I correspond regularly with advocates for various nuclear fission technologies; there are many disagreements about the best way forward. The advocates can get pretty passionate about what they believe to be the weaknesses of competing technologies. There are times when I need to step in to remind them that their competitive target should be the fossil fuels that supply about 85% of our current energy markets.
Most of my reminders end up reaching only a small audience, but every once in a while one of them is worth sharing more broadly. Here is a recent message about the health effects of low levels of radiation that I sent out to a group that was spending a lot of time worrying about ways to reduce tritium formation in a particular type of molten salt reactor.
Ralph: If the threshold theory of radiation dose to people were found correct and adopted for a basis of regulation rather than the linear theory that appears to be wrong, the tritium issue would still be with us but easier to solve.
Rod Adams: This is another example area where fission advocates of all persuasions should work together to recognize and then contradict the massive amount of misinformation has been spread about radiation and radioactive materials in the past 50 years.
Aside: I firmly believe that a major portion of that misinformation has come from wealthy, politically connected, powerful people who benefit immensely by suppling fuel to a worldwide economy that is habitually dependent on burning hydrocarbons. End Aside.
While scientists know for sure that a radiation dose of between 100 – 200 Rem (1 – 2 Sv) received in a brief (few seconds to several minutes) period of time will cause radiation sickness, no one knows for sure what an accumulated dose of 10 – 20 Rem (100 – 200 mSv) administered over a several day period will do in terms of altering the already substantial probability that someone will develop a lethal case of cancer at an indeterminate time in the future.
No one is absolutely sure what will happen to any particular individual who is exposed to a dose rate of 2 – 5 Rem (20 – 50 mSv) per year for a lifetime, but there is a growing body of peer-reviewed science studying large, exposed populations against control populations that shows that such a dose is statistically, at worst, harmless and, at best, a modest health boost that stimulates adaptive responses.
For decades, perhaps dating back to Herman Muller’s 1946 Nobel Lecture (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1946/muller-lecture.html), the politically correct assumption for the health effects of low level radiation has been the Linear, No Threshold dose response model. That model assumes that even the tiniest level of radiation has a negative health effect. There is no science that directly supports that assumption; but there is a whole profession called “radiation protection” that is based on acceptance of that assumption.
Aside. LNT proponents base their assumption on extrapolating a line from much higher doses. They tie nearly all of their models to the data that has been collected during the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivor Life Span Study that has been steadily funded by a small, relatively unknown office buried inside the US Environmental Protection Agency. That office includes some specific influencers that choose the researchers that get funded and that become members of the BEIR committees. Those influencers firmly support the LNT assumption and tend to filter out anyone who disagrees with their point of view. End Aside.
Muller apparently knew there was, in reality, science that had been conducted by a colleague named Curt Stern (with whom he corresponded on that very topic), that contradicted the LNT assumption based on studying the effects of low doses on an enormous population of fruit fly germ cells. That conclusion, however, did not support something else that Muller was passionate about – halting the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons. (http://ts-si.org/horizons/30988-edward-calabrese-alleges-hermann-muller-suppressed-radiation-effects-evidence-in-1946)
Many would agree that halting nuclear weapons testing was a noble endeavor, but well-funded efforts to reinforce the same invalid assumption – that there is no safe level of radiation – have been worth hundreds of billions of dollars per year for the people who fight the use of nuclear energy. That loose alliance wants society to turn its back on the advantages that effective use of nuclear technology can provide because they do not want to lose their dominant share of the lucrative energy market to the competition.
A vocal, highly public portion of that loose alliance seems motivated by preventing human society from having access to all forms of reliable, affordable energy, but I believe that segment of ideologues is rather small and powerless compared to fossil fuel pushers. You can understand why I believe that when you listen to people like Amory Lovins, Carl Pope, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., or Joe Romm talk about using natural gas as a bridge to their utopian future.
If you are interested in learning more, I suggest a search on the web for “health effects of low level radiation”. There are some terrific peer reviewed papers from people like Luckey, Pollycove, Calabrese, Cuttler, Kondo, and Rockwell.
Every technology that takes advantage of the marvelous energy density of fission has to deal with radioactive materials. It behooves us all to share as much real information about what that means to as many people as possible. We have about 100 years of intensive studying of the topic that backs up my contention that low levels of radiation are not a special boogyman that must be avoided at all costs. It is a natural phenomenon that has always existed on earth; every multi-cell organism on earth has developed ways to mitigate the damage that the energy can deposit into our DNA.