Science Controversies and Print Edition Limitations – Jacobson versus radiation biology specialists
Last week, Professor Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, stepped way outside of his area of expertise by publishing a paper titled Worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident that claimed to quantify the number of cancers that may be caused by the radioactive material released by the Fukushima nuclear reactor plant core damage events. He is a respected atmospheric modeler who has specialized in creating multi variable modeles for the dispersal of particulate matter, but he has little or no background in radiation biology or in studying the health effects of radiation.
He has publicly demonstrated a substantial bias against the use of nuclear energy and in favor of investing trillions of dollars into an enormous shift in our energy supply system. He has computed that it would be beneficial for individuals, corporations and governments to invest in a massive infrastructure that includes millions of large collection devices for “wind, water, and sunshine”. Those collectors would be linked together by a huge new grid with sophisticated sensors and controls designed to attempt to “firm” the output of inherently unreliable, weather dependent energy flows that may or may not allow the large collection systems to provide power when needed.
In order to produce his paper, he has relied on relatively shallow searches of the enormous volume of published material regarding the health effects of low level radiation. He has found plenty of information that has confirmed his preexisting position regarding radiation and nuclear reactors. He has used that confirmatory information to develop an unjustified level of confidence that he knows what he is talking about.
He has been actively participating (contributing 6 comments so far) in a discussion thread on Mark Lynas’s blog post titled Why Fukushima death toll projections are based on junk science. He rejects characterization of his position as being antinuclear:
Mark Z. Jacobson says:
21 July 2012 at 1:50 am
Responses to Mark Lynas
Lynas: “Jacobson is a long-time anti-nuclear advocate.”
Response: This statement is not correct. Lynas confuses advocacy with reporting scientific results. I compare many technologies against each other (e.g., gasoline versus hydrogen, diesel versus gasoline, wind versus coal, ethanol versus gasoline, nuclear versus solar, etc.) and have an obligation to inform the scientific community and public about the results. Results I have reported in papers, talks, and conferences are based on the scientific findings from the studies performed, not because I have a special affinity of one technology over another. I have no financial interest in any technology that I investigate.
His position is that he applied the Linear No Threshold (LNT) dose response assumption and that all of the research that he has done indicates that it is accepted science that is applicable to the model that he created. He also disputes the fact that the doses associated with Fukushima should be classified as low.
In addition, our cancer death range (15-1300) effectively accounts for not including the LNT at the low end. Mr. Lynas would prefer we report only a low estimate, and ignore the high estimate, which is not scientific. Also, Fukushima is not a case of low doses accumulated over a long time but of acute emissions, with most impacts over one month.
I have also been participating in the discussion on Lynas’s post. When I pointed to the cautions provided by the Health Physics Society’s position paper titled Radiation in Perspective about applying the LNT to calculate effects of radiation that are near normal background levels, Jacobson demonstrated that he does not understand how normal background radiation varies around the world. He also does not seem to understand how to convert from a measurement like a micro Bequerel/cubic meter to an effective dose.
Mark Z. Jacobson says:
23 July 2012 at 7:07 am
Rod Adams (citing Health Physics Society): “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.” My real challenge with your work is that the range of outcomes that you published did not include the possibility of zero adverse health effects.”
Response: Figure 1 of our paper at http://www.stanford.edu/group/efmh/jacobson/fukushima.html shows from data at 8 locations between Japan and the U.S. east coast that the concentrations of Cs and I were both 3-8 orders of magnitude above the background levels, so this quote does not appear to apply to these data.
Below is a screen shot of the Figure 1 that Jacobson mentions.
I do not claim special expertise on the health effects of low level radiation, but I have read dozens of papers on the topic in the past few years. Those papers have indicated that there are serious challenges to the politically accepted notion that all radiation, even down to a dose of zero, carries a hazard worth worrying about.
I’m a member of a small private email list that includes a number of people who made career choices to specialize in radiation biology and the health effects of low level radiation. Some of them have taken the time to approach Dr. Jacobson directly and to offer to share their knowledge of the field so that he might produce a better, more informed scholarly work. My information from those sources is that he has stubbornly refused that assistance and has repeated cited two snippets from Burton Richter’s two page commentary about the paper.
It is a ﬁrst rate job…
I agree with the authors’ choice.
