A friend tweeted a link to a terrific satire titled Roentgen Shrugged that was published in the March 2011 issue of Health Physics News. The piece describes what might happen to modern medical care in the foreseeable future if the radiation protection guild keeps ratcheting down allowable radiation dose exposure levels to an ever more absurd number.
Aside: The satire works best if you have read Atlas Shrugged and if you happen to have some familiarity with the Health Physics profession. There is a reason why the piece appeared in the Health Physics News and not in the New Yorker. End Aside.
I have less experience with medical uses of radiation, so I will focus on the effects that the ratcheting down of dose limits has had on nuclear energy production.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when the allowable occupational dose rate was 50 mSv (5 Rem) per year. No studies showed any excessive risk from maintaining that dose limit; in fact, there were studies that indicated that it was a conservative number. That makes sense to me; the early practitioners did not have as much information about the health effects of radiation as we have today so they picked a number that they were confident would provide adequate protection.
If that dose level is safe enough for radiation workers, it is probably also safe enough for the rest of humanity. We all have the same kinds of naturally evolved defenses against radiation exposure.
However, instead of using increased knowledge to gradually adjust the level to higher safety levels, the radiation protection profession determined that it would be more “prudent” to do everything possible to reduce the individual limits and the total exposure to worker populations. They described the official goal as ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable), but then defined “reasonable” to include heroic efforts with virtually no limit on cost per unit reduction in dose. The radiation protection community did everything in its power to defend the Linear, No-Threshold dose response assumption because it allowed them to assert that there is no such thing as a perfectly safe radiation dose.
Unbelievably to me, one member of that community actually posted a comment on a previous post here that asked me to worry about an increased risk of 0.001% because if you multiply that tiny number by the world’s population…
As a former submariner and USNA graduate, I think that a part of the unreasonableness that became a part of ALARA programs can be attributed to the competitive, type A geeks who tend to enter the nuclear profession. We achieved safe nuclear energy operations a few decades ago. As some of us continue to say, how can you kill less than zero people every 50 years of commercial power plant operations?
Since there was little new construction and there was not enough respect paid to people who sought improvements that would lower construction or operating costs, some nukes have resorted to inventing other ways to challenge themselves and their colleagues. It has become a competition within the industry to see who can achieve lower collective doses; there are even bonus systems tied to ALARA program numbers. Every honest nuclear operations manager can tell tales of heroic, costly efforts to drive collective doses even lower than they were last year or the last time the same operation was performed.
I also believe that there are at least a few people in the radiation regulation community who have more nefarious motives. They recognize that focusing as many creative problem solvers as possible on reducing already safe radiation doses distracts them from focusing their attention on ways to make nuclear energy development quicker, less costly, safer, and more reliable.
They fear any technical improvements that will make nuclear fission more competitive in the market with establishment energy sources like coal, oil, natural gas, or in the public imagination with fossil fuel alternatives like hydro, biomass, wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, ocean thermal energy, and ocean waves.
The other reason for a continued emphasis on lowering radiation doses way below what is reasonably likely to cause any negative health effect is that it allows some antinuclear activists to attempt to maintain the fiction that there is no safe level of radiation, that it is such a uniquely scary phenomenon that the only logical response is to be deathly afraid. Their self assigned task is to spread as much Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) as they possibly can in order to discourage the expanded use of nuclear energy for the benefit of human society.
I’m ready to fight the misanthropic people who insist on adhering to unreasonable, unscientific radiation dose limits. Are you?
One of the reasons that I respect rather than fear radiation is my sustained association with people who have worked with radiation over a long period of time. One of the people with whom I maintain contact is a man named Ray Haroldsen, who worked as an electrical engineer at the National Reactor Testing Station near Arco, Idaho.
He was a key contributor during the Borax series of reactor experiments and wrote a self-published book about his experiences titled The Story of the Borax Nuclear Reactor. He provided me with a PDF of that book.
On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the first electricity every produced by nuclear fission (December 20, 1951) I exchanged email with Ray.
From: “Rod Adams”
To: “Blomquist, Roger N.”; “Ray Haroldsen”
Sent: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 2:24 PM
Subject: Re: EBR-I electricity anniversary
NPR has recognized that today is the 60th anniversary of the day when EBR-1 was used to light four lightbulbs. They are interested in interviewing someone who was there or who directly knew the people who were there.
As I recall, you qualify for both categories. If you are interested in talking to a reporter, please provide Roger Blomquist at Argonne National Laboratory your contact information.
Publisher, Atomic Insights,
Host and producer, The Atomic Show Podcast
From: Ray Haroldsen
Subject: Re: EBR-I electricity anniversary
Date: December 20, 2011 9:40:01 PM EST
To: Rod Adams
Cc: Roger N. Blomquist
Concerning the anniversary of the first atomic electricity event at the EBR-I Reactor; I was not actually there. I should have been. I had been hired the previous October but my “Q” clearance had not yet arrived. It wasn’t until two weeks later in January that I was actually there. At the time of the lighting of the four lightbulbs, they did not have an electrical engineer on the job. They could have used me because there was a misconnection in the control panel of the turbogenerator and they could not get the generator into action. That is the reason that the first atomic power went to the four lightbulbs rather than the whole building. The four lightbulbs were actually powered from the exciter of the turbogenerator rather than the generator itself.
I was well acquainted with and worked with all the people present at the event. In looking over the names of those actually present and whose names were chalked on the wall behind the turbogenerator, all are now deceased except Len Koch and probably Reid Cameron. I saw and talked with Reid a couple of years ago. He appeared to be in good health and was living somewhere on the west coast. Kirby Whitham died this past year and Bernie Cerutti died the year before. There were a couple of names added to the wall after the first photo was taken. These were people who had been present earlier in the day but had gone home before the success of the event late in the evening. They were not part of the technical staff.
According to Ray’s accounts of his time with the Borax reactors, his measured radiation exposures were many times higher than current limits. On one particular day, he received more than 15 Rem (150 mSv) while he was picking up the pieces of a purposely destroyed reactor.
Though I know that anecdotes do not prove anything, please think hard for a moment about the fact that Ray had already graduated from college and been hired at the National Reactor Testing Station in time to be on the staff for an historic event that took place 60 years ago. He is still healthy and responding to email in a timely and coherent fashion.
In one more anecdotal piece of evidence that radiation is no where near as dangerous as some want us to think it is, I also exchanged email with Len Koch just this morning. (Len is mentioned above as having been on the EBR-1 team on the day the four light bulbs were lit)
Wade Allison testimony to UK Parliament Risk Perception and Energy Infrastructure