Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has a well known belief that human society can be powered entirely by wind, water, and sunlight. He was a coauthor with Mark A. Delucchi for a November 2009 Scientific American cover article titled A Path to Sustainable Energy by 2030. The margin callout on that article made the following bold, attention grabbing claim:
Wind, water and solar technologies can provide 100 percent of the world’s energy, eliminating all fossil fuels. HERE’S HOW.
Despite all of his academic research modeling the hazards of fossil fuel emissions, Jacobson has also illogically campaigned against the use of nuclear energy. In February 2010, he participated in a TED debate against Steward Brand on the question of whether or not the world needs nuclear energy. Jacobson took the illogical position that unreliable power sources like the wind and the sun negated any need for nuclear or fossil fuels.
He also published a paper in October 2008 titled Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security that ranked nuclear energy as worse than coal with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) from an environmental perspective.
If you read that paper to find out the reasoning for his low ranking of nuclear in a paper supposedly focused on global warming, air pollution and energy security, you will find that he includes the effects of hypothetical nuclear weapons attacks. He puts his calculations of the emissions caused by the mushroom clouds in the debit column for nuclear energy. The fact that weapons and power are as related for nuclear as they are for fossil fuel, it is surprising that he did not include the emissions caused by continuing, routine conventional weapons use in the debit column for fossil fuels.
Since I have been aware of Jacobson’s antinuclear agenda for several years, I was not at all surprised to find that he had engaged his atmospheric modeling skills to attempt to estimate radiation doses around the world as a result of the accident. I was also not surprised to learn that he had issued press releases about his paper and contacted major news outlets like CNN to attract publicity for the paper’s scary conclusion that Fukushima put hundreds to thousands of people at risk of an early cancer fatality. Few diseases manage to scare people as much as cancer, with its known attributes of lingering, painful death.
Aside: I can count at least six family members or close friends who have died after long bouts with cancer, including two children. The memories of their withering away are etched deep into my memories. I understand fear and loathing of cancer. Not one of those deaths, however, had anything to do with radiation. End Aside.
It did not even surprise me to see that Jacobson had ignored cautions from radiation protection specialists like the Health Physics Society (HPS) and the International Council on Radiation Protection (ICRP) about using the Linear No Threshold (LNT) to predict effects on large populations of people following exposures to tiny quantities of radiation. Using the assumption to calculate a non trivial number of deaths by multiplying a very large number of people by a tiny per person risk is known as using the “collective dose” assumption. Here is what the Health Physics Society says about that application of the LNT assumption:
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.
Jacobson’s antinuclear agenda shines through in his paper because he claimed to be “quantifying” risk and because the range of his estimates did not include the full range of possibilities down to “no adverse health effects.” In fact, his paper abstract implies that the top end of his prediction might be underestimated!
Sensitivities to emission rates, gas to particulate I-131 partitioning, and the mandatory evacuation radius around the plant are also explored, and may increase upper bound mortalities and morbidities in the ranges above to 1300 and 2500, respectively.
It also shines through in the introductory paragraph of the paper, where he included the following loaded description of the accident’s releases.
Radiation from the crippled reactors began to leak no later than
12 March 2011. The radiation release poisoned local water and food supplies and created a dead-zone of several hundred square kilometers around the site that may not be safe to inhabit for decades to centuries.
The only thing that really surprised me when I read the CNN report of Jacobson’s paper was that the author had included what appeared to be an endorsement of the paper by a qualified health physicist, Professor Kathryn Higley of Oregon State University.
I followed through on my surprise about that description by contacting Professor Higley. She answered my email at 7:30 am Pacific time, which is incredibly responsive for a college professor during the summer months. (That is the kind of professor I always liked when I was in school.) I know this might sound shocking to some people, but it turns out that the CNN reporter had spun her words and provided an inaccurate summary of what she had actually said and meant.
With her permission, I want to share that conversation with you.
Dear Professor Higley:
In a July 17, 2012 CNN article titled “Researchers estimate 130 might die from Fukushima-related cancers” (http://thechart.blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/17/researchers-estimate-130-might-die-from-fukushima-related-cancers/), your name was used in the following context:
“The methods of the study were solid, and the estimates were reasonable, although there is still uncertainty around them, said Kathryn Higley, head of Nuclear Engineering & Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University. But given how much cancer already exists in the world, it would be very difficult to prove that anyone’s cancer was caused by the incident at Fukushima Daiichi. The World Health Organization estimates that 7.8 million people died worldwide in 2008, so 130 out of that number is quite small, says Higley.”