The thing that Jacobson leaves out is that Richter’s commentary spends the first page and a half commenting about how tiny Jacobson’s computed health effects are compared to the effect of the earthquake and tsunami AND compared to using fossil fuel instead of using nuclear energy. Richter’s commentary conclusion also points out that Jacobson’s paper contains evidence of an antinuclear intent; a factor that Richter apparently does not endorse.
I also think there is too much editorializing about accident potential at
Diablo Canyon which makes the paper sound a bit like an anti-nuclear piece instead of the very good analysis that it is. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has already required that the emergency power systems, spent fuel pool monitoring, and pressure relief systems at all U.S. reactors be upgraded.
Observers of this controversy need to understand that Burton Richter is Jacobson’s colleague at Stanford and that Richter accepts the LNT with reservations. His acceptance is based on the fact that there is not yet an accepted replacement. Here is what he said about the LNT after he stated that he agreed with Jacobson’s choice to use it.
The LNT model is what UNSCEAR (United Nations Scientiﬁc Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation) and the U.S. BEIR (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) committees use. The basis of LNT calculations comes from the high radiation doses received by the residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki where the effects of radiation can be clearly distinguished statistically from the natural occurrence of cancer. At low levels the change in cancer incidence is small and cannot be clearly separated from the natural cancer background. However, there is no agreement among the critics as to what the threshold should be, and, until there is, use of the LNT assumption should give an upper bound to the biological effects.
Richter’s criticism of Worldwide health effects of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident is thus gentle and couched in polite academic terms, but Jacobson is being disingenuous by selectively and repeatedly quoting the two most positive sentences in the two-page commentary.
A. David Rossin, a past president of the American Nuclear Society, shared a letter he wrote to a reporter from SCIENCE about the controversy. Though he has personal contacts at the magazine and his opinions carry some weight, this is the response that he received from the writer assigned to the task of describing the controversy generated by Jacobson’s paper.
Unfortunately, I am going to have to sum up this controversy for the print edition in about 250 words. I had wanted to do a longer piece, but the editors don’t think many scientists will take the Jacobson paper very seriously. I’m sorry to have led you to put so much effort into this.
Since Atomic Insights has fewer space limitations than SCIENCE, and since the audience here is often willing to read more complex and nuanced pieces in order to gain real understanding, I have obtained Dave’s permission to publish the entire letter. I am going out on a limb a little to provide links to the supporting material mentioned in that letter so that you have a more complete understanding of why at least one radiation health expert has taken serious issue with Jacobson’s work and its implications.
1) That number of cancers that the LNT gives as an upper bound is still a meaningless number. It is a calculatable number extrapolated from A-bomb data, but although it has been used a lot, it is still meaningless. That has been one of the hardest things to communicate, maybe because it is so easy to calculate.
2) Why is it wrong? Because it does not consider the recovery process. Recovery is just as much a part of the risk calculation as is the incidence of damage from the ray itself. But it is not done. First, it would take real effort and detailed calculations. I mentioned a couple of examples that involve collective dose. That meaningless concept also implies that there is no recovery process. If that were so, we’d all be dead at an early age.
3) This is no secret! The science is nothing new. [That is one reason I do not want to use the word “inexperienced” to describe Prof. Jacobson. It is just a different field of inquiry, one in which he has not participated and is not familiar with developments over the past decades.]
When I first got into the radiation damage field, I had been working on reactor shielding design at Argonne. We were concerned about radiation damage to LWR pressure vessel (PV) walls after several decades of heavy neutron irradiation. There was published literature on radiation embrittlement of steel, and also Naval Reactors experience which was not easily accessible for us. But there was a problem: the correlation of neutron flux data from experiments to the damaging flux at a PV wall did not exist. A number based on simple shielding-type calculations was all we had. I asked the Naval research Lab people where they got the numbers they were using. They said that they just asked the operators of the research reactors. Their numbers came from shielding calculations that were done by the core designers. So did PV flux estimates provided by the commercial reactor core designers. This led to a multi-lab effort. Long story.
You might not be able to bring up the attachments of Jerry C (ret. AECL) first 2 above. But you can get an idea from the thread of our messages. I scanned some of these pages and will attach them. The first are from a President’s Session at the ANS meeting in Chicago last month. Packed house. Jerry Cuttler had organized it and published an inch-thick proceedings paperback.
