|The Week That Was
March 29-April 4, 1999
Opposition is growing to the fear of cancer risk from minute dose of radiation (and chemicals) -- and we are doing our part to bring sanity to this issue.
The Advisory Committee on Nuclear Waste (ACNW) of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) met last month to discuss a report of the congressionally chartered National Council on Radiation Protection (NCRP). In a 1996 letter to the NRC, the ACNW had warned that NCRP should impartially consider evidence they had long neglected. However, the current NCRP report repeats the errors of the past and reaffirms their long-standing policy premise that "a dose of ionizing radiation, however small, has associated with it a risk of eliciting a deleterious biological response" -- generally translated, "a single gamma ray will give you a fatal cancer."
The perpetrators of this myth hate to see it described this way, but they are unwilling to deny it. They also cling to the notion of "collective dose," meaning that if a million people each receive a trivial dose of radiation (say 1/1000th of a lethal dose), then in that group of people, 1000 will die.
Far from avoiding this embarrassing and unscientific argument, the Department of Energy in June 1997 issued a gratuitously inflammatory press release saying that in shipping shielded casks of radioactive wastes, the tiny amounts of radiation hitting bystanders along the way will end up killing 23 people. They justify this statement by arguing that many thousands of people in that crowd of bystanders will naturally die of cancer from other causes, and so "you will never see the additional 23." (Let’s see how this one flies with the Senate bill to set up nuclear spent fuel storage in Nevada [TWTW March 15]). Ted Rockwell, a SEPP contributing scientist, countered that you can't justify 23 murders in such a cavalier manner. "If I really believed that such small amounts of radiation are hazardous," said Rockwell; "I'd be marching with Greenpeace." And live in an underground cave where the (nuclear) cosmic radiation is weaker?
The fact is that there is an enormous body of evidence showing that small amounts of radiation are likely to be beneficial, stimulating the body's defense systems -- like the toxins in vitamin pills, which are poisonous in large amounts but in small quantities are essential to good health. However, if this evidence were accepted by policy-making bodies, the whole vast industry of researching and remediating harmless levels of radiation would be in question. When Rockwell found that none of the researchers who have developed this evidence over the decades were invited to testify about NCRP's failure to consider relevant data, he talked his way onto the agenda. He and Jim Muckerheide, president and founder, and Myron Pollycove, chairman, of Radiation, Science & Health, Inc. (RSH), an international organization of knowledgeable radiation health-effects scientists, managed to get across a few points at the hearing last month, although the Committee clearly would have been happier if they had stayed home.
A case in point is a review paper by Professor Bernard Cohen, just published in the journal Technology. Cohen disputes the validity of the “Linear-No Threshold” hypothesis in radiation carcinogenesis. His data on lung-cancer incidence versus exposure to Radon show a clear threshold, below which radiation may actually be protective against cancer. He concludes that the LNT hypothesis fails badly and grossly exaggerates cancer risk of low-level radiation.
[BTW, the whole issue (vol.6, no. 1, 1999) of Technology [formerly Technology: Journal of the Franklin Institute] is devoted to “Human Health: Science-Based Nutrition, Public Health, Environmental Protection, and Technology Assessment.” It is intended as a tribute to Fredrick J. Stare and Elizabeth M. Whelan, founding members 25 years ago of the American Council of Science and Health (ACSH). It contains nearly 50 papers in 292 pages, all of them worth reading.]
A more striking example: The Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred just 20 years ago as a result of human error in attempting to override the automatic safety system. It was blown out of proportion by the media, when egged on by anti-nuclear activists. A year later, the President’s Commission reported that the extra radiation dose for persons within 50 miles of the TMI reactor amounted to about 1% of the amount absorbed each year from all other sources: “The radiation doses received by the general population… were so small, that there will be no detectable additional cases of cancer…” Indeed, latest studies confirm that no excess cases of cancer had resulted. In 1996, the US District Court of Pennsylvania dismissed 2,100 lawsuits based on claims of health problems due to the TMI accident.
The accident did have a crippling effect, however, on the US nuclear industry; no company or public utility has ordered a reactor since. Public fear of nuclear energy is still rampant among non-experts. College students and members of the League of Women Voters rank it as the top hazard riskier than smoking cigarettes. Scientists, on the other hand, place it as No.20, well below X-ray exams, bicycling, and swimming.
If LNT loses out for radiation, it may also lose out for chemicals. It would be a new ball game for regulators and for those poor little mice and rats that give their lives for a safer world some say. See you next week…