Hormesis – Low Doses of Most "Poisons" Can Be Beneficial
As science has enabled humans to measure substances and phenomena at ever lower doses and units of measure, a strange fear has been imposed upon some people. Before those tiny quantities could be measured, those same people were blissfully ignorant of the substances that made up their world. They did not worry about coming in contact with bacteria, mercury, lead, arsenic, tritium, radon, or pesticides if they were present in quantities that made them impossible to detect.
Sometimes that inability to measure caused some dangerous situations because the substances, even though they could not be measured with the technology available at the time, were present in high enough quantities to harm humans and other living creatures. Devising methods of detecting previously invisible items was a great boon to public health.
Unfortunately, as science has enabled detections and measurements at ever smaller concentrations it has not completely kept up with determining the health effects of substances. As experimenters began to ratchet down their measurements to use prefixes like nano (10^-9) and pico (10^-12) to report results, the underlying health assumption has been a linear, no threshold (LNT) dose response or the precautionary principle that assumes that anything that causes a bad reaction at high doses will cause a similar, but lower intensity reaction at any measurable dose.
Under those assumptions, if a substance like DDT or mercury is proven to be dangerous to birds, humans and rats at high concentrations, then it is assumed have some danger at any concentration – all the way down to zero. Because the LNT and the precautionary principle do not ever reach a stage of zero risk, they lead to rules and regulations that expect contaminants to be completely eliminated from the environment.
The same assumption has been applied to radiation doses attributed to nuclear energy programs – since we know that radiation can cause death or other harmful effects at high doses, regulators have assumed that it always poses some danger and should be eliminated, even down to dose rates that are tiny fractions of normal background radiation. This assumption might have made some sense at a time when measuring incredibly small concentrations or dose rates was impossible, but it departs from real life experience once the levels approach a certain level.
There is a growing body of evidence for a dose response called “hormesis” for nearly every contaminant or physical phenomenon that we are able to measure. Hormesis refers to the fact that substances that are poison at high doses are often beneficial at much lower doses. Too much iron can kill you, not enough makes you far more susceptible to a variety of ailments. Radiation doses like those found very close to unshielded radioactive material can be deadly; the doses measured at shielded nuclear power plants, or at waste disposal sites are significantly lower than those found in the therapeutic spas that people have been frequenting for hundreds of years because they seemed to have beneficial effects.
Even Lawrence Solomon, the primary force at Energy Probe, a Canadian organization with which I rarely agree because they have a long history of fighting nuclear energy and promoting natural gas, has noticed that there is a growing quantity of peer reviewed science pointing to hormetic effects. He recently wrote a comment piece for National Post titled Lauding low doses that described hormesis and recommended a book titled Hormesis: A Revolution in Biology, Toxicology, and Medicine by Mark P. Mattson and Edward J. Calabrese, both PhD credentialed researchers at respected universities (Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and University of Massachusetts in Amherst respectively). The book is published by Humana Press; it is most definitely not aimed at the general public with its Amazon discounted price tag of $150 from a list price of $189. This is apparently a serious academic work written for a target audience of other researchers in the field.
Hormesis has some rather staggering economic implications because the linear no threshold dose response assumption and the precautionary principle have driven the cost of equipment design, operations, and clean-ups as regulators have applied ever stricter rules and limits.
In the case of radiation dose rates, the EPA has imposed a radiation protection standard on radioactive material storage sites of just 15 mrem per year for 10,000 years and the NRC has imposed a radiological criteria for unrestricted use of 25 mrem per year with a stated goal of ALARA (as low as reasonably achievable).
(Aside: As most nukes can attest, the NRC has a far different standard for “reasonable” than most people would have when it is applied to the cost of efforts to reduce radiation exposure or dose rates from contamination. Historically speaking, NRC regulators have not considered that it is “unreasonable” to expect licensees to spend tens of millions of dollars to reduce a constructed potential annual dose from 25 mrem down to 20 mrem. Recent experience at Vermont Yankee has indicated that some regulators do not think that it is “unreasonable” to spend tens of millions to find and eliminate a barely measurable quantity of tritium from the environment, even if there is no evidence of potential harm. End Aside.)
For comparison to those strict standards, normal background doses from natural sources of radiation are approximately 250-300 mrem per year and vary by factors of 5-10 around the world. The strictly applied standards have added tens of billions of dollars to the cost of clean-up at former nuclear plant sites, weapons related sites, and at proposed waste storage sites.
The resistance to accepting the possibility of hormesis has been quite strong among the professional groups who impose the LNT assumption. Even my spell checker does not recognize the word. However, the science continues to develop a greater and greater acceptability as the evidence piles up that Paracelsus was right when he said “All things are poison and nothing is without poison, only the dose permits something not to be poisonous.” When our regulators and radiation protection professionals recognize that fact and realize that ALARA rules don’t make any sense below a certain level, the world will be a healthier place with a better allocation of resources to attack real problems.
