by BILL SACKS and GREG MEYERSON
As leftists who have studied the issue of nuclear energy for years, we want to reply to Robert Hunziker’s “Real Story” titled What’s Really Going on at Fukushima? (CounterPunch, June 15, 2015). It’s time for much of the left to reconsider a long-standing opposition to nuclear energy that often refuses to consider arguments on the other side – arguments that are rational, science-based, and deeply concerned about the environment and human health.
On the question of nuclear energy and other issues, all too often the left takes its position on the basis of who advocates or opposes it. If the state is for it, we feel we have to be against it – automatically and without having to do much homework.
[Editor’s note: In this case, the state may say favorable words about nuclear energy, but its actions since 1974 have not been for nuclear energy development. Liberals who reflexively oppose “the establishment” should have noticed this by now.]
If the rightwing is against it, we feel we have to be for it. If Helen Caldicott or Arnie Gundersen (both quoted by Hunziker) is against it, we feel we also have to be against it.
Hunziker’s “Real Story” is a striking example of this practice. He features Helen Caldicott as his guru on nuclear energy and radiation, praising her as “truthful and honest and knowledgeable.” He mentions other similar sources, but a brief examination of Caldicott will serve as a warning to beware of gurus.
Guardian journalist George Monbiot wrote a devastating exposé of Caldicott’s looseness with facts following a debate with Caldicott on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! in 2011. In it he uses one of the most direct methods to expose falsehoods, namely asking her for the sources of her wild fact-claims and following them up to see if they say what she claims they say. He found that they almost always say something very different, often the opposite, even when she cites her own past writings.
Blindly following gurus certainly saves us time and effort, and sometimes may turn out to be correct, but it often leads to disastrous errors with catastrophic consequences. Unless we look into a topic ourselves, and follow both sides of the debates until we can tentatively make up our own minds, we risk being sealed into the Pied Piper’s cave. Furthermore, we should never hold an opinion that is impervious to new evidence, but neither should we merely accept new evidence without looking into it further.
Evidence wins the contest against faith when it comes to scientific issues
The fundamental issue is the difference between faith and evidence. Science, when operating properly, is based on evidence, though interpretations of evidence are always colored by the paradigms we use to approach it, and paradigms often determine whether evidence is even perceived as signal rather than noise.
Nevertheless, all this means is that we have to remain open to future replacements of theoretical positions, but holding such positions, even if temporarily, is necessary for us to be able to operate in the real world. Conclusions should always be taken as neither more nor less than proven for all practical purposes for the time being. Faith has no place in science, and rather is relied on by religions, by politicians, and by gurus with effects that are usually damaging to many if not most people.
When we blindly follow gurus of any sort, the wilder and more outlandish their claims, the more credulous we become. The unstated principle that if such a claim were untrue it could never find an audience, or would never be printed, is the basis of success of the Big Lie technique.
In contrast, Carl Sagan, among others, has sagely warned that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. But eschewing evidence altogether, Caldicott wields this weapon with agility and skill. Her claim (as reported by Hunziker) that a million have died from Chernobyl is based on a report by Yablokov, et al. that was printed, foolishly, by the NY Academy of Sciences in December 2009.
The authors arrived in part at their imaginary figure by attributing every death that occurred to the radiation from Chernobyl, as though suddenly all other causes of death stopped for the time being. The NYAS has been taken to task by many of its members and has been embarrassed for its role in supporting this erroneous report by some Belarusian and Ukrainian scientists who have been soundly refuted. The NYAS disclaims approval of the report, yet they never checked on the factual claims and simply blindly reproduced it, giving a basis for the persistent horror stories spun by Caldicott and other anti-nuclear gurus.
To get some feeling for the complexity of calculations and estimates of radiation doses and its biological effects, we recommend the comprehensive book by Norwegian scientist Thormod Henriksen and a group of his biophysics colleagues, Radiation Health (English version in PDF format.) In this version the relevant portion on the Chernobyl firemen and clean-up workers is on pp. 149-167.
