Future Nuclear Policy

Lessons about nuclear energy from the Japanese quake and tsunami

Below is the second piece published on BNC on the lessons learned from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear crisis. For an earlier perspective, see: Preliminary lessons from Fukushima for future nuclear power plants.

Below is a Guest Post by Dr. William Sacks.

Bill is a highly experienced physicist and radiologist. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics from Rice University in 1959, a PhD in Harvard in 1966 (cosmology and general relativity), then did a medical degree and  two-year postgraduate training at Connecticut Medical School, finishing in 1979. He followed this up with a residency in nuclear medicine and radiology at George Washington University through to 1985. He subsequently worked for 10 years as a general radiologist at Kaiser Permanente and later as a medical officer in the Office of Device Evaluation in the Center for Devices and Radiological Health for more than 7 years. In that time he worked with statisticians, physicists, other physicians, and many other specialties. He later worked as a clinical radiologist in Tuscon, and recently retired to spend time researching and writing on energy, climate change, evolutionary biology, economics, history, and physics/astronomy/cosmology.



Part 1: The recent events in Japan in context

Early media concentration on the nuclear plant at Fukushima Daiichi created a great sense of fear in people around the world.  Reporting was distorted by both exaggeration and omission, focusing more on the reactors than on the quake and tsunami that killed over 20,000 people according to recent Japanese government estimates.  Media reports still contain phrases like “222 times higher than the legal limit,” “higher than normal,” “radiation found in the water,” all of which are meaningless without comparisons that permit us to evaluate their significance.  The patchwork of “experts” who were interviewed to explain the events, each with her/his own particular knowledge and set of interests, added to the confusion instead of replacing it with a sense of proportion.

An example of omission is the absence of follow-up on the oil refinery fire at Chiba, about 20-30 miles east of Tokyo and over 100 miles south of Fukushima.  In fact, it killed 12 workers and required 10 days to put out the fire, which spewed toxic smoke and chemicals far and wide, as well as CO2 into the atmosphere that adds to global warming, and resulted in unknown numbers of latent cancers, heart attacks, asthma, and deaths.  Yet once TV images of the flames, falsely linked through association with the nuclear reactors, lost their usefulness, they disappeared from sight.

Nor did the media report widely, if at all, on a hydroelectric dam in Fukushima prefecture, burst by the quake, that flooded 1800 homes, with unknown numbers of deaths.  In addition to the estimated 20,000+ tsunami deaths, homelessness and ongoing lack of water and electricity affect hundreds of thousands of people.

Furthermore the Japanese government and the Tokyo Electrical Power Co. (TEPCO), owner of the Daiichi nuclear plant, have their own interests that help determine what they are willing to report or relay to the media.  Indeed an Associated Press investigation yielded the fact that Japanese scientists had warned TEPCO that a quake and tsunami of these proportions was overdue according to the history of disasters in that area over the last 3,000 years, but the company rejected this prediction.

This is reminiscent of the ample warnings to the administration that New Orleans levees would not be able to resist a storm the size of Katrina in 2005 and that hundreds or thousands would die.  Or of the recent BP oil spill in which collaborative malfeasance of both the company and the government regulators caused 11 immediate deaths of oil workers and uncountable deaths due to the toxic pollution of the Gulf Coast, as well as destruction of hundreds of thousands of livelihoods in the area.  Or of the Challenger disaster in which 7 astronauts died in 1986, in an explosion of the rocket, seconds after take-off, in which the engineers had warned the NASA administrators that the O-rings had failed in tests and would fail again with fatal results.  But NASA had a schedule to keep, under orders from the administration, and that was more important to them than the astronauts’ lives.

So in the face of such conflicting self-interests, how do we get a sense of proportion about the nuclear reactors?  One way is to become as knowledgeable as possible about nuclear energy, how these particular reactors are designed, and the progress and design changes that have been made in the 40 years since they began operation.  In fact, there’s no substitute for even a little bit of research on the internet, using sources that are familiar with nuclear technology.

A second way is to become further acquainted with the effects of radiation on health and well-being.  And a third way is to become at least as knowledgeable about the comparative dangers of other sources of energy, particularly fossil fuels, that dwarf the dangers of nuclear energy.  Only in these ways can we protect ourselves against the often misleading claims of self-interested parties.

The Daiichi plant contains old reactors, six of them, and lessons have been learned from every mishap at any nuclear reactor in the world, the same as with automobiles, airplanes, cruise ships, paper clips, and zippers.

Henry Petroski, an engineer who has written popular books about design, points out that the mother of invention is not necessity so much as failure – failure of earlier designs that require improvement.  He counters the illusion that modern versions of technology sprang full blown out of the heads of their many designers, and shows the hundreds, if not thousands, of iterations that were necessary, over many decades, to arrive at current designs.  And even these are being improved all the time, as there will always be room for improvement in function and safety.