The justification for using the LNT model was that too many test animals or too much time would be needed to evaluate chronic dose rates. If the LNT model is correct, there is no “no observed adverse effect level” (NOAEL) for regulators to observe, thus officials responsible for public health can claim justification in calling for minimization of exposures to ionizing radiation. Note that this is tantamount to saying that avoiding sunlight is justified on the grounds that nobody will get sunburns in the dark. Added to this, during the Cold War a number of people promoted the LNT model in an attempt to discourage nearly all uses of nuclear weapons and nuclear power, and used it as leverage in their campaigns.
As a result the radiophobes and the politicians took a handy but false rule of thumb and enshrined it in law and regulation. The second problem, related, is that this results in a lot of stupid but expensive procedures where people and vendors can make a lot of money thus entrenching this false standard through special interests.
Health Physics and Genetics are supported lavishly by radiation fears, and Radiation Biology is one the most intensely researched science in history. Health physicists soon learned that their livelihood depended upon scaring funds out of governments and science became irrelevant if the paymasters wanted to mislead the public about the hazards of radiation. If a particular study failed to find evidence of radiation
And now to follow the thread
This comment is not only grossly unfair to the many health physics professionals, it’s not anywhere close to being accurate. The official position of the Health Physics Society (PDF) is quite different from your accusations:
“In accordance with current knowledge of radiation health risks, the Health Physics Society recommends against quantitative estimation of health risks below an individual dose of 5 rem in one year or a lifetime dose of 10 rem above that received from natural sources. Doses from natural background radiation in the United States average about 0.3 rem per year. A dose of 5 rem will be accumulated in the first 17 years of life and about 25 rem in a lifetime of 80 years. Estimation of health risk associated with radiation doses that are of similar magnitude as those received from natural sources should be strictly qualitative and encompass a range of hypothetical health outcomes, including the possibility of no adverse health effects at such low levels.
There is substantial and convincing scientific evidence for health risks following high-dose exposures. However, below 5-10 rem (which includes occupational and environmental exposures), risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are nonexistent.
When it comes to the linear, no threshold model, the HPS states that it is an “oversimplification” that “can be rejected for a number of specific cancers.” The society acknowledges that it has certain “practical advantages,” but it also warns against using the model for quantitative estimation of health risks from low doses and it warns against the abuses that can come from collective dose assessments.
Finally, the comment defies common sense. Even if the world believed that absolutely zero adverse health effects result from low levels of radiation, health physicists would still be needed to monitor, estimate, and track radiation exposure to ensure that exposures do not exceed the higher dose levels for which there is overwhelming scientific evidence of harm. So how is their livelihood in danger?
Brian – I agree with you regarding the current position of the Health Physics Society and the professional practitioners. Now if we could just convince the regulators and standard setters to adopt more realistic models than the LNT, we would be able to wring some of the excessive cost out of the system. Of course, since one man’s “cost” is another company’s “revenue” I fully expect that the clean up contractors will resist the changes and still encourage us to push clean up efforts to meet the ridiculous standards where perhaps half of the cost is aimed at correcting the last 5% of the measured dose.
Rod, can you give me a specific example of where the regulator’s (i.e., the NRC’s) limits are unreasonable or where the LNT is being abused in this way?
As far as I can tell, the main (perhaps only) contention is in what constitutes “reasonably” in ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable), and I’m somewhat in agreement there. There are many cases in which a rational cost-benefit analysis has not been performed, often because the cost has been so inconsequential that there is no point in putting up a fight. (Fights cost money.) Unfortunately, these cases have led to precedents that allow the term “reasonably” to be abused to the point where a huge cost is incurred that results in a negligible benefit.
Nevertheless, the more I dig into this, the more I realize that the LNT — and even worse, the class of professionals who are simply trying to do their job — has rhetorically been made a whipping boy for a less-than-perfect system with problems that (when the root cause is examined) have little to do with the LNT.
Brian – I’m willing to allow that the current crop of health physics professionals are not cut from the same cloth as their predecessors. However any clear reading of the historical record shows that the current state of affairs regarding the LNT came about through a less than unbiased attitude in the radiation protection industry in the past. Individual practitioners are not at fault here, and I don’t want to give the impression that I think they are, however like any other group, there is little stomach for a frontal attack on the status quo ether.
The evidence against the linear model and for radiation hormesis has been solid as a rock for 40 years. Yet the LNT model prevails and the reasons are money and politics. Failure to see that these are at the root of the issue is to stick one’s head in the sand.
The upshot of this reliance on a thoroughly debunked standard at a minimum has created astronomical expenses in the public and private sector attempting to protect the population from dangers that are not really there. It has severely limited the use of therapeutic radiation treatments and hobbled the development of new ones. It has severely limited the use of radiation to reduce spoilage in food, and to disinfest food shipments of vermin. Most importantly an unwarranted fear of radiation hazards has limited the development of nuclear energy by unnecessarily raising the cost of nuclear power plants and generating public opposition to their construction.
