Guest Post by Bill Sacks and Greg Meyerson. Bill is a physicist and a radiologist, and wrote Lessons about nuclear energy from the Japanese quake and tsunami about a month into the Fukushima crisis. Greg is an English professor with specialization in critical theory. Both are based in the U.S. For further details about the authors, see the Endnote to this post.
NUCLEAR ENERGY: THE ONLY SOLUTION TO THE ENERGY PROBLEM AND GLOBAL WARMING By Bill Sacks and Greg Meyerson
The following is a brief rationale and outline of a much longer essay that is also available on bravenewclimate.com (CLICK HERE to download the printable PDF, 58 pages).
This essay unifies four critical contentions that the authors cannot find combined in any other of the many sources on nuclear energy. Our four contentions are 1) fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) are now the main source of global warming; 2) they must be completely replaced with clean energy sources, chiefly nuclear energy since the inherent physical properties of wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal severely limit their use; 3) radiation at the dose ranges encountered in nature, as well as by the public in nuclear accidents, actually promotes, rather than destroys, health; and 4) the profit system presents an inherent obstacle to achieving the goal of clean, sustainable energy.
The authors hold the opinion that all four of these aspects are inseparable, and that a general understanding of all is necessary if any progress is to be made in solving the problems of inaccessibility of adequate electricity for much of humanity and anthropogenic global warming that is nearing tipping points that threaten to make self-amplifying and irreversible changes. No one of these four, in our view, can be safely put aside as a distraction from some “main” point.
Recognition that the earth is warming and that human activity, rather than natural cycles, is now responsible is only the beginning of this solution — a necessary but not sufficient condition. Similarly broad general understanding of the severe inherent limitations of all clean alternatives to nuclear energy is needed to hasten the building of nuclear plants world over, and to end the wasteful efforts to scale up wind and solar particularly, that profit a few but at the expense of rich governmental subsidies and higher energy costs that further restrict access to electricity.
Furthermore if nuclear energy is to gain the respect and advocacy of the public, the exaggerated fears of radiation have to be brought under rational control, which requires first that governmental regulatory agencies around the world be forced to admit that they have been basing their restrictions on an obsolete relic of the Cold War — one that falsely claims that all radiation is harmful to our health regardless of how low the dose, known as the linear-no-threshold (LNT) assumption. However, the science of biological effects of ionizing radiation overwhelmingly points to an evolved response that protects against any harm from low levels of radiation, known as the hormetic effect, or hormesis, a very general biological response to all sorts of chemical and physical agents.
And finally, none of these can be accomplished without public recognition that arrangements of political and economic power in today’s world, and near-complete control over governmental policies, put the first three realms of decision virtually entirely in the hands of transnational profit-making enterprises whose dominating economic interests are directly and/or indirectly based in the continued near-monopoly of fossil fuels in the generation of electricity and other forms of energy. We recognize that this point of view will meet with varying degrees of resistance, just as anti-nuclear organizations and individuals resist the recognition of hormesis, or just as fossil fuel advocates resist the recognition of anthropogenic global warming. However, without this latter recognition the vast majority of humanity will remain powerless, in more ways than one.
The essay consists of explanations and references for all these points, aimed at an audience not necessarily familiar with either physics or biology. In our effort to make this essay relatively self-contained, it begins with the history and science of energy in general terms, followed by an explanation of the physical processes of nuclear energy and nuclear reactors. Nuclear reactors provide a little less than 15% of total world electricity, varying from none to 80%, in one country or another.
We go on to compare nuclear with other clean energy sources, with respect to a number of indices. These include safety, availability and longevity of the various sources and their conversion devices, reliability for round-the-clock and round-the-year energy generation, location requirements, and the required amounts of fuel. The safety aspect deals with mining, explosions, environmental disasters, and the handling of nuclear waste. We debunk the claim that nuclear plants are particularly susceptible to terrorism and the claimed relationship between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. We demonstrate that nuclear has the safest historical record by far among all these alternative energy sources, and that, like the other clean sources, availability of nuclear fuel is without practical limit for the remaining life of the planet.
We explain the so-called hormetic effect of radiation, i.e., the evolved biological responses that protect us from low doses of radiation. Humans, along with all extant plants and non-human animals, have evolved in a sea of natural radiation from ground and sky, with vast variations from one location in the world to another — variations that correlate, if at all, inversely with cancer rates and directly with life expectancy. That is, the higher the natural background radiation levels the lower the cancer rates and the greater the longevity, though many other factors can confound these correlations. We have also evolved by virtue of, and in the face of, internal metabolic processes that produce DNA-damaging reactive oxygen species (ROS) that do far more damage than radiation, and that have also required evolved protective mechanisms. We exist today only because of the presence of several levels of such biological mechanisms, from the cell to the tissue to the entire organism, which we name and explain. Thousands of epidemiological and laboratory studies over many decades have demonstrated that, while high doses of radiation sicken and kill by inhibiting protective mechanisms, low doses enhance those mechanisms and make us healthier. Hormesis is a general phenomenon of all chemical and physical agents, and radiation is no exception. Too little or too much of anything is harmful, but a midrange is healthful. The conclusion is that we may actually be radiation deficient, and that if everyone were exposed to more radiation, assuredly within limits, we would all live longer and suffer lower rates of cancer and other diseases. While this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom, we explain how this “wisdom” came about and, in particular, the falsehood that gave birth to it in the heat of the Cold War.
We finish with an exploration of the motivations behind falsehoods, sometimes innocent but often deliberate, spread by anti-nuclear organizations and leaders, followed by a summary of the major points of the essay. At the end there are numerous references and suggestions for further reading, as well as a description of the backgrounds of the two authors.
Endnote: About 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.