A recent post on Nuclear Town Hall titled WILLIAM TUCKER: At Last, Some Common Sense on Fukushima generated some passionate reactions by some of my corresponding associates who study radiation health effects. Here is the particular passage from that post that lead to the comments I want to share with you.
What does this suggest? Muller shuns the “hormesis” hypothesis – the theory that low levels of radiation actually inoculate people against cancer by stimulating the body’s defense mechanisms. That idea is not yet widely proven (although there’s lots of supporting evidence) and it’s a little bit too much for the public to swallow right now. You can’t talk hormesis without sounding like a zonked-out weirdo who’s been brainwashed by the nuclear industry.
Ted Rockwell, who was troubleshooter at Oak Ridge during the Manhattan Project and later served as Admiral Rickover’s technical director when Naval Reactors developed the first nuclear powered submarine (USS Nautilus) and the first commercial light water reactor (Shippingport) provided the first comment. In other words, he is not only deeply experienced in nuclear energy and its associated radiation, but he is also a rather mature 90 years old.
I’m really frustrated! I’ve been involved with radiation protection since I edited The Shielding Manual in 1956. And with radiation, since I wrote “Frontier Life Among the Atom Splitters” for the SatEvePost (Dec 1, 1945). Continuously since then, I’ve been told that we should never mention hormesis, never try to tell people that radiation behaves like everything else in the world: a little is beneficial, too much is harmful. Like sunshine, like exercise, like all those nasty poisons in our daily vitamins. I’ve been writing, and lecturing, and talking to the person next to me on the airplane. And I’ve never met anyone who had trouble understanding or believing that simple concept. Yet “the experts” keep proclaiming that, although we all understand and believe it ourselves (how can you deny the data?), we shouldn’t try to tell it to the public or the Congress or the media.
It’s time to knock off that destructive behavior. Its only function is to protect persons who believe their job depends on scaring people. Radiation protection is an honorable function, and done right, it can help us find ways to operate more profitably, not less. But we in the nuclear community have continually bad-mouthed ourselves and our profession. It’s time to stop it.
There is a vast body of good scientific evidence that in the dose range of interest, more radiation is beneficial. But a great deal of effort has gone into hiding that fact. The relevant policy-setting reports like NCRP-136 and -121 concede that the data demonstrate hormesis, but they recommend it would be “prudent” to assume the opposite. It’s not science, but a strange sense of prudence, that leads people to want to hide hormesis.
As James Muckerheide documented years ago, “There Has Never Been a Time That the Benefits of Low-Dose Ionizing Radiation Were Not Known.” T.D. Luckey’s canonical works on Radiation Hormesis in 1980 and 1991 documented some 3000 cases of hormesis. Sakamoto, Hattori and others have been healing people with half-body irradiation. The literature covered in the 2012 ANS President’s Special Plenary published a 200-page summary report on the subject. The most important news about the terrifying subject of nuclear radiation is that it’s good for you. When do we lift the ban on telling people that?
Ted’s hard hitting approach drew several interesting responses. I’m still working to get permission to publish more of them, but here is a sample from Bill Sacks. Bill is a physicist turned radiologist who is now retired. He has spent the past few years studying global warming, nuclear energy, and the beneficial biological responses to low level ionizing radiation. He has coauthored a number of articles including Nuclear Energy: The Only Solution to the Energy Problem and Global Warming.
Bravo, Ted. Hear, hear!!
Couldn’t agree more. In my humble opinion it’s really stupid and self-defeating to refrain from telling one aspect of the truth (hormesis) in order to get people to accept another aspect of the truth (only nuclear can solve our energy and global warming problems). Particularly since it is easier to accept the latter if one can understand the former.
Granted that emotions (in this case fears) take precedence, under certain circumstances, over cognition, but that’s not a reason to refrain from trying to convince people first of the cognitive elements and then deal with the fears on another level. The latter becomes that much easier once the cognitive issues are broached. One circumstance under which fear predominates is when we leave the story to the media. Their job is not to tell the truth but to sell papers or TV ads or take other paths to keep their profits flowing. As such they generally shun cognition in favor of emotion. So the truth has to be left to us.
Among at least some people on this list, and many others, there is a confusion between doubting our own ability to convince people of the truth, and watching the media fail at it. The reason the media fail to convince people of the truth is not because people won’t accept and understand the truth, but rather that the media lie most of the time. So who is going to tell them if we don’t?
If we fail to explain hormesis, which, contra Tucker, is indeed proven at least as well as any scientific concept is proven, we are letting the media win. Proof of any scientific concept always means acquiring sufficient evidence to prove for all practical purposes. It never means absolutely or beyond any possible amendments in the future. Newtonian physics was proven and yet relativity still overrode it a few centuries later. I disagree heartily with Tucker (otherwise generally very good on nuclear), who says,
Muller shuns the “hormesis” hypothesis – the theory that low levels of radiation actually inoculate people against cancer by stimulating the body’s defense mechanisms. That idea is not yet widely proven (although there’s lots of supporting evidence) and it’s a little bit too much for the public to swallow right now. You can’t talk hormesis without sounding like a zonked-out weirdo who’s been brainwashed by the nuclear industry.
The failure to explain hormesis is also based on blaming the victim, i.e., assuming that the public is too unintelligent or uninterested to understand and accept (not “swallow,” as Tucker mockingly says) something that is proven true and is definitely in their interest to know and comprehend. If the only struggles we engage in are the downhill ones, we will lose all the uphill struggles by default and forfeit ground to the liars. Faint heart never won fair battles, or unfair…
Neither Ted nor Bill can be accused of being “zonked out weirdos” and only a truly brainwashed person could believe that two successful retirees are puppets of any industry, especially since one of them did not even work in the nuclear industry but was a medical doctor. These men are certainly not alone in their recognition of the fact that the accumulated data of 100 years of studying radiation effects on naturally or accidentally exposed human beings shows that small doses of radiation have stimulating effects. (In the context of the data, the definition of “small” is surprising large – roughly 10 – 100 Rem per year.)
Final note – as I was putting this post together, I was struck by the fact that my inline spell checker does not even recognize hormesis as a properly spelled word. That says something about the success of the effort by radiation protection profession to obscure the possibility that a little radiation can have beneficial effects.