Part 2: Comparisons of risks from nuclear energy with other sources of energy

The media recently reported on an air controller at Reagan National Airport who fell asleep on the night shift while two planes were forced to land nearly simultaneously on their own.  But does that stop most of us from flying?  No, we calculate the relative risks of flying and driving, among other considerations, and find that the death rate per mile is more than 250 times greater for driving than for flying.  Any fear of flying in the face of nonchalance about driving is extremely irrational.

A documentary movie called Gasland shows how hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) for natural gas in the U.S. is contaminating more and more of our fresh water sources with hundreds of cancer-causing and neurotoxic chemicals.  This is equally true of leakage into our water supplies of hundreds of gasoline additives from storage tanks.

The book Lives per Gallon by former head of California’s EPA, Terry Tamminen, documents hundreds of thousands of sufferers of lung disease, heart disease, and tens of thousands of deaths in the U.S. alone, from simply breathing oil and coal fumes, amounting to 1 to 2 million deaths world-wide from this same source, each year.  While coal scrubbers could reduce this somewhat, there is absolutely no such thing as clean coal, and profit considerations have largely blocked their deployment in any case.  Coal mining accidents have killed an estimated 100,000 miners in the 20th century in the U.S. alone, and an order of magnitude greater number from black lung disease, with 4,000 new cases each year even now.  This is on the order of 100 times (!) the number of deaths among uranium miners for the same amount of energy produced, and uranium mining has become much safer since the introduction of ventilation.  Meanwhile the Chinese government reports over 100 deaths from coal mining accidents per week, which would equal the U.S. 20th century toll in just 20 years.

Fires, explosions, and toxic leaks at oil refineries, gas storage facilities, oil tankers at sea, and oil trucks on land, are rarely reported outside the immediate area of their occurrence, but they are frequent and they kill.  Even the bursting of hydroelectric dams, the largest source of renewable energy in the U.S., has killed hundreds of thousands of members of the public throughout the world.  Overall, for the same amount of usable energy, the deaths from oil and coal, in all stages of production and use, exceed the deaths from nuclear energy by factors of 1,000 and 4,000, respectively. All this is in addition to the damage that fossil fuels do to the livability of the planet.

Contrast the numbers of deaths from non-nuclear sources of energy with those from nuclear energy production, and we find that fear of nuclear energy is even more irrational than a fear of flying in favor of driving.  While there have been a small number of deaths from experimental or military nuclear reactors, no one in the U.S. has ever been killed from commercial nuclear energy production in its almost 60 years.  Three Mile Island is the only widely known commercial nuclear reactor accident in the U.S.  That event occurred more than 30 years ago and killed, or even harmed, no one.  See, for example, the website for more information on these comparisons.

Ironically, coal fly ash (the smoke stack exhaust) contains about 100 times the radioactive material emitted from nuclear plants, but, even at that level, this is not the source of danger from coal.  Nevertheless, if that is their concern why do anti-nuclear environmentalists not put their efforts toward stopping the construction and running of coal plants?

Living on the edge of a major quake zone with a history of strong tsunamis is extremely hazardous at best.  So is living in hurricane territory, tornado alley, flood plains, or drought-prone regions.  This doesn’t leave much of the earth’s surface for easy habitability.  That is, except for the failure-driven ingenuity of humans who can compensate for these problems, if we can but overcome the conflicting interests that so often overshadow safety considerations.

Understanding the nuclear events in Japan can only be accomplished through comparisons with all the other sources of energy — their advantages and disadvantages, their feasibilities, their dangers, their adequacy and reliability.  Without such comparisons we cannot possibly come to reasonable conclusions.

Part 3: Hormesis, the beneficial effects on health of low levels of radiation

Perhaps the greatest source of fear arises from the general misunderstanding of radiation and its effects.  My earlier article in the March 16 issue of the GV News was criticized in a letter on March 20 for mentioning the hormetic (beneficial) effect of low levels of radiation.  Hormesis, said the letter writer, is controversial and “just a theory.”  The implication that hormesis has not been proven is simply false.  There are more than 2,000 studies from around the world demonstrating its validity and reality, including many Japanese studies of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs in 1945. 

Low levels of radiation are actually good for you, and insufficient levels are harmful to your health.  But don’t rely on the government regulators in the EPA or FDA to tell you this.  I know, I worked for the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health for almost 8 years before moving to Green Valley in 2004.  While my friends there believe in the hormetic effect, they nevertheless say it would be too complicated to regulate radiation based on this truth.

Instead they use the linear-no-threshold (LNT) approach.  LNT pretends that even the smallest amount of radiation causes deaths from cancer.  LNT further pretends that a particular total dose of radiation energy will cause the same number of cancers, several decades in the future, regardless of the number of people who share that dose.  In other words, it implies that if one person exposed to 2 million mrems (a unit of radiation energy) will get cancer from it, then if 2 million persons are exposed to 1 mrem each, one will still get cancer from it.

LNT deliberately ignores several well known protective mechanisms against radiation damage, including stimulation of repair enzymes to fix damaged DNA, cell suicide to eliminate sick cells before they become cancerous, and stimulation of the immune system to rid the body of cells that are in danger of becoming cancerous.  Low levels of radiation, in fact, act like a vaccine – a small dose of the germ and it stimulates your immune system to protect you against larger doses.  The very word “hormesis,” like the word “hormone,” comes from Greek, meaning “to stimulate.”