The number of firemen, those most heavily exposed during the first few days after the onset of the fire (it was not a nuclear explosion), who died from their exposure was 28 out of about 600. This was the largest group of deaths among either workers or residents of the area. The total figures for deaths found by UNSCEAR and other international medical investigatory organizations was around 60, which included 15 deaths over the ensuing years from thyroid cancer among those residents exposed as children and a number of delayed deaths among clean-up workers whose causes of death could in any way be related to radiation exposure. This is a far cry from the made-up figure of a million, which serves as a fear-mongering qualitatively large number and is latched onto by Caldicott and her like-minded colleagues, like Arnie Gundersen.
For his part, Gundersen has successively raised his estimates of the number of cancers that will result from Fukushima’s meltdown after the quake and tsunami from a few hundred thousand to, again, the round figure of a million. In this case, however, virtually the entire communities engaged in radiation protection, radiology, or health physics agree that either zero excess cancers will arise from Fukushima, or at worst the number will be undetectable against the background of cancers from all other causes.
Producing the arbitrary figure of a million is the height of irresponsibility, particularly coming from someone who, like Gundersen, boasts experience in nuclear engineering. But again, the larger the figure the more readily it is believed by many, who fail to take some effort to check. There is a symbiotic and dialectical relationship between gurus who, without reference to evidence, throw around fantastic figures and the kind of credulous audience that the left all too often provides and that encourages such irresponsibility.
In both cases, Chernobyl and Fukushima, the two worst nuclear accidents in the world, estimates of future deaths (meaning from radiation-induced cancer) can only be obtained through an assumption about numbers of deaths for various exposure doses. The most common assumption that underlies the grossly exaggerated estimates, even by UNSCEAR, is the linear-no-threshold (LNT) assumption.
The LNT assumption has a tortuous history dating back to the 1920s and has been shown through a few thousand (!) studies worldwide (for a partial listing see Charles Sanders’s 2009 book Radiation Hormesis and the Linear-No-Threshold Assumption and for a more complete, though more dated, listing see T.D. Luckey’s 1991 book Radiation Hormesis) to be false at the low-dose ranges to which most nuclear workers, accident responders, and nearby residents have been exposed.
These erroneous estimates (erroneous because of their fictitious basis) by otherwise responsible international organizations range only in the thousands, but never in the tens or hundreds of thousands, let alone a million. And at Fukushima, the estimate of deaths, apart from fictitious assumptions, is zero – both immediate and delayed.
To take a paragraph from Hunziker as another example: “The exclusion zone around Chernobyl is known as ‘Death Valley.’ It has been increased from 30 to 70 square kilometres. No humans will ever be able to live in the zone again. It is a permanent ‘dead zone.’” It really doesn’t matter whether a place is known by some people as “Death Valley.” The question is whether that zone is, in fact, dangerous or a “dead zone,” permanent or otherwise. It is not.
Wildlife has been flourishing there (partly in the absence of humans, but clearly not harmed by the fallout), as described in Mary Mycio’s book Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl. And many elderly people have returned to their homes, or refused to leave in the first place, despite forced relocations and governmental prohibitions. There are numerous reports (Google it) that they are getting older but are still alive and fit.
Yet many of the articles that describe their lives still, out of oxymoronic habit, use scare phrases like “toxic wasteland,” “most highly contaminated on earth,” and so on. It requires a staunch and consistent determination to check and confirm in order to resist blindly accepting such strong terminology. Scary language is, well, scary, and often persuasive, but the question is whether or not it is accurate, or even approximates the truth. The terminology of radiophobia is generally the exact opposite of the truth, as only an open-minded study of the topic will reveal.
Natural background radiation is higher in some parts of the world than around Chernobyl or Fukushima
There are places on earth where the natural background radiation is far higher than in the neighborhood of Chernobyl, and where there are no greater rates of cancer or shortened lives. In fact, often the people who live in these areas, in places like Iran, Japan, England, Finland, India, China, or Brazil, are healthier than average. Moreover, the cancer rate in the Chernobyl region is well below that of Australia, which is to say that radiation is, at worst, a very weak carcinogen.