5. The 3-page Black Swan piece is by Rockwell. Ted was Rickover’s shield designer for the Nautilus. He prepared “The Shielding Design Manual”, a classified report I was able to used years later at Argonne. Ted does not pull punches. He believes that use of LNT and scare actions around Fukushima are criminal. He says that forcing people to live in misery to avoid a non-existent radiation risk is criminal.
6. I believe that the Commission report (chaired by K. Kurokawa) was written to please activists, politicians and the media. It talks about shared responsibility and then dumps on TEPCO. The media-driven distrust of TEPCO undermined the ability of the public to learn from the accurate report TEPCO did issue. (I have checked the TEPCO website every day for the past 15 months.)
7. The others are from Henriksen’s book. First, page 32, which illustrates that Cs-137 activity, the main contributor in Jacobson’s calculations and the main long-term concern in the Fukushima area, can be measured, but also, it is not all from “shine” from airborne particulate. Some soaks in to the ground and groundwater, and at Chernobyl into sheep milk and meat. He has added a couple of pages 147–148 on Fukushima.
8. In a chapter called “Cellular radiation damage and repair,” Henriksen gets pretty scientific along with some graphic explanations. Ignore the graphs on pages 221 and 223. But the text is pretty clear and useful.
Dr. Jerry Cuttler has developed a focused set of statements that attempt to summarize the complex topic of the health effects of low level radiation in a way that is as easy to communicate as the Linear, No Threshold dose response assumption. However, this set of statements is more valuable because it more accurately reflects the knowledge we have gained by intensely studying radiation and its effects on human biology for more than 100 years.
Our major communication problem is our failure to inform everyone of the following three facts:
1. There is an enormous rate of spontaneous (endogenous) DNA damage that is occurring naturally, which required the evolution of the very powerful cellular defences that every person has.
2. The rate of additional DNA damage caused by low-level radiation is relatively very small—millions of times less!
3. The effect of low-level radiation is stimulation of these defences—a beneficial effect. High-level radiation has the opposite effect.
(Note: Dr. Cuttler is Canadian and spells “defense” differently than we do in the US.)
Dr. Cuttler has also shared the below graph from an article by Pollycove and Feinendegen which puts numbers on the ratio of metabolic DNA damage (from simply living) to the radiation DNA damage from a background of 10 mGy/yr (mGy/yr – milli Gray per year). (Though there are some complications in the conversion factors, a reasonable interpretation is that 10 mGy/yr = 10 mSv/yr = 1 rem/yr)
Some people in the general population have been exposed to radiation doses as a result of the Fukushima core damage events. Only the most exposed people have been exposed to enough material to give them dose rates of 10 mSv/year. Though the Linear No Threshold dose response assumption can be used to calculate a “non trivial” (Jacobson’s words) number of cancer deaths over the next 50 years, the reality is that the DNA damage done by radiation at those low levels amounts to less than one millionth of the damage done by normal metabolic processes.
Attributing a death toll to Fukushima is thus simply a statistical exercise in mathematics and modeling that has no physical meaning and will not result in any attributable body counts.
Any action to shut down nuclear power plants or to slow their development that claims radiation releases from Fukushima as the justification is thus guaranteed to result in more harm to people. The health risk of the replacement power sources are inevitably worse than the health risk from any conceivable event, even a really bad one that causes nuclear reactor core damage in three reactors at the same time. The layers of material between the core and the public are sufficiently robust to provide acceptable protection.
Finally, I want to avoid any misinterpretation of the effort to revise the way that the world views the Linear No Threshold dose response assumption. The people with whom I correspond are mostly retired and have no on-going relationship with the nuclear industry. The industry, including most of the people with whom I work in my day job, is okay with accepting the LNT as a workable basis for regulation and does not really mind the added costs that it imposes.
For most nuclear industry participants, nearly all of the costs can be passed to customers as “prudent” expenses. My personal motive for spreading the word the LNT is political, not scientific, is based on my love of the truth and my desire to enable nuclear energy technology to spread widely so that it can make life better for a vastly increased portion of the human population.
William Tucker (Nuclear Townhall) – Amazing What You Can Do With ‘No Safe Dose’
Nice collection here. I hope that my comment shows up before Bob Applebaum’s first, as I expect he’ll show up shortly. He did seem to disappear from the comment string under Mr. Rockwell’s “Black Swan” post, particularly in not responding to my mention of his omission of any discussion of DNA repair mechanisms in all of his supremely confident assertions about his knowledge, intertwined with his accusations of an existence of a hormesis cult.
