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Nuclear Risk and Reason - David Brenner and David Ropeik
Posted: 11 April 2011 04:14 PM   [ Ignore ]
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Host: Chris Mooney

When the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan last month, it left behind not only mass destruction, but also a nuclear crisis that was covered 24-7 by the international media.

Since then, we’ve been embroiled in a huge debate about nuclear policy—should there be a “Nuclear Renaissance” in the United States, or should we put it on hold?

A central issue underlying all this is the scientific question of risk. How dangerous is radiation, anyway? Do we overreact to reactors?

To tackle that question, we turned to two different guests. One is one of the world’s foremost experts on radiation exposure and its health consequences; the other is a journalist who’s done a new book about why we often misperceive risk, to our own detriment.

David Brenner is the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University. His research focuses on understanding the effects of radiation, at both high and low doses, on living systems, and he has published more than 200 papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Dr. Brenner was the recipient of the 1991 Radiation Research Society Annual Research Award, and the 1992 National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements Award for Radiation Protection in Medicine.

David Ropeik is an author, consultant, and speaker on phorisk communication and risk perception, and an instructor in the Harvard University School of Education, Environmental Management program. He’s the author of the 2010 book How Risky is it Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.

http://www.pointofinquiry.org/nuclear_risk_and_reason_david_brenner_and_david_ropeik/

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Posted: 12 April 2011 11:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’ve just listened to the podcast, and I think that we should reset the starting points of the discussion. I am a retired Boeing computer scientist and expert about automation, logic, philosophy and religion. I learned in Junction City Oregon High School physics and biology classes in 1967 that radioactive atoms emit three things: alpha, beta and gamma. I learned that when such a particle is inside an organic body, then the subatomic particles can damage DNA, thereby eventually causing a rogue cell. Lots of rogue cells are cancerous. I only mention these facts because one of the guests said that he did not know enough science, perhaps in order to discuss risks of radioactive particles inside of a body?

At this point in my discussion, risks have not come into it nor must they. In 1800 there was not a lot of circulation of radioactive particles entering into human bodies. We evolved as humans mostly without such influences. Obviously since then, some people have artificially introduced such particles into environments and bodies. But the USA has long ago signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This treaty is a law in the USA, and in the other countries that have ratified it. This treaty does not say that profit or politics should interfere with enforcement. All officials that do not enforce this treaty should be prosecuted. The ratifying countries are supposed to continually work for human life and health .

For decades we have recognized that radioactive waste must be stored for ten times the half-life. The nuclear corporations have never tried to shoulder the future costs. Again, risks have not come into this statement.

About the second guest: I find his statements to be speculative. I am insulted by anyone that thinks that there have not been enough discussed logical propositions, consisting of actual facts, testable hypotheses and verifiable theories. There is a false dichotomy between coal and nuclear power. The USA must radically change our way of life: phasing out personal cars, industrial agriculture and central power stations.

Every day, I test myself for assumptions, logical thoughts and meaningful dreams. I find no personal attachments to any family, tribe, region or nation. I am born and belong to our planet.

Neither risks nor emotions come into this statement.

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Posted: 13 April 2011 05:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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taxelr - 12 April 2011 10:02 PM

When folks think that something like wind energy is clean, they are wrong. ... Most of us here pride ourselves on looking to the facts regarding matters of faith.

It would be good if you could provide some facts and evidence for that extraordinary claim. Wind energy is effectively the lowest CO2 / kWh generator. It creates no pollution. It creates no highly toxic waste that needs storing for 100,000 years. Most of the components of a wind turbine can be recycled at end of life. Wind is the cleanest energy source we have.

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Posted: 13 April 2011 05:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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LKSalmonson - 12 April 2011 11:00 PM

There is a false dichotomy between coal and nuclear power..

This needs to be stated clearly and often. It’s spread like a cancer over the last few weeks. The choice is not between the lesser of two evils. It’s not a choice between being poisoned by coal or being being poisoned less by nuclear (assuming a reactor does not meltdown).

The choice is between being poisoned by nukes or not being poisoned by clean, safe renewable energy. I know which one I choose.