Radiation is like virtually all other agents, both chemical and physical, to which life has been exposed during the 3 billion or so years of life on earth. It has three ranges – too little, too much, and just right (the goldilocks zone) for health. Evolution has provided us, as well as our fellow inhabitants on earth – plants, other animals, fungi, and bacteria – with defenses and protective responses to the insults in our environment, or we wouldn’t be here.
It is precisely those species of living organisms that did develop those defenses that have survived natural selection. The conventional, but false, claim that radiation is harmful down to the smallest dose and the slowest rate of delivery ignores and denies this evolutionary principle. Yet this ignoring and denialism is the basis of governmental regulation and anti-nuclear fear mongering. If the left is trying to avoid siding with the government – usually a sound approach where capitalism is concerned – this is one arena that should serve as a wake-up call for further investigation.
One of Caldicott’s more outrageous contentions – that she calls into play as a fallback position and that belies her claim to being “knowledgeable,” or to being “truthful and honest” – is that human-made radiation is qualitatively different from natural background radiation. Photons, neutrons, alpha particles, and beta particles are indifferent to their sources. As any freshman physics student knows, their only distinguishing feature is either their frequency (or wavelength, in the case of photons) or their kinetic energy (which diminishes as they travel through air, skin, or other media, in the case of particles) and not their source.
The major obstacle to the advancement of science today is capitalism, even as it has been the major spur
In the time of Galileo, when feudalism in Europe was fighting to survive against the rise of capitalism, and the church was the mainstay of the ideological branch of the incumbent system, it was the church that constituted the main obstacle to the growth of science and the concomitant attempts to replace obscurantism with understanding of reality. Today it is capitalism that constitutes the main obstacle to the growth of genuine science for the people. Indeed portions of the capitalist class oppose other portions of their class when it comes to the growth of new forms of energy to replace fossil fuels.
There are capitalist interests on both sides of this battle, and siding with one or another form of energy on the grounds that the alternatives are backed by some capitalist interest or other is not defensible. All forms of energy are backed by some capitalist interests seeking to profit. And, adding to the indefensible and inconsistent nature of such a criterion, even the fossil fuel companies, especially natural gas, claim in many of their ads to partner with wind and/or solar.
Indeed the gas industry profits greatly from the increasing use of wind and solar, because their intermittency requires that natural gas fill in the vast gaps when the wind is not blowing and/or the sun is not shining (which is most of the time when examined in fine enough intervals, less than hours, day after day). Wind and solar are currently wholly dependent on natural gas and perpetuate the very fossil fuel energy sources that they are intended to replace.
The internet has come to represent the democratization of disinformation, in which either some capitalist interests pay scientists to lie (see, for example, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt or David Michaels’s Doubt is Their Product – who, incidentally, still all buy into the anti-nuclear dis- and misinformation) or innocent bystanders write assertively about things about which they know little or nothing.
So the internet is flooded with disinformation (deliberate lies) and misinformation (unwitting falsehoods by those who have not studied but rather follow gurus), as well as science. The problem for the lay public – which with respect to any subject includes scientists who specialize in some other subject – has become how to tell science from pseudoscience.
Among the useful methods we have discovered in our researches is looking for the side in any debate that bothers to rebut and refute versus the side that when rebutted or refuted merely changes the subject and attacks from some other direction. Also looking for the side that has a coherent body of theory versus the side that takes eclectic and incoherent potshots, cherry picking and ignoring data that stand opposed to their unsupported and unsupportable contentions. An often useful, but occasionally misleading, ancillary feature is that the tone of one side is generally frank while that of the other is disputatious and aggressive.
