By Wade Allison, professor of physics at Oxford University. Written 20 September 2022
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.
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. 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.
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. That is not what they have been told. What is the truth and why has it remained hidden?
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 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 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 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?
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 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. 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.
Significantly, it is not difficult to detect levels of radiation exposure many thousand times lower than the level accepted as safe in 1934. 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.
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 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 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 – to be precise they lowered their estimated genetic risk factor by an order of magnitude. So Muller was wrong. Incidentally, he was also wrong about the evidence for which he received the Nobel Prize in 1946.
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 (, 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, 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.
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, 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.
At Chernobyl 28 fire fighters died of acute radiation syndrome in a short time, 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, 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.
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.
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!
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. Then they should go home and reassure their parents.
Professor Wade Allison, Oxford, United Kingdom, 20 September 2022
National Research Council (1956). Effect of Exposure to the Atomic Bombs on Pregnancy Termination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/18776 .
Remembering Leslie Corrice’s words from Episode 11, Corrice’s dismay over the results of radiophobia are echoed by many professionals, one being Dr. Antone “Tony” Brooks, who grew up in “fallout-drenched” St. George, Utah, which led him to study radiation at Cornell University. For an excellent, short video of the conclusions he reached, please visit:
The belief that tiny amounts of radiation can be lethal created ALARA – As Low As Reasonably Achievable – an anti-nuclear bias that has permeated our regulations for decades. However, “reasonably” is vague, and “achievable” depends on technology, not health effects.
For example, the World Health Organisation has set a public exposure limit for tritium from nuclear power plants of 0.1 mSv per year. Canada’s reactors comply with this limit, but due to ALARA, the limit in the USA is 0.04 mSv per year. Why? Because it is achievable – not because it is necessary.
Tritium (also known as hydrogen-3), is often used in watches and emergency exit signs. It is also present in our food and water. Furthermore, its tiny nucleus emits a particle so slow that it cannot even penetrate skin. In comparison, the Potassium-40 in our omnipresent banana emits beta particles that are 230 times as energetic, but no one worries about those deadly bananas.
LNT and ALARA can easily lead to absurdities: For example, airline passengers are exposed to about 20 times more cosmic radiation than those at ground level, but despite the dire predictions of LNT, they experience no more cancer than those who don’t fly. Should jets be required to fly at low altitudes, where they produce more greenhouse gases, just to satisfy ALARA – and what about the flight attendants and pilots who constantly work in higher levels of cosmic radiation?
As Radiation detection technology improves, ALARA just increases fear.
Caesium-137 from Fukushima is detectable, so Counter Punch complains of Blue Fun tuna containing 0.0000077 mSv per 7 oz serving [200 grams], writing “… no radiation exposure of any kind is safe”.
It is wasteful to spend money “protecting” people from tiny amounts of radiation. Instead, let’s finance programs that help people stop smoking, which brings carcinogens like cyanide, formaldehyde, ammonia, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide into intimate contact with their lungs. (Smoking related diseases kill 5 million people per year).
Radiation exposure in reactor buildings is so low that it isn’t an issue, but educating the public on basic environmental radiation is a very critical issue.
For example, after Fukushima, lack of accurate radiation knowledge and the media’s eagerness to hype radiation issues caused a run on potassium iodide [KI] pills along our west coast, but no media explained that this was pointless. Pharmacies ran out, and some patients who needed KI couldn’t get it, while those who needlessly took it actually raised their chances of disease because too much KI can cause thyroid malfunction.
“Radiation safety limits have been ratcheted down from 150 mSv/year in 1948 to 5 mSv/y in 1957 to 1 mSv/y in 1991 without supporting evidence by relying on the erroneous LNT model. EPA limits are set 100 times lower than levels that could cause harm. ALARA leads people, the press, and Big Green to falsely conclude that any radiation exposure may kill you.”
James Conca, in Forbes: “There are some easy decisions to make that will save us a trillion dollars, and they could be made soon by the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA could raise the absurdly low radiation levels considered to be a threat to the public. These limits were based upon biased and fraudulent “research” in the 1940’s through the 1960’s, when we were frightened of all things nuclear and knew almost nothing about our cells’ ability to repair damage from excess radiation.