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Posted: 13 April 2011 10:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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In the beginning of the show someone mentioned a growing body of evidence that radiation in excess of permissible doses is actually beneficial to health. The host then declared this as “clearly overboard”. I guess the quote was taken out of context, I guess what was meant was not just any amount of radiation but small “hormetic” doses of radiation, that, as far as evidence goes, are indeed beneficial. See “radiation hormesis” and http://www.dose-response.org. The current practice of radiation risk assessment (as well as chemical risk assessment) follows the assumption that any amount of radiation is harmful. However, there is no evidence to support that claim. But there is a growing body of evidence that supports hormesis. For example, the natural background radiation is not constant across the globe, it varies more than 10-fold, and the incidence of cancers has been found to be lower in regions with high natural radiation compared to regions with low natural radiation. When asked what’s the basic science behind low dose exposure risk Dr. Brenner replied: “I do believe that in fact there is no level of exposure to radiation that we can say is absolutely safe…” Then he went to great lengths in explaining the philosophy but admitted that it is very difficult to prove. I thought the point of this inquiry was not to blindly believe smile Some things about low dose radiation risks are indeed known. Or let’s say proven. Linear dose-response is not one of them. In fact, it is not difficult, but impossible to prove. And science (or so I thought) is about things that can be proven. For some reason the regulators are not ready to accept the evidence based approach in (radiation) risk assessment and Dr. Brenner clearly likes to be in agreement with them. It was not less astonishing to hear Dr. Brenner say that he is not qualified to assess the risks of nuclear energy. If not him, then who?
There is a good science program/podcast from BBC called Science in Action. In one of the latest episodes Professor Gerry A Thomas from Imperial College London explains some of the Chernobyl studies and concludes that the incidence of leukemia did not increase due to the accident (Dr. Brenner said it did). Listen here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00fvjg1#synopsis
And if you are in US and worried about Fukushima then calculate how much Uranium is there in the Pacific ocean. The volume of the Pacific is more than 500 million cubic kilometers, each cubic meter contains about 3.3mg of U which means altogether about 1.5 billion tons. Now compare that to the leak and be happy!

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Posted: 13 April 2011 10:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Villem - 13 April 2011 10:12 AM

...small “hormetic” doses of radiation, that, as far as evidence goes, are indeed beneficial.

Nonsense. Radiation hormesis is a fringe hypothesis with no credible support.

* The National Academy of Sciences: “The committee concludes that the assumption that any stimulatory hormetic effects from low doses of ionizing radiation will have a significant health benefit to humans that exceeds potential detrimental effects from the radiation exposure is unwarranted at this time.” http://dels-old.nas.edu/dels/rpt_briefs/beir_vii_final.pdf

...some of the Chernobyl studies and concludes that the incidence of leukemia did not increase due to the accident…

It’s amazing what “some” studies declared - especially the ones published or controlled by the IAEA whose stated purpose is to “seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy”. And the IAEA admitted that it was difficult to determine if there had been an increase in leukemia.

Also, why did you mention only leukemia? What about thyroid cancer - which even the IAEA admits showed significant increase. What about birth defects and miscarriages? What about deaths? 9000 excess deaths according to the IAEA. Credible estimates are higher.

...calculate how much Uranium is there in the Pacific ocean.

The rather fundamental point you are missing is that the uranium in the oceans is not highly toxic and is massively dilute. The caesium, plutonium, strontium and other fissile materials pumping out of Fukushima right now is highly toxic and highly concentrated around the power plant.

It’s almost as if you’re attempting to whitewash Chernobyl and, by extension, Fukushima.

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Posted: 13 April 2011 10:44 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I mentioned leukemia because the guest in the show mentioned it. Thyroid cancer is also discussed in the BBC show. Thyroid cancer is rarely lethal, by the way. I will try to reply more thoroughly later.

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Posted: 13 April 2011 12:55 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Ok, lets soften my statement, let’s say the evidence suggests it is beneficial. I am not sure about the quality of the studies demonstrating radiation hormesis in humans, however, the in-vitro and animal studies are surely worth mentioning. See this reveiw (and references within) http://www.allenpress.com/pdf/ENTC-27.7-final-article.pdf
My point is that there is even less evidence in favour of the linear dose-response. No matter what the committees may say, show me the studies first. If you trust authority (National Academy of Sciences) then why not IAEA? If you talk about birth defects and miscarriages and deaths then show me the calculation.
My intention is not to whitewash anything but I think radiation hazard is often painted black based on irrational fear.
What I really wanted to critisize was the lack of argumentation by the guest. When asked about science he provided none. If there is no knowledge about low dose effects then why should we worry about doses lower than the background? And finally, my uranium example was for those across the ocean. Just to illustrate what the final concentration will be like once it mixes in.

I guess I am spoiled, usually there are much more convincing guests in this show.

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Posted: 13 April 2011 02:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Villem - 13 April 2011 12:55 PM

Ok, lets soften my statement, let’s say the evidence suggests it is beneficial.

Again: * The National Academy of Sciences: “The committee concludes that the assumption that any stimulatory hormetic effects from low doses of ionizing radiation will have a significant health benefit to humans that exceeds potential detrimental effects from the radiation exposure is unwarranted at this time.” http://dels-old.nas.edu/dels/rpt_briefs/beir_vii_final.pdf

No amount of “softening” will make your claim less wrong.

If you trust authority (National Academy of Sciences) then why not IAEA? If you talk about birth defects and miscarriages and deaths then show me the calculation.

Nice try. I don’t blindly trust “authority”. I trust science and credible sources. Why not the IAEA? You don’t appear to be reading what you are responding to. Again: the IAEA’s stated purpose is to “seek to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy”.

If there is no knowledge about low dose effects then why should we worry about doses lower than the background?