These criteria are usually a good first approximation and can be applied even before the subject is studied in more depth. But the only ultimately successful way of distinguishing science from pseudoscience is to study the subject yourself – or far better yet, as part of a science collective – in at least moderate depth. We are well aware that people generally don’t have the time or interest to engage in all that much study, but at the very least this should temper one’s acceptance of any position and prompt one to remain open to reasoned alternative positions.
Personal investigation can lead to a change of mind
A growing number of prominent formerly anti-nuclear people, both scientists and non-scientists, have been changing their minds about nuclear energy and/or radiation, as well as about climate change, after further investigation. These include leading NASA climatologist (now retired) Jim Hansen, ecologists Barry Brook and Stewart Brand, journalists George Monbiot and Mark Lynas, the late actor and liberal environmentalist Paul Newman, and numerous others, both in and outside the public eye.
While the scientists among them may have been somewhat better equipped to re-evaluate their former opinions on nuclear energy and radiation, it was their investigative efforts that led to their changes of mind and not their credentials. After all, they were formerly of the opposite opinion, so credentials are only peripherally involved. It does not take a physicist to come to some understanding and approval of nuclear energy, just some open-minded investigation.
Rather than refute here Hunziker’s reproduced claims about Fukushima and Chernobyl one-by-one, or his claims about nuclear energy and radiation in general, we recommend starting with a piece that the two of us wrote in 2012 on nuclear energy and radiation science, placing nuclear in the context of the other leading sources of energy. It was published, among other places, on the Australian website BraveNewClimate.
In it we explain the essentials of nuclear reactors and radiation biology aimed at a lay public and show, among other things, that contrary to the anti-nuclear mantra, nuclear energy has the best safety record over the last several decades of any source of energy – by orders of magnitude. We point out that the false conflation of nuclear energy for the generation of electricity with nuclear weapons has no more validity than the conflation of fire for home heating and cooking with incendiary bombs that destroy entire cities.
We also discuss the obstacles that capitalism creates against ridding ourselves of fossil fuels to solve the global warming problem. One of us is a physicist and physician (radiologist) and the other an English professor who was formerly anti-nuclear – explained in the “self introduction from the authors” following this article – and both of us are longtime leftists/Marxists. Our essay references numerous other sources for further reading.
Some excellent sources on nuclear energy and/or radiation are Geoff Russell’s short book Greenjacked! The derailing of environmental action on climate change and David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air. Geoff is a mathematician who was formerly anti-nuclear, who writes frequently for BraveNewClimate. One of the pieces he wrote there was about Helen Caldicott.
David MacKay is a Cambridge University engineering professor, recently the Chief Scientific Advisor to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC). His book is full of easily understandable graphs that make all the necessary comparisons in order to see magnitudes in context. He abhors adjectives, like “devastating,” “disastrous,” and the like, and instead goes for numbers to render comparisons visible, a practice that is vigorously shunned by fear mongers.
His figures show that nuclear energy is the only source that can challenge the climate-changing and environment-destroying fossil fuels for supremacy in providing the world’s energy needs. He concludes his comparison of the various sources of energy – from fossil fuels to wind to solar to geothermal, etc. – with the comment that he is not specifically pro-nuclear, but is rather pro-arithmetic.
But even arithmetic and numbers have to be taken together with their qualitative and comparative meanings. For example, to induce fear in the audience a favorite method of speakers and authors is to give very large numbers. For example, billions of becquerels of radiation leaking from Fukushima are thrown around to lay audiences who have no idea what a becquerel is. It’s like describing the height of the Empire State Building in nanometers – 443 million! The smaller the unit used, the larger the number accompanying it.
Still another excellent and very readable book is one by former anti-nuclear novelist Gwyneth Cravens, Power To Save the World, in which she leads the reader through an odyssey based on multiple interviews with a number of nuclear engineers and physicists, among others.
A major useful source to correct the fear mongering and distortions surrounding radiation – in particular exposing the erroneous linear-no-threshold (LNT) assumption used by all regulatory agencies (outside of France) as the basis of their regulatory policies – is to be found at the website of Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information (SARI), an international organization of some 80 scientists, physicians, and others from 14 different countries around the world, to which we both belong. We might add that the political opinions within this group range from extreme rightwing libertarians to Marxists, with just about every other shade in between.