“These possible regulatory changes have been triggered by the threat of nuclear terrorism and by the unnecessary evacuation of tens of thousands of Japanese after Fukushima Daiichi, and hundreds of thousands of Russians after Chernobyl. There, the frightened authorities were following U. S. plans that were created because of the ALARA policy (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) that has always been misinterpreted to mean that all forms of radiation are dangerous, no matter at what level. It’s led to our present absurdly low threat level of 25 millirem.
“Keep in mind that radiation workers can get 5,000 mrem/year and think nothing of it. We’ve never had problems with these levels. Emergency responders can get up to 25,000 mrem to save human lives and property. I would take 50,000 mrem just to save my cat.
“This wouldn’t be bad if it didn’t have really serious social and economic side-effects, like pathological fear, significant deaths during any forced evacuation, not receiving medical care that you should have, shutting down nuclear power plants to fire up fossil fuel plants, and a trillion-dollar price tag trying to clean up minor radiation that even Nature doesn’t care about.”
Approximately 100,000 people were evacuated from the Fukushima area after the meltdown, and by September, 2013, about 1,200 evacuees had died from suicide and the stress of the excessive evacuation.
Dr. Brian Hanley: [Fukushima] “If no evacuation had occurred, and everyone had lived outdoors with no precautions, at most 15 cancer deaths might have happened, but probably none.
“People have been going to radioactive spas in Ramsar, Iran for a long time without ill effect. In a 2-week visit, the dose would be a maximum of 10 mSv. That is 6 to 80 times more radioactive than the evacuation zone of Fukushima.”
“To enable nuclear power, the NRC must renounce the non-scientific basis for LNT and ALARA”
LNT [Linear No Threshold Theory] was pushed through the U.N. by Russia and China in the 1950’s to stop America’s above-ground weapons testing. It worked, but it also caused a worldwide fear of radiation below levels that are dangerous.. The radiation safety people liked it because it seemed so… conservative. But it has become an ideology “ruled by hysteria and fuelled by ignorance.” Dr. Kathy Reichs, Society for the Advancement of Education.
Dr. Tim Maloney: “Anyone living permanently in the green zone would only receive a dose rate equal to twice the rate in Colorado, where the cancer rate is less than the US average. The dose rate in the dark red regions is 1/3 of the safety threshold set by the International Commission on System of Radiological Protection in 1934. Even by today’s extreme standards, this level of exposure carries no known cancer risk.
“Anxious to impress, officials and reporters donned white suits and masks, which made good TV but did nothing for the child who saw the school playground being dug up by workers who were afraid of an unseen evil called radiation. Unfortunately, most people see their fears confirmed as fact when workers and officials dress this way. An open-necked shirt with rolled-up sleeves, a firm hand shake and a cup of tea would be a better way to reassure.”
Imagine the anxiety created by clueless officials who provided useless information, as when a school official warned parents that the radiation intensity was 0.14 micro Sieverts per hour, which was meaningless because the normal radiation level in some Japanese cities can be five times that high.
Fukushima Fear of Radiation Killed People
In 2012, UNSCEAR stated, “…no clinically observable effects have been reported and there is no evidence of acute radiation injury in any of the 20,115 workers who participated in Tepco’s efforts to mitigate the accident at the plant.”
A year later, UNSCEAR added: “Radiation exposure following the accident at Fukushima Daiichi did not cause any immediate health effects. It is unlikely [that there will be] any health effects among the general public and the vast majority of workers.”
And in an April, 2014 follow-up, UNSCEAR reported that, “Overall, people in Fukushima are expected on average to receive less than 10 mSv due to the accident over their whole lifetime, compared with the 170 mSv lifetime dose from natural background radiation that most people in Japan typically receive.”
Finally, in October, 2015, UNSCEAR confirmed that none of the new information accumulated after the 2013 report “materially affected the main findings in, or challenged the major assumptions of, the 2013 report.” However, despite these positive reports, as of November, 2016, most of the 150,000 people who were forced to evacuate still lived in temporary housing.
Dr. Jane Orient, who practices internal medicine agreed: “The number of radiation casualties from the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear reactors stands at zero. In Fukushima Prefecture, the casualties from radiation terror number more than 1,600… The U.S. is vulnerable to the same radiation terror as occurred in Japan because of using the wrong dose-response model, which is based on the linear no- threshold hypothesis (LNT), for assessing radiation health risks.”
