining activity, using the 1954 Atomic Energy Act terminology of nuclear “source material” to define the materials to be controlled.

Uranium, plutonium and Thorium are all classified as nuclear fuel: source material. However, Thorium cannot be used for nuclear weapons (Thorium is fertile, not fissile).

James Kennedy

This caused a new and unintended problem. At the time, nearly 100 percent of the world’s supply of heavy rare earths contained Thorium in their mineralization and were the byproduct of some other mined commodity. Consequently, when these commodity producers extracted their target ores (titanium, zirconium, iron, phosphates, etc.) they triggered the new regulatory definition of ‘processed or refined ore (under 10 CFR 40)’ for these historical rare earth byproducts, causing the Thorium-bearing rare earth mineralization to be classified as “source material”.

In order to avoid the onerous costs, regulations, and liabilities associated with being a source material producer these commodity producers disposed of these Thorium-bearing resources along with their other mining waste and continue to do so today.

Currently, in the U.S. alone, the annual quantity of rare earths disposed of to avoid the NRC source material regulations exceeds the non-Chinese world’s demand by a factor of two or more. The amount of Thorium that is also disposed of with these rare earths could power the entire western hemisphere if utilized in MSRs.

The scale of this potential energy waste dwarfs the collective efforts of every environmentalist on a global basis (including all of the World Economic Forum programs being forced on farmers and consumers across the globe).

As a result, all downstream rare earth value chain companies in the U.S. and IAEA compliant countries lost access to reliable supplies for these rare earth resources.

Capitalizing on these regulatory changes, China quickly became the world’s RE producer.

World Rare Earth Production

During the 1980s, China increased its leverage by initiating tax incentives and creating economically favorable manufacturing zones for companies that moved rare earth technology inside China.

U.S., French and Japanese companies were happy to off-shore their technology and environmental risks (mostly related to Thorium regulations). The 1980 regulatory change and China’s aggressive investment policies allowed China to quickly acquire a foothold in metallurgical and magnet capabilities.

For example: China signed rare earth supply contracts with Japan that required Japan to transfer rare earth machinery and process technology to mainland China while establishing state-sponsored acquisition strategies for targeted U.S. metallurgical and magnetic manufacturing technologies.

By 1995 the U.S. had sold its only NdFeB magnet producer, and all of its IP, to what turned out to be Deng Xiaoping’s family.

In just two decades China moved from a low value resource producer to having monopoly control over global production and access to rare earth technology metals.

By 2002 the U.S. became 100% dependent on China for all post-oxide rare earth materials. Today, China’s monopoly is concentrated on downstream metallics and magnets. In 2018, Japan, the only country that continued to produce rare earth metals outside of China, informed the U.S. government that they no longer make “new” rare earth metals.

Japan stated the reason for terminating all new rare earth metal production is “China controls price”.

Thorium policy was the leading culprit in America’s failure to lead the world in the evolution of the rare earth dependent technologies. From its powerful vantage point, China was able to force technology companies to move operations inside China. From a practical standpoint all past and future breakthroughs in rare earth based material science and technology migrate to China.

Cumulative Patent Deficit USD vs China
Cumulative Patent Deficit USD vs China

The best example of this is Apple. Because the iPhone is highly rare earth dependent, Apple was forced to manufacture it in China. In January 2007 Apple introduced its revolutionary iPhone. By August of the same year high quality Chinese knockoffs were being produced by a largely unknown company named Huawei. By 2017 Huawei was outselling Apple on a worldwide basis.

This story is not uncommon. It is typical of what happens to Western companies who move manufacturing inside China. Apple knew this but had no choice: developing a domestic rare earth value chain was impossible for any single company, industry, or even country by this point in the game.

Today China’s monopoly power allows them to control the supply chain of the U.S. military and NATO defense contractors.

From its diminished vantage point, the Pentagon is somehow unable to understand that China’s monopoly is a National Program of Industrial and Defense Policy.

Instead, the Pentagon pretends that this is a problem that can be solved by ‘the free market’, naively betting U.S. national security on a hodgepodge of junior rare earth mining ventures with economically questionable deposits, no downstream metal refining capabilities and no access to the critical heavy rare earths.

