Nuclear’s safety record is quite good. How many people have been killed in the United States by nuclear accidents? I think it is zero. With 100 reactors.
— Climate Scientist Emeritus James Hansen, COP-25 Madrid.
After leaving a press conference in the COP-25 climate meeting with my ears burning, it has taken me more than a month to sit down and write this essay. I greatly admire James Hansen and have since the day I sat in the Senate gallery for his testimony to Al Gore and Tim Wirth’s hearings on climate change in 1988. Hansen was a pioneer climatologist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who had been muzzled by President George H.W. Bush and was supposed to submit all his testimony for White House review before speaking. He ignored the instruction and that eventually cost him his grants and compelled him to resign his position.
What annoys me, however, about Hansen, then and now, is his insistence, in utter disregard of best science, that nuclear energy can somehow save humanity from climate change because it is clean, safe, too cheap to meter and besides all that, is carbon-free. I watched with pity more than scorn when he took his time to repeat this nonsense at the recent UN climate conference in Madrid. He mounted fallacy upon fallacy in a pyramid of lies that had been heard since the 1940s coming from the Atomic Energy Commission, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, International Atomic Energy Agency and others in thrall to the atomic devil.
Of course all of those assertions by Hansen are utter nonsense. It just goes to show that being a good climate scientist doesn’t automatically give you a doctorate in health physics. I was blessed to have met many of the world’s preeminent health physicists in the 1970s and 1980s while representing atomic victims in battles for fair compensation and writing my fifth book, Climate in Crisis: The Greenhouse Effect and What We Can Do. These luminaries included the father of health physics, Karl Z. Morgan, and the man who wrote the still-definitive textbook in the field, Radiation and Human Health, John W. Gofman, former director of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and discoverer of U-233, someone with whom I became quite close. Judge E. Cooper Brown and I also interviewed and got to know Alice Stewart, George Kneale, Thomas Mancuso, Rosalie Bertell, Irwin Bross, Edward Martell, and many other world-ranked scientists at that time. Most of them, along with my esteemed friend Cooper Brown, have now passed away.
So, when James Hansen ignorantly opines that there were no radiation fatalities from Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, or Fukushima and that the new generation of thorium metal reactors is inherently safe, I try to not gag.
Hansen: The waste from nuclear power is contained in containers and is killing no-one. The waste from fossil fuels is killing 10,000 people per day.
Here Hansen is comparing post-production wastes to production effluent. The better comparison would be coal ash piles or scrubber sludge to nuclear wastes. Comparing effluent to effluent, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has reported that emissions from presently licensed facilities produced under normal operating conditions will cause 1.7 million cancers and birth defects in the world population, barring accidents. That several-hundred page report was summarized in the Federal Register in 1979 (46 Fed. Reg. 39580). However, it excluded consideration of health effects from tritium, Tc-99, C-13 and 14 and other radionuclide emissions that were too inaccurate to estimate, they said. By too inaccurate they meant that tritium is easily incorporated into water, and so passes through living cells very easily, and carbon is the building block of organic chemistry, inseparable from life, so if one were to try to measure their impact inside the human body, the mortality and morbidity rates would need to be raised orders of magnitude higher than 1.7 million. This could make nuclear power unacceptable so, for reasons having to do with their institutional DNA, the NRC was not going to do that.
Hansen: [Rickover design was chosen by military and…] we turned down [alternatives] and we just didn’t do the alternative R&D on things like thorium-fueled molten salt reactors.
It is not difficult to debunk Thorium-141’s popular mythology using simple physics, as Drs. Arjun Makhijani and Helen Caldicott have, because thorium is not a naturally fissionable element and so must first be mixed with enriched Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239 before it can be fissioned under controlled conditions to make steam for a power plant. To do that mixing, never mind the reacting, is a dangerous, deadly, polluting and extremely expensive process generating loads of long-lasting and unrecoverable poisons. After reaction, the thorium blend leaves dangerous wastes like U-232, a potent high-energy gamma emitter that can penetrate one meter of concrete and will have to be kept safely out of our air, food, and water forever. Anyone who was nodding in agreement as Hansen was spouting his rubbish should try eating some of that and see how they feel. Stewart Brand? James Lovelock? Bill Gates? Andrew Yang?
Hansen: “Three Mile Island did not kill anyone.”
