Radiation Hormesis – A Profound Truth that Might Induce a Few More Converts to Support Nuclear Energy
One of the more reliably anti nuclear groups in Canada is the Energy Probe Research Foundation. Here is a quote from that organization’s web site regarding its position on nuclear energy:
In the early 1970s, Energy Probe saw nuclear power as a relatively clean and economic alternative to coal, then a highly polluting form of electrical generation. Energy Probe became anti-nuclear in 1974, after producing a report – the first of its kind — showing nuclear power to be uneconomic.
Since Energy Probe adopted its anti-nuclear position in the 1970s, hundreds of nuclear plants that were on Canada’s drawing boards have been cancelled and no new nuclear plants have been completed. Energy Probe has also been successful in stopping the export of Canada’s Candu nuclear reactors, most of which have been sought by states with nuclear weapons aspirations – the Candu design lends itself to surreptitious diversion of spent fuel suitable for reprocessing into weapons grade material
Energy Probe is also a leading critic of nuclear power on health and safety grounds.
Lawrence Solomon is one of the primary writers for Energy Probe; his anti-nuclear and pro-gas commentary is frequent and predictable.
With all of that background, it was therefore quite a shock to read an article from yesterday’s Financial Post titled Radiation’s Benefits and to see that the by-line was no other than Lawrence Solomon. Not only did the piece have an intriguing, positive headline related to nuclear energy, but it also started with a rather surprising admission. Here is the quote:
‘There is no safe level of radiation.” For the last 30 years, my colleagues and I at the Energy Probe Research Foundation have held that view, and espoused it through books, media appearances and presentations to regulatory bodies, helping in no small measure to tighten Canada’s radiation standards. The science on radiation as published by official bodies, we knew, made clear that any dose of radiation, no matter how small, carries with it an additional risk of contracting cancer. The upshot was a better-safe-than-sorry stance: Don’t frivolously accept X-rays; take special care in disposing of smoke detectors, worry about routine releases of radiation from nuclear facilities.
This stance is now reeling. Low levels of radiation, science is increasingly telling us, are not only safe, they are actually healthful. It may be more prudent to worry about getting too little radiation than too much.
Here is a man who has made a career of writing and advising based on a particular notion of hazard, yet he is admitting that it is possible that he and his colleagues were wrong. That is an important and difficult admission for anyone to make. A lede like that demands further reading to find out what could have possibly caused Mr. Solomon to rethink his career long position. The answer comes quickly – he read a book, but not just any old book.
The latest book to question the conventional wisdom on radiation comes from Springer-Verlag, a venerable academic science publisher whose stable of writers over the years has included some 150 Nobel laureates. Springer’s book is not for the pop-cure reader, as attested to by its $240 price tag and its intimidating title, Radiation Hormesis and the Linear-No-Threshold Assumption.
. . .
“Literally millions of lives are less healthy because they have been convinced that living in radiation-deficient environments is healthy; lives are lost in not implementing effective low-dose radiation therapy to treat cancer; lives are lost out of fear of diagnostic radiation that saves lives,” writes Charles Sanders, the book’s author and a participant in radiobiological research over half a century.
Mr. Sanders makes his case for the robustness of hormesis research by citing hundreds of studies — this heavily footnoted scientific text does not make for easy reading. For those readers not interested in ploughing through descriptions of studies that often infer the effects of radiation–it would be unethical to deliberately expose a large healthy population to radiation for the sake of an experiment –the book’s real-life scientific studies will more than suffice.
This reaction from one of nuclear energy’s leading critics in an important nuclear energy supplier country shows what can happen when careful, meticulous researchers follow facts rather than adhering to conventional wisdom. The massive amount of evidence that Sanders was able to gather into a book sufficiently convincing to make Solomon begin to believe did not happen overnight. It did not happen by itself or happen because of a government program. It happened because there were some stubborn, observational scientists who kept noticing that the gap between predictions based on the Linear-No Threshold dose response assumption and reality was too large to explain without tossing out the assumption.
The science gathered over the past fifty or more years has not shown that the LNT is a conservative, risk avoidance theory that just needed some additional supporting research. The science has shown that it is a deficient assumption that actually increases risk for billions of people. The LNT theory of radiation dose response is no less dangerous that an assumption that every dose, no matter how small, of niacin – also known as nicotinic acid – carries some amount of risk and should be avoided.
Sander’s book is apparently so thorough in its detailing of radiation hormesis science that it was able to convince a man with every reason to avoid being convinced. I am looking forward to watching carefully during the next few weeks to see if it will lead to some revisions in Energy Probe’s positions and its web site.