The Pentagon twice bet our national security on a geochemically incompatible deposit in California. The first time was in 2010. The Pentagon was forewarned that the deposit controlled by Molycorp, was incompatible with U.S. technology and defense needs, due to its lack of heavy rare earths, and that its business plan was “unworkable”. The company was bankrupt in just 5 years.

In 2020, despite the same deposit’s intractable deficiencies, Chinese ownership and a commitment to supply China, the Pentagon backed a venture capital group ‘developing’ the deposit under the name MP Materials. The new company has made the same unfulfillable promises as its predecessor but further domestic downstream capability into metallics is unlikely.

MP may remain profitable as long as it continues to sell concentrate and oxides into China, but profitable downstream refining into metallics / magnets is not possible when accounting for China’s internal cost, scale and subsidy advantages (and control over price).

The Pentagon, like so many other investors, fails to accept the reality of China’s monopoly.

It is both an economic monopoly, and a geopolitical monopoly.

Consequently, there have been over 400 bankruptcies in rare earth projects since 2010. Only two western controlled rare earth mines went into production: Molycorp, mentioned above, and Lynas, the Australian company Lynas. Lynas’s success is mostly due the current environment of higher prices (ultimately under China’s control) and a modestly superior rare earth chemistry when compared with the Molycorp Mt. Pass deposit. Lynas survived the 2015 downturn through direct subsidies form the Japanese government, price supports and debt forgiveness from its customers and investors.

Today the U.S. and all western governments find themselves outmaneuvered in rare earths (and other critical materials), the green economy and Thorium nuclear energy.

China is leading the world in the development of Thorium MSRs. Their first two-megawatt prototype reactors was recently cleared for startup (August, 2022). China’s MSR program was built on massive direct investment by the Chinese government and the direct transfer of technology and technical support by the U.S. Department of Energy.

China’s first to market strategy can be expected to conform to their tendency to vertically and horizontally monopolize industries, like rare earths. As such, China is poised to control the global roll out of this technology—displacing the U.S. as the global energy hegemon.

Because the U.S. failed to rationalize Thorium policy it has lost control of its destiny in rare earths and the future of safe, clean, affordable, and sustainable nuclear energy.

Unchallenged, China will be the global champion of net-zero energy.

What are the domestic obstacle to achieving Thorium MSR?

Opposition is directly linked to the cold war policies of the past and the intersection of legacy energy producers (LWR nuclear, coal, natural gas and petroleum) and renewable energy producers. These energy sectors individually and collectively are the political constituents of the DoE. So, despite the opposing interests between each of these energy sectors, the threat of Th-MSR expresses itself as DoE opposition (that is beginning to change).

The other problem with Th-MSR development is the regulatory environment. Regulations are more about protecting legacy interests than public safety. In nuclear regulation it is all about protecting the legacy fleet from new entrants.

For example, the company Nuscale spent over $600 million, over a decade, to certify a new nuclear reactor design. This expense was not to build a reactor. It was the regulatory cost of permitting a new reactor design that (highly conforms to existing LWR designs).

What people overlook is that the real cost and risk in new reactor design is a function of time, money and investor expectations.

In the case of Nuscale, the regulatory and construction cost of a new reactor will be in the multi-billion-dollar range, with over a decade of investor money tied up in the highly speculative investment (speculative in regulatory outcomes and customer orders against existing and alternative technologies) makes this the highest investment risk imaginable.

Accounting for the magnitude of these risks and return expectations, this type of investment is at the outer bounds of what is achievable — in the absence of a monopoly. That is why public investment was always necessary in the nuclear industry. China understands this and has acted accordingly.

What are the domestic obstacles to a domestic rare earth value chain?

The current rare earth issue has not been a mining issue but rather a regulatory issue. The U.S. continues to mine enough rare earths, as the byproduct of some other commodity, to exceed the entire non-Chinese world demand. These resources would quickly become available if the U.S. rationalized its Thorium policy.

The larger downstream problems resulting from China’s massive overinvestment and negligible return requirements in its rare earth industry have yet to express themselves, as the U.S. government blindly funds non-compatible, non-viable, non-economic downstream projects.

Without a production tax credit to off-set Chinese subsides, all of these projects will fail.

Balancing the comparative cost of capital and investor return expectation also must be answered.


There are potential solutions. For rare earths there is a production tax credit bill that could off- set China’s generous subsidies, zero-cost capital and production cost advantages (comparative labor & environmental costs). There may also soon be proposed legislation to solve the Thorium problem. This same proposal would also provide a funding and development platform for a U.S. based Thorium MSR reactor industry.