“The BABYSCAN, a whole-body counter (WBC) for small children, was developed in 2013, and units have been installed at three hospitals in Fukushima Prefecture. Between December, 2013 and March, 2015, 2702 children between the ages of 0 and 11 have been scanned, and none had a detectable level of cesium-137.” (The anti-nuclear crowd had been obsessing about exposure to cesium-137.)
Positive reports like this rarely appear in our American press, which frustrates professionals like Leslie Corrice, a former nuclear power plant operator, environmental monitoring technician, health physics design engineer, public education coordinator and emergency planner who writes the informative and highly respected blog, The Hiroshima Syndrome.
“As long as the LNT theory is maintained, our fear of radiation will continue to damage the psyche of all humanity, restrict the therapeutic and healing effects of non-lethal doses of radiation, limit the growth of green nuclear energy, and needlessly prolong the burning of fossil fuels to produce electricity.
“In 1987, when I was frustrated because it seemed like the major news outlets bent over backwards to broadcast negative nuclear reports while seemingly ignoring anything positive, a former Press manager with a major news outlet in Cleveland took me aside and gave me the facts of life.
“He first explained that the Press is a moneymaking venture. The ratings determine advertising income; the lifeblood of the business – and the surefire money-makers were war, presidential elections, natural disasters and airline crashes.
“Turning to Three Mile Island, he said the ratings sky-rocketed and stayed that way for the better part of two weeks. In the years that followed, the media found that negative reports caused an increase in ratings, and positive stuff didn’t. This trend slowly dwindled, but Chernobyl re-ignited the ratings impact of nuclear accident reporting and proved that broadcasting the negative was better for business…
“He added that the media might someday entirely ignore the positive and only report the negative in regard to nuclear energy, and he speculated that all it would take was one more accident. Unfortunately, he was right. Fukushima has pushed the world’s Press into the journalistic dark side. My Fukushima Updates blog has lashed the Japanese Press and the world’s news media outside Japan severely for primarily reporting the negative…. A recent example concerns the child care thyroid study in Fukushima Prefecture during the past four years.
“On October 5, 2015, four PhDs in Japan alleged in the Tsuda Report that the Fukushima accident had spawned a thyroid cancer epidemic among the prefecture’s children, which contradicted the Fukushima Univ. Medical School, Japanese Research Center for Cancer Prevention and Screening, and National Cancer Center, which all found that the detected child thyroid precancerous anomalies in Fukushima Prefecture cannot be realistically linked to the accident. Regardless, the Tsuda Report’s claim made major headlines in Japan, then spread to mainstream outlets outside Japan, including UPI and AP.
“Here’s the problem. In December 2013, a scientific report was published on a comparison of the rate of child thyroid, pre-cancerous anomalies in Fukushima Prefecture with the rates in three prefectures hundreds of kilometers distant: Aomori, Yamanashi and Nagasaki.
“The Fukushima University medical team studying the issue had discovered that there was no prior data on child thyroid cancer rates in Japan, so there was nothing to compare the 2012 results to.
“Because of the furor caused by the original release of their findings in 2012, the team decided to take matters into their own hands and offer free testing to volunteer families in the distant prefectures. Nearly 5,000 parents took advantage of the opportunity and had their children screened.
“What was found was completely unexpected. The abnormality rates in Aomori, Yamanashi and Nagasaki Prefectures were actually higher than that discovered in Fukushima Prefecture, which conclusively indicated that the radiation from the Fukushima accident had no negative impact on the health of the thyroid glands in Fukushima’s children. Just one Japanese Press outlet mentioned the 2013 discovery at the very end of an article about a few more children being found to have the anomalies in Fukushima….
“On the other hand, when a maverick team of four Japanese with PhDs publish a highly questionable report – full of so many holes that it should be tossed into the trash – alleging a severe cancer problem caused by the Fukushima accident, it gets major coverage inside Japan and significant coverage by the world’s mainstream press!
“It is important to emphasize that the Tsuda Report fails to acknowledge the fact that Prefectures unaffected by the Fukushima accident had the higher anomaly rates. (Which is why the Tsuda Report is worthy of the trash heap.)
“The media might not make money off sharing the good news about Fukushima, but they are committing a moral crime against humanity by not doing it.”