It is a shame that such an important book will have a limited audience; few general readers will step forward to purchase a $240 research tome. More serious readers, however, should be able to get access to the book through libraries at universities, companies and governmental organizations. If anyone would like to help me find a copy that I can borrow for my own light reading, please make contact via email.
The rather impressive price of the book, however, is no excuse at all of failing to make sure that important bodies like the Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have sufficiently accessible copies to enable them to use the information to support their important decision and rule making efforts.
Just goes to show, you gotta question your assumptions, question your reality, question the questions themselves, question everything. Minds are like parachutes…they only function when they’re open.
Still, keeping in that same questioning spirit regarding hornesis, though it will hopefully change the public’s attitude about radiation, I don’t see how it changes much inside power plants, for instance. Though the evidence shows that radiation has a beneficial effect at low doses, it still is strong medicine, and exposures must be measured and controlled at more than nominal levels (beyond routine X-rays, etc.) even though low exposures aren’t a major issue. (To avoid overexposure and to get the maximumum theraputic benefit.)
Kind of like warfarin. In high doses, it’s literally rat poison. In low doses, it’s a very important anti-clotting drug used for theraputic purposes the world over.
In all things, radiation included, there is a balance, and where that balance lies is for science – reasoned conjecture based on observed evidence – to determine.
One other point, just to show how potentially deep this particular rabbit hole goes:
One of the reasons I’ve avoided writing on the topic of hormesis is because it involves human health (and I don’t want people to base their health decisions on what I might write; if I’m wrong, people could potentially hurt themselves) but also has the potential to be an extremely complex phenomenon, kind of like the kind of like how we might see the tip of the iceberg above water, but it descends to an extreme depth – and might be broader at certain depths and narrower at others.
Three particular questions indicate why I think hormesis might be the tip of an iceberg that I’m not comfortable with:
1. Quantity of dose over time: how does the scale of the hormetic effect correlate with the timing of the dose? Say a dose proven to be hormetic is 10 mrem/hr constantly, 24/7/365, for a total of 87.6 rem/year. Now, it would be very likely harmful if someone took a 87.6 rem/s pulse once a year, but what would happen to the hormetic effect if the dose was delivered in a 240 mrem/second pulse once a day? Or a 10 mrem/s pulse once an hour rather than a very slow accumulation of a low dose. Would this be
more hormetic, less hormetic, or harmful? You see how this confounds things greatly.
2. How do gamma rays at different frequencies affect hormetic doses? For instance, how does hormetic effect correlate with gamma frequency? Also, does beta radiation demonstrate a similar effect? This confounds things as well.
3. The kicker: Is it possible there are different hormetic doses for different types of body tissues or organs? For instance, say a whole body gamma dose of 10 mrem/hr is found to cause lower overall cancers, and people with a gamma dose of 10 mrem/hr are found to live much longer and healthier. However, let’s just say that the people exposed to 10 mrem/hr do develop slightly more leukemias (of the fast-growing, white-cell generating bone marrow, which is affected by radiation more than other parts of the body) and intestinal cancers (of the rapidly regrowing intestinal walls) than people in our control group even though they develop far fewer overall other cancers. First, is there a way to determine hormetic doses for specific organs and tissues? Second, could there be doses that are hormetic for some or most organs and tissues that are harmful to other organs and tissues. Third, is there a way to apply the correct hormetic doses to the correct organs and tissues?
You see how complex a phenomenon this potentially could be…and you just shake your head.
Dave – the interesting thing about this particular topic is that there will be no need for people to depend on the health advice from people like you and me. There has been real, meticulous, documented research being conducted in various places around the world on this topic by medical professionals for several decades. They have had some difficulty getting their materials published in places where the general public takes notice, but the peer reviewed journal articles exist and the professionals have some interesting recommendations to answer the questions that you pose.
I have it on pretty good authority that this topic will begin getting more and more attention from some very interesting corners of the academic and advocacy world. I will stay tuned and share more as I learn more and find more.
I was referring to writing on Wikipedia: WP is where I write…when I write stuff, where I try to be objective and have a reasonable degree of accuracy, and I try to avoid medical issues. People shouldn’t get medical advice from WP, but they do.
Not knocking WP – it is an incredible reference that bests Britannica in quality in some areas (source: http://news.cnet.com/Study-Wikipedia-as-accurate-as-Britannica/2100-1038_3-5997332.html), and in scope overall, but it is not a source to use for medical decisions. Britannica is not either, but it is more consistent in health topics.