There are solutions, but time is running out.

To learn more about advancing U.S. interests in the development of MSRs and ending China’s rare earth monopoly please visit the or


James Kennedy is an internationally recognized expert, consultant, author, and policy adviser on rare earths and Thorium energy.

John Kutsch is the executive director of Thorium Energy Alliance, an organization dedicated to the advancement of Thorium for power and critical materials applications.

References and Links


#rareearths #nuclearenergy #nationalsecurity #nationaldefense #china #criticalminerals #departmentofenergy #departmentofdefense #EV #netzero #netzerocarbon #greentech #geopolitics #renewableenergy #cobalt #nickel #graphite #lithium #weapons #defensetechnology #mining #miningindustry #miningnews #greensteel #neodymium #terbium #pentagon #hegemony #monopoly #intellectualproperty #windenergy #solarenergy #hydrogen #thorium #thoriumenergyallianc #energy #scienceandtechnology #aviationindustry #aviationnews #airforce

Confidence in Nuclear Energy – The acceptance of evidence should replace traditional caution

By Wade Allison, professor of physics at Oxford University. Written 20 September 2022

Wade Allison is emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University and author of Radiation and Reason, and Nuclear is for Life.

Though an ideal energy source, nuclear made an unfortunate entry into world affairs. Accompanied by frightening tales of destruction it failed early on to gain the confidence required of a leading contributor to future human prosperity. Is radioactivity and nuclear radiation particularly dangerous? It has been wielded as a political weapon for 70 years. But does the myth of a possible radiation holocaust have objective substance? The inhibition that surrounds nuclear radiation obstructs the optimum solution to real dangers today – climate change, the supply of water, food and energy, and socio-economic stability.

Is radioactivity and nuclear radiation particularly dangerous? It has been wielded as a political weapon for 70 years. But does the myth of a possible radiation holocaust have objective substance?

Professor Wade Allison

Primary Energy Sources

By studying the natural world, humans have succeeded where other creatures failed. Satisfying our needs depends on understanding the benefits that nature offers. In particular, the study of energy and the acceptance by society of improved sources have been critical to prospects for the human race several times in the past. The first occasion was pre-historic, perhaps 600,000 years ago, when fire was domesticated. Confidence and good practice spread through the use of speech and education. Then came the harnessing of sunshine and the weather, delivered by windmills, watermills and the growth of food and vegetation. Nevertheless, these energy supplies were weak and notoriously unreliable. Additional energy was routinely provided by slave labour and teams of animals. Generally though, life was short and miserable.

The use of fossil fuels and their reliable engines began in the 18th Century and displaced the use of intermittent sources. Life was transformed for those who had the fuels. Health, sport, holidays, leisure and human rights flourished, all previously unavailable. Political affairs were largely concerned with which people had access to fossil fuels. Though fossil fuels were never safe or environmental, their combustion probably triggered, if not caused, changes to the climate. Consequently, the decision was taken in Paris in 2015 to discontinue their use. What should replace them? And how may we live in a climate that is never likely ever to revert to the way it was?

Fortunately, natural science today has a firm and complete account of energy – that is apart from one or two intriguing cosmological goings-on such as “dark matter”. Secondary sources, such as hydrogen, ammonia, batteries, electricity and biofuels, are beside the point, because they need to be generated from some primary source, and it’s the latter we need to secure. The weak, unreliable and weather-dependent primary sources that failed previously continue to be inadequate. Without fossil fuels, that leaves only one widely available source, sufficient to support the continuation of society as we know it, namely nuclear energy[1]. It ticks every box, except that many know little about it and are wary of it.

One who learnt early was Winston Churchill. In 1931 he wrote prophetically in the Strand Magazine that nuclear energy is a million times that of the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution[2].

One who learnt early was Winston Churchill. In 1931 he wrote prophetically in the Strand Magazine that nuclear energy is a million times that of the fuel that powered the Industrial Revolution[2]

Professor Wade Allison

Both chemical and nuclear energy can be released explosively. Unfortunately, it was as a weapon that many in society first heard about nuclear energy. Released in anger at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, the combination of blast and fire produced was fatal to the majority of inhabitants within a mile or two. Those much further away were not affected, nor were those who came to the site weeks afterwards. The result of the nuclear bombs was similar to the destruction by conventional explosives and fire storm in WWII of Tokyo, Hamburg and Dresden – or by explosives in recent years of Chechnya, Aleppo and Mariupol – except that it may come from a single device.