“Attributing a death toll to Fukushima is thus simply a statistical exercise in mathematics and modeling that has no physical meaning and will not result in any attributable body counts.”
That’s the bottom line. Clearly any attempt to do a meaningful risk analysis over radiation released by the Fukushima incident is a practical impossibility that only gets worse as the distance from the event grows. Any reasonably educated person with a basic grounding in science can see this. Consequently the only reason that these ‘studies’ are being floated is to produce antinuclear propaganda to frighten the ignorant. It is telling that the authors of these papers are not considered experts in the field. I suspect that anyone who is would not risk damaging their careers getting involved in such a farce.
However the WHO has announced it plans to release one in 2013, after it has had enough time to carefully weight all the inputs and how this can be calculated.
The outcome of how this will presented by the antinuclear crowd is of course is 100% predictable : “The WHO needed an inordinate amount of time to produce this rapport because it first had to silence and coerce all the involved physicians into producing a number that would satisfy the nuclear industry” 🙁
And how does he account for the potential health effects of the results of Increased fossil fuel, Higher cost electricity, decreased employment, and reduced wealth. Read
http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/amid-energy-shortages-a-record-first-half-trade-deficit-for-japan/2012/07/25/gJQA0cpK8W_story.html How many years longer can Japan survive without nuclear power? What is their death tool due to the lack of reliable electricity?
Rod – thanks for this post. The question that jumps into my mind is how did this paper get past the journal’s referees and into print? Coupled with the appalling 250 words for a “summary of the controversy” – that seems to me a dereliction of duty on the part of the journal. Especially when it’s certain that the paper will become a standard part of a reporter’s “research kit” for mindless quoting when faced with a deadline.
In safety assessment of geological repositories it is not unusual to apply assumptions that are known to be incorrect since they over-predict radiological consequences in a “conservative” fashion. This is because many important parameters in complex natural systems are almost impossible to measure directly or accurately, and in some cases it is not even clear that what is being measured is actually representative of what you think it is. There is therefore much discussion concerning what is, and what is not, conservative in safety assessment calculations. It also might be added that knowingly applying false assumptions in this manner, while perfectly acceptable in engineering risk methodology is not strictly scientific. Actually, a famous chemist and co-discoverer of Medelevium put this more bluntly in a 2003 paper stating that “conservative values based on incorrect models are not conservative, they are incorrect”. While I’m not competent to comment on the epidemiological calculations in the paper, my understanding is that the LNT model falls squarely into the category of conservative assumptions. The key is to understand the impact of those assumptions and to be able to argue a safety case in a cogent and rational fashion given that over-conservatism can skew risk indicators, which if taken to absurd levels can result in poor engineering choices or policy decisions.
In a recent safety assessment of a proposed deep geological repository for spent nuclear fuel in Sweden, dose calculations were made of naturally occurring radionuclides in groundwater at the site following the same methodology as the compliance case study (http://bit.ly/LPdVnz, pp. 124-125). Sweden has a granite dominated geology, so uranium occurs naturally at an activity level of about 50 Bq/kg of rock. Even with some reasonably conservative assumptions, the mean effective dose rate from naturally occurring uranium series isotopes (i.e. U238, U234, Ra226) was estimated to be roughly 40uSv/y in groundwater discharge to streams and water courses. This is about 200 times the level estimated for the peak anthropogenic dose (sum of all radionuclides) in the regulatory compliance case for a one million year period. Radon was not directly included in the calculations since being a gas it could be reasonably assumed to dissipate from surface water relatively quickly (although drinking water sourced from wells drilled in granitic rock should probably be well-aerated before drinking on a regular basis). If it were to be included, the Rn222 activity in the discharged groundwater would be about 85 times higher than the next most important radionuclide Ra226. An important caveat is that this is not an average dose to a population, but to “a representative individual in the population that is exposed to the greatest risk”. These calculations were not made to be able to say that the anthropogenic impact can be arbitrarily discounted (assumptions can always be questioned), but merely to provide a context for the risk metrics implied by the safety assessment methodology.