Hmm … can you please provide specific examples where the LNT model has created “astronomical expenses” in trying to protect the public from a nonexistent danger? I would be particularly interested in examples related to food irradiation. My limited knowledge has lead me to conclude that most of the objection to food irradiation has been based in little more than superstitious nonsense, which has nothing to do with the LNT model. These are the same type of spurious objections that have been used against GMO food, which has met the same type of unscientific resistance.
Sorry for the questions, but there have been many claims made here without any substance to back them up. I used to buy into this line of reasoning, but the more that I have looked into it, the less convinced I have become. It’s a tempting story to believe, but I have found little solid evidence.
By the way, I’m not talking about the claims of early crackpots like John Gofman, whose claims have long been disproved.
Of course all of the objections to food irradiation is based in little more than superstitious nonsense, but what is at the root of these is a belief that there is no safe lower limit of radiation. I am categorically not accusing radiation health professionals of encouraging these myths. Nevertheless ‘There is no safe threshold’, is a mantra that has been chanted for years now, and is the official policy on the matter in many jurisdictions, and those that don’t, carefully avoid refuting it.
It’s the same thing with nuclear medicine: ‘There is no safe threshold’ is being used by radiophobes to tell women that they run a greater risk of cancer from a mammogram, than if they don’t have one. Other idiocies along these lines can be found in any general search of the subject on Google.
You must try and see this for what it is: mistakes made in the past that are difficult to correct now because it is politically difficult, and any government that does leaves themselves open to political opportunists that will leverage LNT to gain advantage with the voters. And like it or not, there are companies, mostly in the remediation sector, that stand to lose money if standards are relaxed.
Yes, we know that there are plenty of crackpots out there, and radiation is not the only bugaboo that they go after.
Nevertheless, these issues have two sides. I don’t really see anything wrong with the application of a simple model at a time when there was little evidence to formulate anything more sophisticated with any confidence. I hardly call that a “mistake.”
The other side of the “mistakes made in the past” is the rather cavalier, naive attitude with which radiation was treated in the early part of the twentieth century. That, in my opinion, did more harm than the LNT model ever did, because it lead to these phobias that, in essence, were an overreaction to some seriously unsafe practices.
The LNT is a political disadvantage only if you let it be so. As a weapon, it is a pretty dull one, because current radioprotection standards have been formulated using this model. Thus, how can the LNT be used to demonstrate that the current standards are inappropriate? Frankly, they can’t.
Take away the LNT without providing a clear, unequivocal replacement — and let’s be honest, there are many piss-poor, “peer reviewed” studies out there that fog this issue — and you can no longer make this claim. I’m all for science, and I’m convinced that the LNT is fundamentally flawed, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves and throw the baby out with the bath water.
As long as organizations such as IARC keep coming out with epidemiological studies that support current radioprotection standards, you’re fighting a losing battle to get rid of the LNT model as a basis for developing these standards, even if it has nothing to do with reality. Then again, most regulatory limits have little to do with reality. All too often, they are little more than guesses posed by bureaucrats.
Brian – in the post, I provided two examples of unreasonable limits – one from the NRC and one from the EPA. The NRC limit of 25 mrem annual dose rate in order to release a site for unrestricted use requires measurements that are inside the noise of normal variations in background. The EPA limit of 15 mrem per year for the first 10,000 years at a long term storage site also implies a huge cost in system design and geologic studies.
Rod – See, it’s just as I said: you’re quibbling over the “R” in ALARA.
You’ve made up your mind that something is “unreasonable” and that it imposes “a huge cost,” but I guess we have to take your word for it, because you provide nothing to back it up.
So, please tell me, how much more does it cost to take a site down from a 100 mrem annual dose rate (the limit when a nuclear plant is in operation) to a 25 mrem annual dose rate (when the site can be used for anything … say … to build a playground for little kids)? Do you have any idea?
As far as long term storage sites are concerned, you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The real challenge is not the 15 mrem per year dose limit, but the (somewhat ridiculous) 10,000 year time frame. That is the limiting factor. The real engineering constraints are concerned with the heat load that the repository must endure from the decay heat. Compared to this the dose rate limits are rather arbitrary and academic.
If the dose limit were 10 or 20 times higher, would that make the repository that much easier (and cheaper) to design or the geologic studies that much easier (and cheaper) to perform? No, I don’t think so.
The biggest sin of the radiation protection community, and our regulators, is not even LNT, but the fact that it is selectively applied. They go to great lengths to protect the public from even small radiation doses, but ONLY if they come from the nuclear power or weapons industry. Never mind collective exposures that are several orders of magnitude higher from natural background, medical, radon, air travel, etc….. They don’t even tell the public about these risks, let alone doing something about it (the relatively massive doses from certain medical procedures are starting to get attention). Seems there’s no money to be made protecting the public from those (accepted) exposures.