It comes as a surprise to many people that nuclear radiation makes no major contribution to the mortality of a nuclear explosion, even in later years[3]. That is not what they have been told. What is the truth and why has it remained hidden?

Wade Allison: “The Fukushima nuclear accident and the unwarranted fear of low-dose radiation”

Is Radiation a Danger to Life?

A great deal has been learnt about the effect of radiation on life in the past 120 years. When nuclear radiation was discovered by Marie Curie[4] and others in the last years of the 19th Century, they took great care to study its effect on life. Shortly thereafter, high doses were used successfully to cure patients of cancer, as they still are today. Millions of people have reason to be thankful as a result.

As with any new technology, much was learnt from accidents and mistakes in the early days. But by 1934 international agreement[5] had been reached on the scale of a safe radiation dose, 0.2 roentgen per day – in modern units, 2 milli-gray (or milli-Sievert) per day. In 1980 Lauriston Taylor (1902-2004), the doyen of radiation health physicists, affirmed[6] that “nobody has been identifiably injured by a lesser dose”– a statement that remains true today.

At first sight it is strange that ionising radiation, with its energy easily sufficient to break the critical molecules of life, should be harmless in low and moderate doses. And it does indeed break such molecules indiscriminately, but living tissue fights back because it has evolved the ability to do so. In early epochs the natural radiation environment on Earth was more intense than today. Life would have died out long ago, if it had not developed multiple layers of defence. These act within hours or days by repairing and replacing molecules and whole cells, too. Control of these mechanisms was devolved to the cellular level long ago, and it is a mistake for human regulations to try to micromanage the protection already provided by nature. So, although the details of natural protection and its workings are still being discovered today, the effectiveness of the safety it provides were known and agreed already in 1934.

But then in the mid-1950s, in spite of initiatives like “Atoms for Peace” by President Eisenhower, human society lost its nerve about nuclear energy and its radiation. What went wrong?

But then in the mid-1950s, in spite of initiatives like “Atoms for Peace” by President Eisenhower, human society lost its nerve about nuclear energy and its radiation. What went wrong?

Professor Wade Allison
Atoms For Peace Speech – Eisenhower 1953

When fear hid the benefits of nuclear and its radiation

Few today are old enough to remember those days, as I do. The 1950s was an unpleasant time with military threats abroad, spying, secrecy and mistrust at home. In the USA it was the era of Senator Joseph McCarthy[7] when all manner of innocent people were accused of being communist sympathisers or Soviet agents. Suspicion was everywhere. Already following the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, knowledge of nuclear radiation was seen as a “no-go” area, supposedly too difficult to understand and beyond the educational paygrade of normal people. After the War a vast employment structure, the industrial military complex, continued to develop, test and stockpile nuclear weapons to the horror of large sections of the populace, worldwide. They were supported in their concern by many scientists, including Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer, Andre Sakharov and many Nobel Laureates. Whether they were knowledgeable in radiobiology or not – and few were – they did not trust the judgement of the military and political authorities with this new energy and its million-fold increase. Everybody was frightened that the power might fall into foreign hands or be used irresponsibly by allies. This fear increased after 1949 when the Soviet Union detonated its first nuclear device[8]. As the years went by, ever larger popular marches and political demonstrations attempted to halt the nuclear Arms Race with the USSR, frequently alarming civil authorities with their threats to law and order.

This civil disturbance had more success in stopping the Arms Race when it focused on the biological effects of nuclear radiation. Few in the industrial military complex knew much about this – they were mostly engineers, physical and mathematical scientists. In truth, few other scientists did either and in the absence of data were easily alarmed. The concern was that irreparable radiation damage incurred by the human genome might be transmitted to subsequent generations. Such a prediction was made by Hermann Muller, a Nobel Prize winning geneticist – without any evidence. A ghoulish spectre of deformed descendants was eagerly adopted by the media as real. The popular magazine Life, dated May 1955 page 37, explicitly quoted Muller, saying “atomic war may cause” such hereditary damage (emphasis added). The qualification of the possibility was lost on the media and general public – the horror was seen as just too awful. It was widely taken as likely to be true by academic opinion, too, as there was no evidence to deny it.