Officially, TMI caused no immediate deaths. But unofficial investigations and lawsuits claimed there were above-average rates of cancer and birth defects in the surrounding area. Anecdotal evidence among the local human population has been devastating. Hansen would say that anecdotal evidence is not science, but when public health agencies are prohibited from doing the scientific studies that does not equate with no effects. We know from anecdotal evidence that large numbers of Pennsylvanians suffered skin sores and lesions that erupted while they were out of doors as the fallout rained down on them. Many quickly developed large, visible tumors, breathing problems, and a metallic taste in their mouths that matched that experienced by victims of Hiroshima, or who were exposed to nuclear tests in the South Pacific, Ukraine, Kazakstan, and Nevada.
Approximately 2 million people in the immediate area were exposed to doses that were sub-lethal for early exposure, but the latent genetic effects have been calculated, by Gofman among others, to cause life-shortening in the global population for perhaps one million people. Moreover, there is reason to suspect the doses those estimates are based upon were much lower than what may have actually occurred and gone unreported. Entire bee hives expired immediately after the accident, along with a disappearance of birds, many of whom were found scattered dead on the ground. A rash of malformed pets were born and stillborn, including kittens that could not walk and a dog with no eyes. Reproductive rates among the region’s cows and horses plummeted. The state and federal governments did nothing to track the health histories of the region’s residents. Instead, they significantly understated the scale of the release and the magnitude of the exposures, as later peer reviewed studies showed.
A National Institute of Health study in 1998 found “Results support the hypothesis that radiation doses are related to increased cancer incidence around TMI.”
Harvey Wasserman, writing for Common Dreams, said: “Meanwhile, the death toll from America’s worst industrial catastrophe continues to rise. More than ever, it is shrouded in official lies and desecrated by a reactor-pushing “renaissance” hell-bent on repeating the nightmare on an even larger scale.”
I last shared a podium with Wasserman at a Conference on Michigan’s Future: Energy, Economy and Environment about ten years ago. He detailed a long list of nuclear power’s woes — its high cost (then about $10 billion or more per plant and rising), the potentially catastrophic health and safety effects from everyday radiation emissions and possible meltdowns and other accidents, the inability of the industry to get private funding or insurance (relying entirely on government subsidy and accident immunity), and the unsolvable issue of the disposal of radioactive waste. But, one thing for certain that can never be said of nuclear energy is that it is carbon neutral. Once you take into account the entire nuclear fuel cycle from exploration and mining, shipment of ores from Africa and China, milling, enrichment to fuel grade (enough gas and coal energy goes into that to power Australia), power generation, fuel removal and waste disposal, the fossil fuel footprint is so enormous as to be well beyond any suggestion of carbon neutrality.
The Health Issue
At the start of the 20th century, scientists started experimenting with elements that had unstable energies. Typically these elements had various versions of themselves, known as isotopes or nuclides, that possessed the same number of protons, and so the same atomic number, but had a variable number of neutrons.
In 1896, Henri Becquerel discovered that uranium emitted rays that resembled X-rays. Marie Curie suspected that the radiation was not the outcome of some interaction but came from the atom itself. Her work with uranium disproved the conventional wisdom going back to ancient Greece that atoms were indivisible and set up the later discovery of subatomic particles. Curie discovered that thorium, radium, polonium and radioactive bismuth occurred naturally with uranium. Radium was known to glow in the dark, which made it useful for painting the hour and minute hands on watches and clocks. It was later discovered that radium “radiated” more than just neutrons, but also protons and electrons, becoming another unstable element, radon, and that element radiated its subatomic particles to become others, polonium and bismuth, until those eventually became a stable element, lead. Indeed, the radium Curie discovered was the progeny of another unstable element, thorium, which was the progeny of yet another unstable element, uranium.
Madame Curie was a physicist, not a medical doctor, so she did not recognize the health effects of handling uranium, thorium, radium and the other radionuclides. Indeed, she suspected the effects would be beneficial. One of the papers she and her husband published in the late 19th century announced that, when exposed to radium, diseased, tumor-forming cells were destroyed faster than healthy cells (the basis for today’s radio-chemotherapy). She carried test tubes containing radioactive isotopes in her pockets and stored them in her desk drawer. Although her many decades of exposure to radiation caused chronic illnesses (including near-blindness due to cataracts) and ultimately her death, she never acknowledged the inherent health risks. She likely did not recognize the symptoms when she began to feel weak and lose her hair. She died in 1934 from aplastic anemia without ever knowing that she fought the same mortal enemy as those who had painted the hands on watches and clocks, or those who had mined and processed the uranium on which she worked. After her death, and to this day, her papers and effects are too radioactive to be handled and her laboratory is unsafe to enter.