If you accept LNT, it logically follows that total health impacts scale with collective exposure (man-Rem). I’ve seen many analyses which point out that other sources are responsible for collective exposures that are thousands to millions of times higher than any associated with the nuclear power industry. Even Chernobyl was a negligible contributor to world collective exposure, even in any given year.
We’ve got ~100 million people exposed to hundreds of millirem from radon, but EPA decides to not only not do anything about it, but to not even tell people about it. The reason? It was deemed “too expensive”. Meanwhile, for us, cost is no object, even for avoiding the smallest of exposures. The millions of people living in high natural background areas? Same story. Not even discussed. If one wanted to reduce collective exposure to the public, one wouldn’t even be looking at the nuclear power industry. We should no longer allow EPA (and NRC, etc..) to distinguish between “natural” and “industry” sources of dose. They should be required to establish what the acceptable level of exposure is, regardless of the source.
Brain asks what a reasonable standard would be. How about the most exposed member of the public not getting an annual dose outside the range of natural background. I would suggest one Rem/year, but 10 Rem (the threshhold under which no clear impacts have been seen) would also be defensible. If we required EPA/NRC to do what I suggested above, anything less than the top of the range of natural background would, of course, be impractical, since it would require evacuating large swaths of the country….
I agree with Brian about plant decommissioning and repository standards not costing much. After all, waste and decommissioning only cost a fraction of a cent/kW-hr, even now, with current overly-strict standards. The real costs come from high construction costs as a result of ridiculous QA standards and required safety systems. With more reasonable dose rate limits (and more reasonable estimates of the consequences of a meltdown) it’s possible that some of these onerous requirements could be relaxed. Another thing, we could (and should) get rid of the public evacuation requirement (and replace it with shelter in place plus iodine tablets).
It may be possible that these ridiculous limits are not having much impact under normal operations (although I remain convinced that they contribute a lot to high capital costs). The real price, however, occurs if something bad happens, such as a severe accident or terrorist attack (nuclear weapon or RDD). Analyses show that if an RDD were detonated in Manhattan, a large fraction of the island would have an extra ~20 millirem/yr, but the whole island would have to be evacuated/abandoned because EPA STILL hasn’t come up with an alternative to its (normal-condition) standard of 15 mrem, that would apply under such conditions. If we try to change the rules on the fly, after it happens, the public won’t go along with it. So, it’s conceivable that Manhattan would be abandoned (at a cost of trillions?) even though its dose rate remains well below that of Denver. It would be a completely self-inflicted wound.
The same BS would lead to unbelievably high (self-inflicted) costs if a plant meltdown were ever to occur. With a more reasonable (one Rem/yr) standard, under which no action is to be taken, no significant costs are likely to occur, even in the event of a worst-case meltdown. It’s these phony costs that make Price Anderson necessary…
Jim has hit the nail on the head here, and to me that validates what we’ve been saying about the disconnect between reality and regulation. In fact the very existence of background radiation shows just how ludicrous LNT is.
When life began on Earth almost 4 billion years ago, background radiation levels were five times higher than those we experience today. Life adjusted well, as it did to all other forms of energy to which it was exposed – heat, light, electromagnetic. This adjustment took two forms. The first involves the development of the biochemical systems that protect organisms against some of the noxious effects of ionizing radiation. The second that it can be shown that exposure to low doses of radiation actually stimulates repair mechanisms that protect organisms from disease and may actually be essential for life.
One thing life did not apparently do was to evolve an organ that can detect radiation. This lack of a radiation sense points to the fact that living organisms have no need to detect such a low risk phenomenon.
I’ll try to keep this short.
I agree about the claims of double standards in regulation and that the EPA does a horrible job regulating exposure to potentially toxic materials (and this is not just limited to radiation). Nevertheless, I must disagree with claim that the EPA does not tell anyone about radon.
I don’t recall asking anyone for a reasonable standard. I only ask that someone justify claims that a standard is unreasonable.
Sure a 1 rem/year or 10 rem/year limit for the total amount of exposure (background, artificial, etc.) for each member of the public sounds good, but regulating it is more complex than meets the eye. If I’m a doctor, how much of that 10 rem/year can I use for medical tests? If I own a nuclear plant how much of that 10 rem/year can I use for the inevitable, but tiny, releases from my plant? The problem with this approach is that regulation takes place at the source, not at the destination, of potentially hazardous materials.
I mostly disagree about the cause of high capital costs for nuclear facilities. The strict QA standards and redundant safety systems primarily serve two purposes: first, to protect against catastrophic accidents and then as investment protection. More reasonable dose rate limits would have done nothing to prevent the consequences of a Chernobyl-type accident resulting from sloppy QA practices and a poor safety culture.
Furthermore, strict standards pay off in the long run. Just think what would have happened if BP had installed one or more additional independent safety systems on their blowout “preventer”? It’s wrong to consider only the costs without considering the benefits. The benefits of the high standards in the nuclear industry are often overlooked because they have resulted in nothing happening.