Herman Muller
Herman Muller, LIFE Magazine, 1957

Significantly, it is not difficult to detect levels of radiation exposure many thousand times lower than the level accepted as safe in 1934[5]. Anxious to quell popular pressure, regulatory authorities acceded to a regime in which life should be spared any radiation exposure above a level As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA). For the public, the advice was set at 1 milli-Sievert per year, a modest fraction of the typical natural background received from rocks and space. National regulatory authorities, concerned to protect themselves from liability, readily adopted the advice of the International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP) under the auspices of the United Nations.

These regulations are based, not on evidence, but on a philosophy of caution, namely that any exposure to radiation is harmful and that all such damage accumulates throughout life – in denial of the natural protection provided by evolution. A discredited ad hoc theory of risk, the Linear No Threshold model (LNT)[9,10], supplanted the Threshold Model of 1934 at the behest of the BEAR Committee of the US Natural Academy of Sciences in 1956.

A discredited ad hoc theory of risk, the Linear No Threshold model (LNT) [9,10], supplanted the Threshold Model of 1934 at the behest of the BEAR Committee of the US Natural Academy of Sciences in 1956.

Professor Wade Allison

Such excessive caution incurs huge extra costs. Worse, adherence to ALARA/LNT regulations has caused serious social and environmental damage – for instance, in the response to the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi. International bodies and committees, unlike individuals, stick rigidly to their terms of reference. So, the ICRP still supports ALARA/LNT today[11] and advocates protection which is not necessary – except in extreme cases.

What about these extreme cases? Muller supposed that an exposure to radiation can alter a person’s genetic code and that this error can then be passed onto off-spring. But the medical records of the survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, their children and grandchildren[12] never supported this. As a result, nobody today maintains that there is any evidence for such inheritable genetic changes. This is confirmed in animal experiments, and was accepted even by the ICRP in 2007[11] – to be precise they lowered their estimated genetic risk factor by an order of magnitude. So Muller was wrong[10]. Incidentally, he was also wrong about the evidence for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1946.

So Muller was wrong [10]. Incidentally, he was also wrong about the evidence for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1946.

Professor Wade Allison

Dedicated to protect people against radiological damage, the ICRP focused on the induction of cancer by radiation instead of inheritable genetic defects. The medical history of 87,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with their children, have been followed since 1950. Data on solid cancers and leukaemia in 50 years and their correlation with individually estimated exposures have been published by DL Preston et al ([13], Tables 3 and 7). Inevitably, some survivors died from these diseases anyway, but their numbers are allowed for by comparing with distant residents who received no dose, being too far away. Some 68,000 survivors received a dose less than 100 milli-Sievert and these showed no evidence of extra cancers. Altogether, between 1950 and 2000 there were 10,127 deaths from solid cancers and 296 from leukaemia – 480 and 93, respectively, more than expected on the basis of data for those not irradiated. This number of extra deaths, 573, is significant, but less than half a percent of those who died from the blast and fire. Furthermore, it is only a third of the number of deaths reported as caused by the unnecessary and ill-judged evacuation at Fukushima Daiichi[14], an accident in which nobody died from radiation, or is likely to. Evidently, the fear of radiation can be far more life-threatening than its actual effect, even as recorded in the bombing of two large cities. This conclusion in no way belittles the enormous loss of life from the blast and fire of a nuclear explosion with its localised range and limited duration.

The medical history of 87,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with their children, have been followed since 1950.

Professor Wade Allison

But it is important to check that all available evidence corroborates this conclusion. How are other biological risks checked? A new vaccine is checked with blind tests in which patients are unaware of whether they have been treated or been given a placebo. In similar studies with radiation on groups of animals[15], one is irradiated every day throughout life and the other not. Those irradiated daily show a threshold of about 2 milli-Sievert per day for additional cancer death or other life shortening disease, similar to the threshold set in 1934. In fact doses below threshold increase life expectancy and the same is found for humans[16].

At Chernobyl 28 fire fighters died of acute radiation syndrome in a short time[17], 27 from doses above 4000 milli-Sievert and 1 from a dose between 2000 and 4000 milli-Sievert. There were 15 deaths from thyroid cancer (but opinion is divided on these). Other cases of ill health were related to severe social and mental disturbance. Being told “you have been irradiated and are being evacuated immediately” is disorientating. Like Voodoo or a mediaeval curse, it can be life-threatening. Notably, the wild animals in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone are thriving, as seen on wildlife programmes[19, 20] – but then they have not been shown videos on the horrors of radiation!