We also recommend Robert Gale’s book, Radiation: What it is, What you need to know. While he accepts some conventional wisdom on radiation for policy purposes, his book is an important corrective to Caldicott-type fear mongering. Gale has authored more than 800 peer-reviewed scientific papers on the effects of radiation and was one of the experts called in to treat Chernobyl’s fire fighters.
One final comment: the left needs to be meticulous in its accuracy – about everything – if it wants to expand its numbers, numbers that will mainly come from the political center. There is plenty of inaccuracy in the form of deliberate lies and unwitting misinformation coming from the right wing about many things. Do we really want to emulate that approach to reality? Because with nuclear energy, that’s what we’ve often been doing, and it’s high time to stop.
Note: The above article was initially prepared for CounterPunch, the publication that first ran the Hunziker article. The authors submitted it to Atomic Insights after several inquiries went unanswered, even though the editor was initially responsive and interested in publishing a response.
Self introduction from the authors
To introduce ourselves to our readers, we have, in the last few years, made a study of nuclear energy and other alternatives to fossil fuels, the political and physical relationships between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, and the biological effects of radiation. We are true amateurs, which means that we have an intense interest in our subject and derive no monetary reward from our efforts. But we have also transformed ourselves from being previously ignorant and/or fearful of things nuclear into moderately knowledgeable investigators in the field.
We don’t claim to be anywhere near as expert as nuclear engineers and physicists or oil geologists or pulmonary specialists or molecular biologists, but we have engaged in sufficient study, writing, speaking, and mutual discussion, as well as in sufficient direct communication with nuclear engineers and physicists, as well as with biologists and others who study the effects of radiation on plants and animals, to regard ourselves as fairly informed about these various aspects — at least at such a level as required to write this essay.
In fact, we have directly met with a dozen nuclear engineers and physicists — several of them having been involved decades ago in the pioneering efforts in building nuclear reactors, particularly the EBR-II and its successor, the IFR. Over the last couple of years we have also frequently communicated with them by phone and email and with a dozen or so other nuclear engineers and physicists, as well as having been in regular email communication, over the same time frame, with several researchers in the biological effects of radiation.
There are many notable authors of books and articles that render scientific findings available in lay language to a wider public. Most of these are not themselves science specialists but rather have also educated themselves in one or another field of science well enough to explain it to other lay persons.
As to formal credentials, one of us (Sacks) happens to be both a physicist and a radiologist, and the other (Meyerson) is an English professor with specialization in critical theory, but formal credentials in our view, are completely irrelevant with respect to whether someone knows what she/he is talking about or, even more importantly, is telling the truth.
The only relevance perhaps is that prior training in related subjects makes the job of learning a subject somewhat quicker, though the English professor has impressed the physicist/radiologist with his quickness to grasp complex topics and to recognize their significance in the present context. But honesty and open-mindedness are not a matter of technical training. They are a matter of attitude, which no amount of technical training can bring about.
As to whether we are among those experts who deserve to be listened to, we leave that to our readers to decide, but there is no contradiction between being amateurs and experts at the same time. Formal training is often not only insufficient to make a true expert, but in the case of radiologists (doctors who interpret x-rays and other imaging modalities) the formal training is so misguided with regard to the biological effects of radiation as to be a major obstacle to expertise. However, this obstacle is not insurmountable, with an adequately open mind and a strong desire to learn.
Finally, we consider ourselves fortunate to be in the company of many of the aforementioned nuclear engineers and scientists and biological hormesis researchers who have also been accelerating their attempts to reach the public with the truth about nuclear energy and radiation, in order to educate and mitigate the public’s phobic response, and to combat the anti-nuclear disinformation campaign. And finally, neither of us has any investments in any form of energy, let alone nuclear.