On nuclear power and health

by Wm. Robert Johnston
15 July 2005

Helen Caldicott has a very poor understanding of matters related to nuclear energy--or if she does have knowledge, she hides it well. Her article is replete with profoundly false statements as well as deceptions:

"A standard 1,000-megawatt nuclear reactor contains the equivalent radiation to that released by the explosion of 1,000 Hiroshima-sized bombs."--This is a meaningless comparison without specifying when we are measuring the activity. A significant fraction of the ionizing radiation release in the first 2 seconds of a nuclear explosion is the radioactive decay of fission products. If you make the comparison within a second of detonation, the "Hiroshima-sized bomb" has produced vastly more radioactivity than all the reactor cores in the world combined. The residual radiation of an atomic bomb decays at a different rate than reactor core fission products, so about 2 years after detonation/reactor shutdown Caldicott's ratio is correct. If we started with a plutonium-fueled weapon, this is about the same time that the activity from the bomb decays to the same total activity as the plutonium in the bomb to begin with! Further, if you only consider the biologically volatile reactor contents, they are about the same activity at that point. Caldicott's statement is a popular one among those who don't understand radioactivity.

"Children and the elderly are 10 to 20 times more sensitive to the effects of radiation than others."--False, in general. In terms of acute effects, the ratio is probably only 2-3 at most, based on statistics of victims of the atomic bombings in Japan. In regard to carcinogenesis, this is also vastly exaggerated.

"the effects of radiation are cumulative"--depends on which effect. For acute effects, the effects are not cumulative for doses spread out over more than a few days. For carcinogenesis, this is true for moderate to high doses; for very low doses, it may or may not be true.

"Yet nuclear power plants routinely discharge millions of curies"--False. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, median discharges from individual nuclear plants are on the order of 1000 Ci/yr of noble gases, 100 Ci/yr of tritium, and 0.01 Ci/yr or so of biologically active radionuclides.

"The so-called" noble" gases ... are readily absorbed by humans through the lung and deposi in the abdominal fat pad and upper thighs..."--did Caldicott miss high school chemistry? Noble elements do not chemically react, so they are not deposited in tissue. Any passage beyond the lungs is both transient and applicable to only a small fraction of the material.

"Tritiated water is absorbed directly through the skin, lung and digestive tract and is incorporated directly into the gene..."--which is a bit removed from the original release. The U.S. EPA states "tritium is one of the least dangerous radionuclides because it emits very weak radiation and leaves the body relatively quickly."

"there are plenty of studies in the peer-reviewed medical literature which show that in the areas surrounding older nuclear reactors in the United States there have been increased incidences of malignancies of various kinds"--and there are plenty of such studies indicating the opposite. This is is a misrepresentation of the net epidemiological evidence, besides the fact that correlation is insufficient to prove a casual relation.

"Radioactive elements are tasteless, odorless and invisible."--only in microscopic quantities.

"Plutonium... is so carcinogenic that 1-millionth of a gram causes cancer."--False. This quantity of plutonium if (and only if) properly deposited in the body would give about a 0.03% chance of producing cancer, in general. "Properly deposited" would be inhaled in the form of particles small enough to not be expelled naturally; injection of plutonium, in contrast, is rather inefficient at producing a body burden. Caldicott also repeatedly forgets that carcinogenesis is a stochastic (random) phenomena.

"Handled like iron by the body..."--as best as I can tell, the truth of this is mostly limited to the interaction of plutonium with transferrin in the blood. Plutonium is preferrentially deposited in the liver and bones, but deposition in the heart is not mentioned which contrasted with the fate of excess iron.

"...it causes lung cancer, liver cancer, bone cancer and leukemia"--No, it may (or may not) cause cancer if deposited in sufficient amounts. Again, carcinogenesis is a stochastic process.

"The simple truth is that high-level waste will contaminate water and food over time..."--How? In order to do this in a meaningful way, you must have the biologically active isotopes migrate to the water/food chain in a short amount of time relative to the decay. This is hardly a certainty, and if we are permitted to apply a modicum of ingenuity it is a guaranteed non-issue.

There are plenty of knowledgable, reliable sources of information on issues of radiation physics and biology. Caldicott is not one of them.

(posted at Steven Gloor: Enders Environmental Blog.)

© 2005 by Wm. Robert Johnston.
Last modified 19 July 2005.
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