The famous cowboy actor John Wayne may have been felled by the same foe. From 1951 to 1962 the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) detonated more than 100 bombs in the southwestern US desert, sending huge pinkish plumes of radioactive dust across the stony valleys and canyons of southern Utah and northern Arizona. It gave each “shot” names like Annie, Eddie, Humboldt and Badger. Eleven of those tests were part of a series called Upshot-Knothole in Utah in 1953. In 1954, the Upshot-Knothole site was chosen as the location for a John Wayne film called The Conqueror.
The AEC sent a scientist with a Geiger counter to show Wayne that the location was safe enough for him to bring his wife and children to visit the set. The Geiger counter is said to have crackled so loudly Wayne thought it was broken. Waving it over clumps of cactus, rock and sand produced the same loud result. The Duke, by all accounts, shrugged it off. By 1980, 91 out of 220 cast and crew on The Conquerer had contracted cancer and 46 of them, including Wayne and co-stars Dick Powell, Pedro Armendáriz, Agnes Moorehead, and Susan Hayward had died. Those numbers did not include the families of the cast and crew. John Wayne’s wife and two sons all got cancer. While the two sons survived, the daughter of one of Wayne’s sons also died of cancer. Hayward’s son Tim Barker had a benign tumor removed from his mouth. Many of the Native American Paiute extras went on to die of cancer also.
When those subatomic particles fly out from a radioactive atom, they are like tiny bullets or missiles — they break genetic codes in cells. Sometimes that simply kills the cell, as it will most often with higher doses, but at low doses, slight genetic displacements can reform into mutations such as cells that are cancerous, or birth deformities. Sometimes the reformed codes are passed along to future generations and can produce hundreds of new and different deformities and diseases. In the 1930s, scientists learned that only about one percent of the total effects are experienced in each separate generation. The other 99 percent echo in the genes of our newborn descendants for thousands of years. In St. George Utah today, public health clinics get about 140 new patients per year from the genetic legacy of the desert blasts of the 1950s.
Declassified health physics reports from the Manhattan Project indicate that the senior scientists believed at least as early as 1945 that:
“. . . the genetic effect has no threshold and exposure is not only cumulative in the individual, but in succeeding generations. On this basis, there would be no tolerance dose, but rather an acceptable injury-limit.”[Parker, H.M., Instrument ation and Radiation Protection (March, 1947), Health Physics, 38:957,970, June 1980]
“Even sub-tolerance radiations produce certain biological changes (cosmic rays are supposed to have some biological effects), so tolerance radiation is not what one strives to get but the maximum permissible dose.”[Morgan, K.Z., The Responsibilities of Health Physics, The Scientific Monthly, 93 (August 1946); reprinted in Health Physics 38:949–952, June 1980.]
The question of what percentage of the population can be acceptably damaged came first to the attention of the AEC at a meeting of the Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine on January 16–19,1957. At this meeting the AEC advisors determined that a 20 percent increase in the rate of bone cancers and birth defects nationwide would be an “acceptable” effect of U.S. nuclear weapons testing activities. These scientists also acknowledged at this time that the long-term genetic effects were totally unknown.
The historical record indicates that prominent radiologists, health physicists, and geneticists of the time recognized even at the outset of America’s atomic power program that any large population exposure to even very minute amounts of ionizing radiation could create lingering public health problems and genetic damage, and these scientists went to some lengths, including sacrificing their own illustrious careers, to express their views publicly. See, e.g.: Wasserman, H., and N. Solomon, et al., Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation (Dell Publishing; New York, 1982); Rosenburg, H.L., Atomic Soldiers, American Victims of Nuclear Experiments, (Beacon Press; Boston, 1980), Ch.71- pp. 135–154; Shutdown: Nuclear Power on Trial, Bates, A., ed. (Book Publishing Co.; Summertown, 1979), pp. 160–168; Nader, R., and J. Abbotts, The Menace of Atomic Energy (W.W.Norton; New York, 1977); Grossman, K., Cover- Up: What You Are Not Supposed To Know About Nuclear Power (Permanent Press: New York, 1980), Ch.4, pp.73–112; House Subcommittee on Health and the Environment of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, Hearings on the Effect of Radiation on Human Health, Ser. №95–179, 95th Cong. 2d Sess. (1978), Vol. 1, pp. 672–677; and House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the Committee on Interstate and Foreign Commerce, The Forgotten Guinea Pigs, A Report on the Health Effects of Low-Level Radiation Sustained as a Direct Result of the Nuclear Weapons Testing Program Conducted by the United States Government, Comm.Pr. 96-IFC53, 96th Cong., 2d Sess. (1980).