An important question is how human society has persisted with such a gross misperception for seventy years. Entertainment, courage and excitement are important emotional exercises that prepare us to face real dangers, although there is a need to distinguish fact from fiction. The Placebo Effect describes the genuine health benefits found by patients who think they have been treated when they have not. The Nocebo Effect is its inverse[21], that is where people who have not been harmed, suffer real symptoms as if they had. In the aftermath of the Fukushima accident families endured terrible suffering including family break up and alcoholism – as a direct consequence of regulations based on ALARA and LNT. If the regulations had been based on the 1934 threshold, no evacuation longer than a week would have been justified[22].

The nuclear option for generations to come

Evidently, committees that advocate regulation based on ALARA/LNT are harmful and should be disbanded. Future generations should be free to make informed decisions involving nuclear energy, in peace or war, unencumbered by the erroneous legacy of the 1950s.

Evidently, committees that advocate regulation based on ALARA/LNT are harmful and should be disbanded.

Professor Wade Allison

In years to come, when reference is made to the “nuclear option” in other contexts, we may hope that it will be shorthand for “the best solution”. In medicine this is nearly true now. During a course of radiotherapy the healthy tissue close to a tumour receives a high dose – about 1000 milli-Gray, every weekday for several weeks. By spreading the treatment over many days, this healthy tissue just recovers, and radiologists ensure that this huge dose seldom causes a secondary cancer. This would be disastrous strategy according to LNT – in six weeks or so the equivalent of about 30,000 years at the precautionary dose limit of 1 milli-Sievert per year!

Future generations should be free to make informed decisions involving nuclear energy, in peace or war, unencumbered by the erroneous legacy of the 1950s.

Professor Wade Allison

In future we should not allow ourselves to be blackmailed by fear of the radiation from a nuclear weapon. That may have terrified our parents, but we should ensure that our children understand that radiation is dangerous only in the immediate vicinity of a nuclear detonation where death is caused by the blast and fire. At school all teenagers should study natural science and understand how nuclear energy compares with other sources, for safety, availability, reliability, security and preservation of the environment[1]. Then they should go home and reassure their parents.

In future we should not allow ourselves to be blackmailed by fear of the radiation from a nuclear weapon.

Professor Wade Allison

Professor Wade Allison, Oxford, United Kingdom, 20 September 2022

Links and References

  1. Allison, W. Nature, Energy and Society (2020)
  3. Allison, W. Radiation and Reason, The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear ISBN 978-0-9563756-1-5 (2009),
  4. Grammatikos PC, Pioneers of nuclear medicine, Madame Curie
  5. International Recommendations (1934) International Commission for Radiological Protection.
  6. Taylor LS, The Sievert Lecture 1980, health physics (1980) 39 851
  7. McCarthyism and the Red Scare
  9. Meyerson G, Siegel JA Epidemiology without Biology (2016)
  10. The History of the Linear No-Threshold Model, Health Physics Society (2022)
  11. The 2007 Recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection. ICRP Publication 103. Ann. ICRP 37 (2-4).
  12. National Research Council (1956). Effect of Exposure to the Atomic Bombs on Pregnancy Termination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. .
  13. Preston DL et al. Effect of recent changes in atomic bomb survivor dosimetry on cancer mortality risk estimates (2004)
  15. Olipitz W et al, Integrated Molecular Analysis Indicates Undetectable Change in DNA Damage in Mice after Continuous Irradiation at ~ 400-fold Natural Background Radiation (2012)
  16. David E et al, Background radiation impacts human longevity and cancer mortality: reconsidering the linear no-threshold paradigm (2021)
  17. Report of the UN Chernobyl Forum Expert Group “Health”, Health effects of the Chernobyl accident and special health care programmes, World Health Organisation (2006)
  18. BBC News, Science and Environment, Cameras reveal the secret lives of Chernobyl’s wildlife (2015)
  19. Discovery Channel, Chernobyl Life in the Dead Zone (2012)
  20. Pincher, H. New Scientist (2009)
  21. Allison, W. BBC Viewpoint: We should stop running away from radiation (26 March 2011)

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