That said, I don’t consider every safety system out there to be essential or even desirable. My point is that these systems often are useful, and more often than not, they have nothing to do with current radiation protection standards.
I agree that public evacuation requirements could be reasonably eliminated and replaced with a better plan.
Finally, I have to question the following statement:
“The same BS would lead to unbelievably high (self-inflicted) costs if a plant meltdown were ever to occur.”
A plant meltdown did occur 31 years ago and the costs were not high enough to require the second layer of “pooled” insurance that Price-Anderson provides. Sorry, but history leads me to conclude that you are exaggerating a bit.
Brian – you have me at a bit of a research disadvantage this week. I am checking email and comments via my phone while traveling. I have seen a number of estimates for site clean up efforts where the cost delta between 100 mrem per year and 25 mrem per year is a factor of two to four increase. It has to do with the law of diminishing returns. The counting methods are much slower, the chosen processes are much more limiting, and the care with which people have to clean changes your productivity and your costs.
What is the cost delta between a car wash that results in an acceptably clean car and a “detailing” job that removes all of the material on all surfaces that was not there when the car rolled off of the final post manufacturing cleaning process?
With regard to ALARA and regulatory limits, I think you have told me that you work at a plant. Are you really trying to tell me that you cannot identify a significant difference in the man hours expended to eek just a big more dose from annual totals that already show tha every worker is already WELL below the established official regulatory limit? Time really is money. I also believe that there are useful inspections that have been neglected just because they require a moderate exposure level that is well below legal limits, but above an artificial ALARA related “goal”.
Don’t worry, Rod. I understand about life getting in the way of one’s lack of a life spent on the internet. 😉
No, I don’t work at a plant, but I know people who have, and I have listened to what they have had to say. The most interesting are the ones who have spent part of their career working in good plants (the top performers) and part working in bad plants (the ones on the NRC’s watch list). It’s not uncommon for these two to be the same plant at different times under different management. These people have observed what it takes to run a successful, efficient operation, and to summarize the gist of the many anecdotes that I have heard, let me just say that they’ll tell you that nobody has ever whined their way to the top.
The poor performers tend to be the sites where management complains about and fights and ignores the regulations. They get sloppy, and the workers get sloppy. Thus, injuries and problems result. In the well run plants, the attitude is completely different. Standards are accepted as challenges — opportunities to improve organization and efficiency.
The record speaks for itself. Industry wide, worker exposures have gone down, while plant performance has improved, outages have been shortened, and costs have been reduced. The company that I work for does outage work as one of its business lines, and this work has been rather profitable in the past decade or so. These profits are the result of a better-trained, better-managed, more efficient workforce, which is able to accomplish what used to take months in a matter of weeks.
I realize that the LNT model has no scientific foundation and I know that regulations can be very arbitrary. Somebody’s going to be unhappy; that’s just the nature of the beast. Nevertheless, I just don’t see these “astronomical” costs that people keep talking about, and I think that the supposed conspiracy of radiation protection practitioners is a bit overblown.
I concur that current, low dose rate limits have not caused high costs, due to their direct impact on plant operations. However, the cost associated with a severe plant accident (should one ever occur) or a different event like a dirty bomb attack, etc.., will be dramatically higher, due to these regulations.
The amount of land area that is declared “uninhabitable”, the amount of food declared unfit for human consumption, and the amount of cropland declared ususable would be orders of magnitude higher with current regulations versus reasonable ones. We really need special limits for these situations to be promulgated, right away.
Then there would be all the bogus claims of sickness/death that the industry/govt. would have to deal with; a large number of which would be (falsely) declared real, due to political pressures. That along with pressures to spend enormous sums to “clean up” areas well within the range of background. With current reguations, the cost of an accident may well be hundreds of billions (perhaps a trillion?) dollars. This abets the notion that nuclear involves large risks, many of which are covered by govt. through Price Anderson (an “immense subsidy”).
But this doesn’t impact current nuclear power costs, right (since no accident has happened)? I think it does. The reasons for the tremendous safety system requirements and the extraordinary QA requirements are due to tremendous dread of a severe accident event. This dread is due to high projected impacts that are based on LNT, both in terms of health/death impacts and “unuseable” land area. Almost all of the “tens of thousands of deaths” projected are due to very large numbers of people getting low doses (within background). If there was, say, a one Rem/yr cutoff, under which no impacts were assumed, it’s not clear any public deaths would be projected. After all, it’s not as if they’ve been able to find many at Chernobyl, despite a release that is at least 10 times higher than any that could possibly result from a Western plant accident.