Now consider what happened on March 11, 2011. An earthquake in the ocean near Northern Japan generated a 14-meter-high tsunami that swept over the seawall at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Plant and flooded four operating reactor buildings with seawater, knocking out the reactors and their emergency generators. The reactors shut down but without generators could not cool their radioactive fuel. Within hours, three of the reactors melted and exploded, sending parts of their radioactive fuel into the sky, land and ocean.
Hansen: “You can measure the effects of Fukushima on the coastline of the United States and it is several orders of magnitude below anything that would have any effect.”
This is why atmospheric physicists should not opine on health physics. There is no dose of radiation below which there is not a negative biological effect. Indeed, there is a “superlinear” ratio of dose to effect at low doses, because doses that do not kill a cell cause genetic damage that is a larger health threat than dead cells, so humans and animals exposed to low doses are at greater health risk than those exposed to higher doses.
While there are hundreds of different radioactive isotopes within a nuclear reactor, the isotope Cesium-137 is easily measured and has become a standard by which to calculate impacts. During the two-day accident, 18 quadrillion becquerels of cesium were released into the Pacific (18 with 15 zeros). A typical abdominal or pelvic CT scan (the most often performed) is 14–18 thousandths of a becquerel, so during the accident the cesium dose to the environment was the same as about 1 quintillion (1 with 18 zeros) CT scans (repeated every second, continuously, for the next 300 to 600 years). Depending on the type of scan and the age and sex of the patient, a single CT scan will produce 1 cancer for 150 to 3300 exposures, or a median risk of 10 cancers per becquerel (or seivert).
By that calculation, the cesium released during the Fukushima accident was capable of causing roughly 10 quadrillion cancers, but with one important difference.
When you receive radiation treatment like a CT-scan it is sudden and one-off. One second. The technician presses the button and it is on and then off. There is no danger from the machine when it is off. When radioactive elements like cesium-137 (and remember that is just one of hundreds of elements in a nuclear reactor) are released to the environment, there is no off-switch. Thus, the cesium released during the Fukushima accident is capable of roughly 10 quadrillion cancers per second. Inhaling or ingesting it can kill a person, a dolphin or a seagull, but then as the individual’s body decomposes after death — as bacteria, worms and fungi eat away the flesh and bone — the isotope goes back into the food chain to strike another individual, and another, and so on. The danger is limited only by the isotope’s half-life — the time it takes to decay to a harmless element, which for cesium-137 is 30.17 years. Scientists generally use 10 or 20 half-lives to bracket safety concerns, so for cesium 137, “safe” levels arrive in 302 to 604 years (around year 2322 to year 2624), admittedly an imperfect measurement since any residue, no matter how microscopic, may still be lethal, as we have known since before the Manhattan Project. Cesium is one of 256 radionuclides released during Fukushima, so we would need to calculate quantities, biological effectiveness, and the decay time of each of those to get the full health picture. Other isotopes in the Fukushima fuel include Uranium-235, with a half-life of 704 million years, and Uranium-238, with a half-life of 4.47 billion years, or longer than the age of the Earth.
At Fukushima, the end of the accident was not the end of the story. In 2013, 30 billion becquerels of cesium-137 were still flowing into the ocean every day from the damaged and leaking reactor cores. That is 300 billion cancer doses per second of man-made cesium added every day, or 109.5 trillion cancer doses per second added every year. To stop this assault on ocean life, and our own, over the next 5 years the owner of the plant constructed more than 1000 tanks to hold contaminated water away from the ocean. In September 2019, the Japanese government announced that more than one million tons were in storage but that space would run out by the summer of 2022 so it planned to begin releasing those billions of bequerels to the ocean again.
Swimmers and sailors who plan to compete in open water events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics might want to think about that, as might any who fish those waters or consume the catch.
What happens to ocean creatures who ingest radionuclides from leaking nuclear power plants is not very different from what happened to John Wayne, his sons and his co-stars. As the isotopes decay within the body of a dolphin or a coral polyp they send microscopic bullets hurling through DNA chains, causing tumors, sicknesses, defective offspring and death for untold generations. The chance that a single mutation will produce a beneficial result are less than one in a million. Radioactivity is, for practical purposes, forever, as we can see just by looking up at our Sun, a benevolent nuclear reactor providing us energy from the relatively safe distance of 93 million miles.
Even that radiation will kill a number of us, but far fewer than would die if, by some devilish plan or panic response, we follow Dr. Hansen’s advice.
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