If people live close to a major university library, it is often possible (and free) to read any book as long as you don’t take it out of the reading room.
Before we worry about how to get the maximum benefit out of the positive effects of low levels of radiation, I think it would more helpful to eliminate the wasteful and expensive policies and regulations that assume it is harmful.
Energy Probe has for years been coasting on snappy but intellectually incoherent soundbites against nuclear energy. Who knows, maybe the general outrage at Ontario’s renewables/gas policy has finally gotten EP to realize how vacuous its anti-nuke stance really is.
Not sure I’d agree that Solomon is pro-gas. He’s pro-coal and anti-wind, which clashes with the rest of the anti-nukes.
Maybe this hormesis piece signals a turn-around.
For those who haven’t seen it before, I’d just like to provide this link to Depleted Cranium’s treatment of LNT.
Yet Another Inconvenient Truth –
The man who discovered the fissionability of uranium-233, which is the fissile isotope that serves as the basis of the Thorium Fuel Cycle, is also the person most responsible for proposing the linear no-threshold model for the dangers of radiation, suggesting that even small doses of radiation over time could prove harmful. Dr. John William Gofman (September 21, 1918 – August 15, 2007) was an American scientist and nuclear pioneer/advocate and in his 1981 book “Radiation and Human Health” expounded on this and gave prediction tables for how much average life expectancy might be affected by radiation.
Dr. Gofman was Professor Emeritus of Molecular and Cell Biology at University of California at Berkeley and founded the Biomedical Research Division at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. My first job at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was to provide engineering and computer support for Dr. Gofman’s Biomedical Research Division.
Robert – can you provide any insights as to what motivated Gofman to do as much damage as he did? He was obviously a smart man with a lot of prior credentials when he began his campaign to convince people that even a tiny bit of radiation was bad for human health. There are still many folks on the anti-nuclear side who use Gofman’s credentials and popularized books (not the peer reviewed science of his earlier years) as a reason to fear nuclear energy development.
Even stranger is that, while being a staunch opponent of nuclear power, Gofman was not opposed to nuclear weapons and favored the US maintaining a large arsenal of these weapons as a deterrent.
Is anything known about his favoured route for obtaining fissile material for fission triggers? Did he support U-235 enrichment for that purpose, or was he more inclined to Pu-239 bred in weapons production reactors?
Rod – It would be a disservice for me to pretend to have penetrating insights into Dr. John Gofman and the origin of his views regarding the linear no-threshold model for the dangers of radiation. While I worked in Dr. Gofman’s Research division, I was a very junior employee working in my first real job just out of school. Dr. Gofman is a fascinating figure, to me at least, in nuclear history. Dr. Gofman made important pioneering contributions while part of the Manhattan project and later did leading research at the University of California and at LLL. After an early career as a nuclear pioneer, Dr. Gofman really did turn antinuclear and the majority of his writings from 1971 onward directly aided antinuclear forces. Dr. Gofman and his theory of the linear no-threshold model for the dangers of radiation became the intellectual underpinnings for a great deal of irresponsible anti-nuclear activism. It would not be wise for me to speculate on Dr. Gofman’s motivations in making this switch. I believe that there would be room for a conscientious biographer to sort out the development of this undeniably great researcher and the development of his thought.
It is my understanding that when joining the naval submarine service you were interviewed by Admiral Rickover, the architect of the nuclear navy. Outside that introductory interview I do not know how much interaction you had with that great officer. My situation with respect to Dr. Gofman may be similar, I believe. While my career did overlap Dr. John Gofman’s, the overlap was only on the cusps and not in an intensive fashion. I only can say that as an individual, Dr. Gofman was respected and liked by the staff in the Biomedical Division at LLNL and his leadership thought effective. It was uncommon for any of my engineering efforts in support of his program to come to the attention of Dr. Gofman unless an automated cell sorter that I had worked on malfunctioned and spewed dye and samples on the floor or a ModComp Computer that I programmed malfunctioned and started, perhaps, to spool 9-track tape. I was genuinely in love with the fascinating range of instrumentation and computer challenges I was confronted with while supporting LLL Biomed under Dr. John Gofman and his very able successor, Associate Director Dr. Mort Mendelsohn. I do, however, regret the damage done to nuclear power generation by the linear no-threshold model for the dangers of radiation. Dr. Gofman’s scholarly views became a weapon for anti-nuclear organizations in their attempts to undermine the wider peaceful application of nuclear energy.
For those without deep pockets, I see “Radiation Hormesis and the Linear-No-Threshold Assumption” is available at AbeBooks for under $100, and at Alibris for just over that amount.
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