And yes, the safety systems and QA requirements are primarily responsible for the high capital costs of nuclear. QA alone is responsible for a lot. Apparently, in Finland, the (local) builders of the AREVA plant were not experienced with nuclear projects/QA. To (very roughly) quote a Finnish regulator as to the reason for the problems and overruns at the AREVA plant; “these clowns thought that they could just build the plant the same way they build other large structures” (i.e., bridges, buildings, you know, structures that would actually kill people if they failed). What were they thinking, believing that they could use the same methods, paperwork, and inspection requirements, etc..? With everything else, we don’t rip up huge amounts of work and start over from scratch over minor flaws/problems.
Careful, Jim. It’s all too easy to read what you wrote as suggesting that we should build all of our nuclear plants like Chernobyl-4, and when the inevitable accident occurs, we can make the radiological protection standards so low that we can claim that there’s “nothing to see here.” After all, wasn’t the “containment” that housed the Chernobyl-4 reactor built like any other large building?
Sorry, but I think that you’re oversimplifying a complex issue with the intent of laying more blame on the LNT model than it deserves. When it comes to the large costs for plant construction, there are many reasons for these costs, only some of which are due to public safety concerns and radiation protection standards. For example, the redundant safety systems and rigorous QA standards also serve the following purposes:
Investment Protection: A severe accident that has no health impacts (e.g., TMI-2) can turn a several-billion-dollar asset into an expensive liability in a matter of minutes. To the owner of the plant, this is far more important than public safety, since it is far more likely to be a concern.
Reliability: Quality Assurance goes a long way toward making a reliable product. Cheaper stuff simply breaks more often than quality stuff. A plant that is not running is a plant that is not generating money, so reliability is very important economically. Today, nuclear power is the most reliable means of generating electricity ever invented by man. I don’t think that it’s too much of a stretch to think that the high standards set by the regulator and the industry are responsible for this.
Worker Safety: This is different from public safety because (1) the radiation exposure limits for workers are higher than those for the public — and almost an order of magnitude higher than your 1 rem/year proposed limit — and (2) workers are exposed to all sorts of hazards that the public is not. In the US, the OSHA record for the nuclear industry is enviable. The financial sector has higher OSHA recordable injury rates. Quality components lead to fewer accidents, but more importantly, a rigorous QA program tends to go hand-in-hand with a strong safety culture.
There are certainly examples where reactor designers have gone overboard with safety systems for which I can see little merit. Frankly, I’m with Ted Rockwell when he says that reactors don’t need to be made any safer, because they’re already safe enough. Nevertheless, when I look at the big picture, I note that the majority of the effort that goes toward meeting the high standards of the nuclear industry has resulted in real, tangible benefits and is not just the result of meeting arbitrary regulatory standards of dubious worth.
Brian – I do not think that Jim is suggesting that we build and operate our plants like the Soviets built and operated Chernobyl. (As a former nuclear plant operating engineer officer who was responsible for both training and procedural compliance, I remain confused by the fact that everyone focuses on the plant design, which, though not perfect, was safe enough if it was properly operated with all safety equipment running and operators who know their job and their responsibilities. )
However, I am pretty certain that the reaction to the Chernobyl event, with the forced permanent relocations and perceptions of victimhood reinforced by both rules and money, have caused a LOT more health effects than the radiation exposure ever would have caused. Here is a quote from the WHO study of the event effects:
“The Chernobyl accident also resulted in widespread radioactive contamination in areas of Belarus, the Russian Federation and Ukraine inhabited by several million people. In addition to causing radiation exposure, the accident caused long-term changes in the lives of the people living in the contaminated districts, since the measures intended to limit radiation doses included resettlement, changes in food supplies and restrictions on the activities of individuals and families. Later on, those changes were accompanied by the major economic, social, and political changes that took place when the former Soviet Union broke up.”
What I am arguing for here is a set of scientifically defensible standards that can be used to help evaluate the real effects and actions required if there is a publicized event. You have undoubtably read some of the nonsense that has been spread regarding incredibly tiny quantities of tritium with the main basis for the concerns being the repetition that there is “no safe dose rate” even though we know there is a level at which any risk is completely overcome by all other influences. If the public knew that a certain level of radiation was not only expected, but a natural and healthy part of their environment, the professional opposition would have a lot more difficulty spreading their misinformation and making it stick in the minds of reasonable people who write news articles.
“I do not think that Jim is suggesting that we build and operate our plants like the Soviets built and operated Chernobyl.”
Nor do I, Rod. I only noted that his comment could be taken that way (obviously by someone with an axe to grind against nuclear), and it could be taken that way rather easily, I might add, unfortunately.
As for why Chernobyl’s design keeps coming up … well … the design had (or rather lacked) many features that resulted in the accident being far worse than it otherwise would have been (cf. the TMI-2 accident).
As a friend of mine who worked for B&W at the time of the TMI accident put it: until we build a reactor that has a feature whereby the operators cannot turn off the ECC pumps, then we can’t guarantee that a TMI-style accident won’t happen again. Thus, engineered safety barriers to guard against operator incompetence are essential to protect investments, workers, and the public at large.