Did your endorsement of the study methods take into account the position statement issued by the International Council on Radiation Protection (ICRP) saying that using collective dose at low exposure levels to predict health effects is not appropriate?
Specifically, from the executive summary of ICRP publication 103 – The 2007 Recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection:
“(k) The collective effective dose quantity is an instrument for optimisation, for comparing radiological technologies and protection procedures, predominantly in the context of occupational exposure. Collective effective dose is not intended as a tool for epidemiological risk assessment, and it is inappropriate to use it in risk projections. The aggregation of very low individual doses over extended time periods is inappropriate, and in particular, the calculation of the number of cancer deaths based on collective effective doses from trivial individual doses should be avoided.”
I appreciate your prompt response.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
Thanks for the feedback. Here is what I emailed CNN:
Here are some thoughts on the article
1. The authors used some fairly standard methods to estimate where the radioactive material went, and how people were exposed and the doses that resulted.
2. That being said – they used calculational tools, and estimated many values that had to be plugged into their computer models. Those input values have uncertainty associated with them, and the “true” values might not be known for a while (they suggest as much in the text)
3. Because of that, I take exception to their first statement in the abstract – namely that they are “quantifying” world-wide health effects. I would argue instead that they are “estimating” impacts. Yes, they are calculating numbers, but there is considerable uncertainty in them.
4. They estimate worldwide mortality 130 deaths with a range of 15–1100, and it appears that this number is from exposure occurring over a 50 year time period (although most mortality is presumed contributed from the early months of the release).
5. They conclude that the estimated 130 deaths are non trivial. I do not want to minimize the pain and suffering of any individual with cancer, but the World Health Organization estimates (http://www.who.int/cancer/en/) that in 2008 7.8 million people died of cancer world wide. In the US alone, the American cancer society estimates that this year, 28,170 men will die of prostate cancer (Cancer Facts and Figures) So I take exception to the authors stating, in their conclusions, that “Fukushima nuclear accident may cause nontrivial cancer mortality and morbidity”. There is still considerable debate in the radiobiology community if the LNT theory is valid at doses below 1 mSv, and if the response is linear, has a threshold, or is something else altogether.
6. They do go on to compare their estimated numbers and make the final recommendation that “Nevertheless, long-term cancer risk studies should be conducted in Japan to compare with the estimates developed here as well as with future modeling studies of the health effects from Fukushima”. I believe that the Japanese are already doing this, even though their expectation (and epidemiologists in the US as well) is that it will be very unlikely for them to detect excess cancers in the exposed population, simply due to the high background incidence of cancer.
So, there’s my two cents worth. Hope it helps.
So, in retrospect I think that my nuanced response was perhaps not the best way to respond to CNN’s inquiries.
Kathryn A. Higley, PhD, CHP
Professor and Head
Dept. of Nuclear Engineering & Radiation Health Physics
Thank you for the prompt and informative response. The media sure can twist a nuanced response that honestly expresses uncertainty.
I am slowly learning to shorten my responses. But I’m a university professor. It is very difficult to make black and white statements.
May I have permission to use your unedited, detailed comment in a blog post? I have fewer space limitations than CNN does.
I want to thank Professor Higley for her informative and timely responses to my inquiry. There is a more to this story; but the key lesson that I take away is that I am even more motivated than ever to expose the fallacies and inaccuracies of the linear, no threshold dose response assumption. It is too useful as a tool of people with an antinuclear agenda. It does not even do a good job of protecting public health and safety because it has often resulted in people avoiding beneficial health treatments out of a fear of even small, doctor approved doses.
You can find several interesting articles and discussions at the following locations.
UNSCEAR – planning a comprehensive assessment, with an interim report now scheduled to be released in September 2012. Preparing a scientific report to the General Assembly on ‘Exposures due to the nuclear accident following the Great East-Japan earthquake and tsunami’
Nature – Fukushima’s uncertainty problem (Geoff Brumfiel’s column demonstrates how Jacobson’s low boundary on his estimate that is a number substantially greater than zero is being widely accepted by non-specialist observers. Within the range of uncertainty of the health effects of very low doses of radiation the HPS says there is a possibility of no negative health effects.)
Pronuclear bloggers have been busy responding to the way that the advertiser supported media has portrayed Jacobson’s paper.
Nuclear Diner – Effects of Low Level Radiation