You’ve made the assumption that because this audio interview did not provide you with the science that it doesn’t exist. Can you not see the flaw in that logic? Here are some starters:

* Very high mutation rate in offspring of Chernobyl accident liquidators. “These results indicate that low doses of radiation can induce multiple changes in human germline DNA.” http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/268/1471/1001.abstract?sid=af3557a2-832d-4c32-93f2-f08371862a1d

* There is no firm basis for setting a “safe” level of exposure above background for stochastic effects. http://www.epa.gov/rpdweb00/understand/health_effects.html

* All Levels of Radiation Confirmed to Cause Cancer. The National Academies of Science ... reconfirmed the previous knowledge that there is no safe level of exposure to radiation — that even very low doses can cause cancer. http://www.nirs.org/press/06-30-2005/1

* “In our opinion, the health risks of 10 cGy (100 mSv) or less in humans may not be accurately estimated by any current mathematical model because of numerous inherent environmental, dietary and biological variables that cannot be accounted for in epidemiologic studies. .... We continue to support the well-established radiobiological concept that no radiation doses can be considered completely safe and that all efforts must be made to reduce both the radiation dose and damage, no matter how small.” K.N. Prasad, W.C. Cole, and G.M. Hasse, “Health Risks of Low Dose Ionizing Radiation in Humans: A Review” Experimental Biology and Medicine, Volume 229, Number 5, pp. 378-382.

* Radiation and mortality of workers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory: positive associations for doses received at older ages. “Positive associations were observed between low-level exposure to external ionizing radiation and mortality.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1566496/

In summary: there is no “safe” dose of radiation - especially when delivered by an *internal* emitter, i.e. you ingest the radiation by inhalation or swallowing drink / food.

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Posted: 13 April 2011 03:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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DavidC,
“You’ve made the assumption that because this audio interview did not provide you…”
Indeed, I am talking about the show. He said there is not enough evidence. That the low dose effects are not studied sufficiently or something. And he did not mention “internal” emitters. Who should I believe, him or you?
See the overview of hormesis, is it not credible? Why?
When I will have time I will study your links.
Cheers,
Villem

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Posted: 13 April 2011 03:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Villem - 13 April 2011 03:16 PM

Who should I believe, him or you?

How about neither? Look at the science and the statements of credible scientific organisation. I have already provided links to both.

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Posted: 13 April 2011 03:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Actually, there is no totally credible source at all. Just because it is called NAS does not mean it only lays golden eggs.
Anyway, please study the article I provided. I read the abstract of the mutation study. Are the mutations harmful?
Good night (it is 1:44 am here)

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Posted: 13 April 2011 04:42 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Villem - 13 April 2011 03:44 PM

Actually, there is no totally credible source at all. Just because it is called NAS does not mean it only lays golden eggs.

You inserted “totally”. That’s known as a ‘strawman’ and an indication that you’re becoming desperate. EDIT: Actually, a source is either credible or not. So, I don’t know what you’re trying to say with “totally” unless you’re trying to imply that I’m suggesting NAS is infallible. Either way, NAS is a credible source. The marketing site for hormesis that you cite and single paper, not so much.

As for “lays golden eggs”....

[ Edited: 13 April 2011 05:36 PM by Davito ]
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Posted: 14 April 2011 01:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Sorry DavidC if my language causes misunderstanding, English is my third language.
I agree, NAS is credible but not infallible.
This way we could argue endlessly, you would repeat that I am wrong and I would repeat that I am right…
It would be nice to have Edward Calabrese in Point of Inquiry to clarify things.
It is easy to call something marketing but if we are to make any progress here we need to review the evidence. It is a lot of work, I know. Anyway, the single paper I recommend is a review paper. I could cite all the references in that paper or many other papers, but I believe it is a good overwiew. If you think it is not credible, then tell me why do you think that way.

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Posted: 14 April 2011 02:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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It’s not a matter of language. The National Academy of Sciences is credible. The International Dose-Response Society is not. It’s the radiation equivalent of The Homeopathic Society.

Radiation hormesis has no credible support. It is a fringe belief.

* There is no firm basis for setting a “safe” level of exposure above background for stochastic effects. http://www.epa.gov/rpdweb00/understand/health_effects.html

* All Levels of Radiation Confirmed to Cause Cancer. The National Academies of Science ... reconfirmed the previous knowledge that there is no safe level of exposure to radiation — that even very low doses can cause cancer. http://www.nirs.org/press/06-30-2005/1

* Very high mutation rate in offspring of Chernobyl accident liquidators. “These results indicate that low doses of radiation can induce multiple changes in human germline DNA.” http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/268/1471/1001.abstract?sid=af3557a2-832d-4c32-93f2-f08371862a1d

You really need to read some basics on radiation to understand what it does to cells and DNA. There is no “safe” level of radiation.

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Posted: 14 April 2011 11:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Like I said, this way the discussion is never going to be productive. Hormesis is not homeopathy. In fact, if you would browse through the article I suggested, you would learn that homeopathy is the reason why hormesis has not been taken seriously for several decades. Scientists get it wrong sometimes. It is not only about basics of radiation and what it does to cells. If the damage is small, cells can repair it without problems. It happens all the time, there is backround radiation everywhere. Let’s elaborate this subject one thing at a time? Take the backround radiation for example, it varies 10-fold depending on location, and if you look at cancer incidence and it’s dependence on the background radiation then what would you conclude?

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