Surely you’re smart enough to recognize this.
Assuming that the operators are always going to do the right thing is not an option. Nor is arrogance or wishful thinking. In the case of the TMI accident, the guys who made the mistakes were Navy trained.
Meanwhile, you haven’t paid enough attention to what I have written to realize that I too wish to see a set of scientifically defensible standards that can be used to help evaluate the real effects of exposure to low levels of radiation. I don’t defend the LNT model as a source for scare-mongering; everything that I have written or referenced condemns this sort of irresponsible, unscientific behavior.
My beef is with the unsubstantiated claims that tend to be floated on blogs like yours, or in the comments thereof, that there is some sort of conspiracy — or at least incentive — that has resulted in the professionals in the radiation protection business preventing scientific information from coming forth.
I haven’t seen it, and I follow this issue rather closely. The burden of proof is on you.
Brian, I worked on the technical end of aviation for over three decades. There was no organized conspiracy among those in airline maintenance to leverage safety, or from those in the cockpit, or ground handlers, but it did seem like every time there were contract negotiations, or talk of lay-offs, our some money saving initiative that would have reduced the labour burden, the howl of public safety being sacrificed to profit would come up. The screams were particularly bitter during the first wave of deregulation. You can cry innocence as much as you want, but we both know that if there were any more to rationalize radiation safety such that it would cost jobs in you industry, there would be those that would appeal to public safety no matter how justified the changes were. Furthermore the unions and professional groups that serve your sector would be hard at work lobbying to stop these changes.
Has it happened yet? Maybe not. But to say it would not is a simple insult to our intelligence. If anything your tenacious refusal to give any credence to this idea is proof enough for me that you know exactly what I am talking about.
DV82XL, with all due respect, how many years have you worked in my industry? Do you even know anyone who works in my industry?
Please give me something to indicate that you have any idea what actually goes on in the nuclear industry. So far, you have given me nothing but anecdotes about aviation safety. Big F..ing deal.
The nuclear industry is not the aviation industry.
So exactly where will these jobs be lost?
Will we need less people to maintain the plants? No, I don’t think so.
Will we need less people to do the engineering work for a fuel reload? No, I don’t think so.
Will we need less people to replace failing steam generators? No.
Will we need less criticality engineers for the spent fuel pools? Nope. The issues that are important for spent fuel storage have little to do with the off-site release regulations.
OK. I suppose that we’ll need less folks to do Environmental Impact Statements, but frankly, I don’t see that as a problem. In fact, I see that as an improvement.
Nevertheless, the modern obsession with EIS’s is not something that is unique to the nuclear industry; rather, it is a virus that has creeped in from a much larger problem in modern society. Please try to keep some perspective here.
Sorry, old fellow, but you’re going to have to do better than this. Next time try to actually make your point relevant to what goes on in the industry under discussion. Innuendo will only get you so far. Eventually, somebody calls your bluff, as I’m doing right now.
It’s your turn to pony up.
…methinks thou dost protest too much…
The only person that is digging a hole here is you, and your shrill defence tells me and anyone else watching that I have have hit a nerve. You know exactly what I am talking about, or you wouldn’t be so worked up about it.
Proof? This is not a court, and no one is on trial, this is a place for opinions on Rod’s posting on his blog, and I stand by my opinion. Human nature is what it is, and I have lived too long to believe that your industry is any different it its protectionist attitudes and postures than any other professional group. Aviation isn’t alone in what I described, it is endemic to lawyers, physicians, and a dozen other fields, and what’s more you know it. If you cannot see it in your own you are blind.
Geez, DV8. Have you ever had one of those days when wankers keep explaining your business to you and try to lecture you (incorrectly) about stuff that you see every day?
Welcome to what it’s like to be involved in the nuclear industry. I get enough of this crap from the people who work for Greenpeace. I certainly don’t need it from otherwise intelligent people like you.
Nerve? I’m more annoyed than anything else, and I’m most annoyed that you seem too lazy to bother to actually read anything that I have written. For otherwise, you would realize that my so-called “shrill defense” is far more nuanced than you have figured out. Perhaps you are just too enamored with your pet theory to bother with listening to anything that anyone else has to say. You and your ego are welcome to have fun playing with your pet. Please don’t let me get in your way. I’m sorry to have interrupted your party with inconveniences like position statements from professional societies that contradict your theories.
By the way, the actual quote is “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” (The “methinks” goes at the end, although almost everybody repeats it wrong.) In Shakespeare’s day, “protest” did not mean “to object” or “to deny”; rather the principal meaning of the word back then was “to vow” or “to declare solemnly.”
Note that if you go back and reread the play with an accurate understanding of the meaning of the words as they were originally intended, the irony in the Queen’s response is so much sweeter. She comments that her counterpart in the play publicly dotes on her first husband far too much to be believable.