It is interesting to note that the time series data shown in Figure 4 in the Hoeve & Jacobson paper for Cs137 ground activity (an approximately decaying pulse input) for Japan over the first month appear to be roughly 7-8 times greater (if I read the Figure correctly) than the expected amount of Ra226 activity discharged continuously from groundwater over the same period of time in a typical coastal landscape dominated by granitic geology. The peak for the US appears to be approximately in parity with this estimate (ca. 0.33 Bq/m2). I don’t think that the fact that levels of I131 and Cs137 activity being 3-8 orders of magnitude above the background level is particularly relevant since they do not occur naturally and the background levels are essentially residues from atmospheric nuclear testing in the 50’s and, of course, Chernobyl. In the Swedish study cited above, the landscape dose factor (Sv/Bq) for Ra226 was roughly 30 times higher than that for Cs137 (http://bit.ly/M9Esxr, Table 4-1, pp. 38), so on a directly comparable dose basis, the impact of the Cs137 should be even less than that of the naturally occurring uranium series isotopes.
There’s increasing awareness of the observations consistent with radio-hormesis, now almost to the point at which someone who would attempt to pass themselves off as knowledgeable in the field of radiation health physics cannot easily get away with simply ignoring the phenomena. We should encourage and promote more work like that being done by Edward Calabrese at UMA and Jacquelyn Yanch at MIT and at WIPP in NM. This is potentially some of the most important biological research being done today. The DOE, NIH, CDC, & NAS should all be sponsoring additional research into this potentially revolutionary field at multiple research universities and national labs.
Apart from that I don’t see this Jacobson paper serving as any big rallying cry from the usual suspects. As Richter pointed out, the upper bound of Jacobson’s worldwide Fukushima mortality figure is still an order of magnitude less than what the NAS pegged as the annual coal mortality toll in the US just a couple years ago. Perhaps the big take away should be than even using LNT models fission remains remarkably safe under the most extreme accident scenarios that are physically possible. The NRC should be pressed to justify and encouraged to continue to revise downward any “prompt” fatality projections from its PRAs.
Back in the 70s the UCS released with great media fanfare their criticism of the (absurdly inflated) official risk estimates produced by the NRC. The late Bernard Cohen observed that even granting UCS’s own numbers the risk from nuclear energy was still substantially less than not only all fossil fuel alternatives but also less than from the electricity itself that would in any case have to be generated.
I see no reason to concede any ground on this issue. Jacobson’s paper is just plain wrong and gives inaccurate numbers.
The radiation released at Fukushima, described by professional antinuclear activists like Arnie Gundersen as worse than Chernobyl and by others as a catastrophic nuclear accident that will create dead zones that last virtually forever, did not kill anyone and should lead to very few isolated areas being declared off limits for human habitation. (Plants and animals will thrive because even there the radiation is not at levels that are actually hazardous.)
I will grant that radiation, at levels that greatly exceed about 100 mSv/year, is dangerous and worthy of cautious handling. I grant that humans in a nuclear era need better training about how to use “time, distance and shielding” to protect themselves from hazardous doses. They do not, however, need to worry at all about the doses they receive from routing power plant operations – even at the reactor site itself – and they do not need to worry about the doses that they might receive from even the worst accident that has any probability of occurrence.
The US NRC’s State of the Art Reactor Consequences study should be widely distributed and discussed. It puts the lie to the assertion that nuclear energy is a public safety hazard.
Please do not get me wrong. I live and breathe reactor safety, but I am certain that we have implemented acceptable and reliable solutions to the major issues that produce any public risk.
I’m quite sure the areas around Fukushima will be resettled far sooner than is currently envisioned. Evan at Chernobyl the natural habitat within the “exclusion zone” is far healthier than it was before the accident or the land outside the zone. It is not entirely inconceivable if radio-hormesis is validated by additional research that the new risk models would show net health benefits in the wake of (increasingly improbable) nuclear accidents, e.g. there will be ~30k fewer cancers within the fallout region and real estate values will go up!
Comments are closed.
Recent Comments from our Readers
The Clinton Nuclear Plant also in Illinois was shutdown essentially for almost 2 years before it was taken over by…
Good Podcast – Very informative One thing that was not discussed is how to deal with a particular fear that…
Renewables people are masters in marketing. Unreliable intermittent generators whose output is all over the place, and usually badly correlated…
Looking at their lineup, Westinghouse seems bound and determined to keep Gen IV in its “place” which is apparently the…
So they are developing a scaled down version of the AP1000, which is a scaled up version of the AP600,…