You know Brian, you only get to correct people on a quote if, a) -they put the phrase in quotation marks, and b) – they attribute it. If you look carefully at what I wrote you will see that I did nether. I am well aware of the original, however this phrase has become a metaphor in its own right, simply from usage (c.f. famous non-quotations)
But the more you engage in silly attacks on me the more you confirm that I hit a real raw spot, not because you are tired of hearing it from Greenpeace, (who I strongly doubt have complained of too much regulation in nuclear matters) but because I am making you look at something you don’t like, and you know is true. If you can’t see this in the tenor of your replies on the matter, you are deluding yourself, I’m sure everyone else can.
To say that there is not an element of turf protection in your field in essence saying that the whole radiation protection apparatus isn’t doing what every other similar group is doing/has done just about from time immemorial. Well I’m sorry, I’ve just been around too long – no sale.
“You know Brian, you only get to correct people on a quote if …”
Is this exchange getting too catty and petty for you? It certainly is for me.
In Ed Jaynes on Bayesian probability theory, he made an offhand comment in the introduction to the effect that if rats had been fed sugar at rates comparable to those used in the cyclamate study, they would not have slowly developed a few cancers, but would have died immediately from diabetic coma.
The LNT theory has always been irrational. Every bite of food you ingest has many thousands of chemical compounds, many of which would be shown to ’cause cancer’ if animals were exposed to it at concentration as million times those present in the food.
The question of “What is safe?” Or the question of “What is protective?” is only addressed at the population level. The answer must be expressed as a probability. The LNT theory makes the assumption that an ionization event in a single cell caused by one gamma ray may change a normal cell into a neoplastic cell which goes on to cause a fatal cancer. This result mal occur only if immune system surveilance fails. The immune system, however, also shows evidence of mounting a protective response when confronted with increases in radiation. The LNT ignores this evidence presented by biology. DNA repair enzymes are reported to be elevated in individual living in regions of high background radiation. Also killer T cells and apoptosis show heightened surveillance against damaged cells. Cells stressed by increased radiation also produce the inflammatory response which adds an additional level of heightened surveillance. Cells damaged by chemical mutagens or reactive radicals resulting from the cells own metabolism are eliminated as well as cells damaged by radiation. The net result is that an increased level of radiation within the range of naturally occurring radaiation prevents potential cancers caused from sources other than radiation. No wonder a negative correlation exist between the level of background radiation and cancer incidence. Geographical regions with higher background radiation consistently have lower incidence of cancer than regions with lower background radiation. The LNT theory unwittingly works to increase the incidence of cancer in the population by promoting limits on radiation that are in the hormetic range.
To answer the question of what level of radiation is safe, Physiology and Medicine Nobel Laureate, Rosalyn Yalow (inventer of the Radio-Immuno-Assay) states that, based on numerous studies of radiation used in medicine, 3 to 10 times normal background should be considered safe.
“To answer the question of what level of radiation is safe, Physiology and Medicine Nobel Laureate, Rosalyn Yalow (inventer of the Radio-Immuno-Assay) states that, based on numerous studies of radiation used in medicine, 3 to 10 times normal background should be considered safe.”
So, for the usually quoted average individual exposure from background radiation of 300 millirem per year, 3 to 10 times “normal” is 0.9 rem to 3 rem. NRC’s limit for occupational radiation exposure to adults working with radioactive material 5 rem per year, which is just a little higher than this range.
Its interesting that the EPA and NRC has such strict rules on radiation protection, there are large populations of people that get way more radiation than the average nuclear worker is allowed and these people are not only, still alive without extra appendages, but they live with less cases of cancer that the local population. http://www.angelfire.com/mo/radioadaptive/ramsar.html
Read it and weep:
Americans are exposed to increased levels of radiation
“BRATTLEBORO — The average American receives 620 millirems of background radiation every year, as opposed to the 360 millirems as is often stated in the press.
The number has crept up in the last two decades, from 180 millirems to 300 millirems, then to 360 millirems and most recently, in 2006, to 620 millirems.
Two of the major reasons why the average dose has been adjusted is the recognition that radon poses a substantial threat to health, especially in areas where granite is in abundance, and an increase in the number of medical procedures involving radiation.
Sources of ionizing radiation include nuclear weapons, nuclear reactors, X-rays, CT scans, carbon and potassium in our bodies, cosmic radiation from outer space, ultraviolet light, radon gas and radioactive material in the earth
Well, the First Amendment also protects the right to make s**t up and calling it expertise. Nothing’s perfect…
Comments are closed.
Recent Comments from our Readers
I spent some time to listen to this podcast, and I still have two questions about module size and its…
Will I agree with your theory. Expensive designs are going to be expensive to build, even with practice. I would…
“And since we are seeing it in the West but not in the East (UAE, S Korea, Russia, China) is…
@Cyril R What was Tesla’s learning rate starting at the first Roadster? How much do you think that first unit…
A new engine or turbine product line doesn’t just cost triple a unit. That’d make it pointless. Yet this is…