In the U.S. on average we each experience about 360 mrems a year due to natural background radiation, with variation over a range of more than ten to one, depending on geography.  This background comes from the sky (cosmic radiation from stars) and from the ground (radioactive elements that have been part of the earth since its formation billions of years ago, including uranium, thorium, radium, radon, polonium, and others).  In fact, it is mainly the heat from radioactivity of these elements that causes volcanoes, geysers, hot springs, and even the floating of the tectonic plates, which in turn gives rise to earthquakes and tsunamis.  Our food is already loaded with naturally occurring radioactive potassium (K-40) and carbon (C-14).  Of the 360 mrems each year, about 20 mrems comes from inside of us from the potassium and carbon that we eat and absolutely need in order to live.  That’s right, every one of us already contains radioactive material, round the clock.

Humans and other animals, as well as plants, have evolved in a veritable sea of radiation.  If radiation were harmful at these levels, as LNT maintains, we wouldn’t be here.  Furthermore the levels of background radiation vary not only within the U.S. but around the world, covering a range of about 200 to 1.  The highest levels are found in Ramsar, Iran (26,000 mrem/year), Guarapari Beach in Brazil (7,500 mrem/year), and Kerala, India (7,500 mrem/year).  If LNT were true, Iran, Brazil, India, and the Rocky Mountain states in the U.S. would have higher than average cancer rates and lower than average life expectancy.  Yet the rates of cancer are lower, or at the very least not elevated, in the regions of higher radiation.  Denver, for example, has lower cancer rates than New Orleans, though both the levels of cosmic and ground radiation are higher in Denver.  The greater the altitude the less the shielding from cosmic rays, and the Rockies contain lots of uranium, radium, and radon, and the other radioactive elements.

Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in January 2011 admitted that low levels of radiation are beneficial.  But still the NRC promotes fear by maintaining an admitted fiction in their rules for exposure.  See  So while hormesis may be artificially controversial, there are no studies that confirm LNT and thousands that prove it false.  It would be no more controversial than the causal link between smoking and lung cancer if the government regulatory agencies would finally admit that they have been operating on a false basis.  LNT has been called by Gunnar Walinder, former chair of the Swedish Radiobiology Society, “the greatest scientific scandal of the 20th Century.”

Part 4: Other facts about radiation and concluding remarks about nuclear energy

Imagine if governmental regulators operated as though everything that is toxic in high doses were also toxic in low doses.  They would outlaw things like vitamins, aspirin, zinc, selenium, and so on, while warning people to shield themselves completely from sunlight, oxygen, and water.  That, in fact, is what they are doing with radiation.  Everything in the world is toxic in high enough doses and most are also dangerous at inadequate doses, but many are life-saving in a middle range (called the hormetic range).  Radiation is no different in that respect from things like vitamins, sunlight, oxygen, and water.

If the regulators would instead identify the thresholds for radiation harm versus benefit, as they do for most other substances, we would be far better off.  The LNT fiction contributes to tremendous and harmful fear.  This fear, for example, prevents many women from seeking life-saving mammograms to detect breast cancer early enough to cure it, and fuels the anti-nuclear environmental organizations that have often blocked the construction of needed nuclear reactors to replace coal plants and oil-guzzling vehicles.  These reactors would save millions of lives over short periods of time and would preserve the planet’s livability for future generations.

To combat this fear it would help to realize that radiation doesn’t leak out of nuclear plants.  It is radioactive atoms that may leak, and they give off radiation due to spontaneous emissions of electrons, helium nuclei, or gamma rays (electromagnetic radiation — like light, microwave, TV, radio, etc.).  Plants and water only become radioactive when they have radioactive atoms deposited on or in them, or soak them up through the soil.  Unlike toxic human-made chemicals that last forever, radioactive atoms decrease continually in number, due precisely to their radioactivity, i.e., tendency to emit particles and gamma rays.

The more radioactive the element, the shorter lived is its radiation.  So iodine-131 and cesium-137 found in the Japanese vegetables and water supply are decaying away as we speak.  I-131 has a half life of 8 days, meaning that every 8 days the amount of radiation from it decreases by half.  In one month it is down by a factor of 16 and in two months by a factor of 256, and so on.  Cs-137 is longer lived, with a half life of 30 years, but by the same token, atom for atom, it is far less radioactive, by a factor of almost 1,400.  It is not clear yet that any of this radioactive contamination is at all harmful to anyone.  It may still be within the beneficial hormetic range and below the threshold for harm.  The contamination of truth by fear, however, is most definitely harmful.

Furthermore in addition to the lessening of radioactivity over time, radiation also lessens with distance from the source.  The fear that anyone in the U.S. could be harmed by the radioactive contamination near the Daiichi plant ignores this distance factor.  Just as light and sound are fainter farther from the source, so is all other radiation.  Distance also disperses the number of radioactive atoms in air and/or sea water.

It is not possible yet to say what proportion of the harm to health and lives, following the quake/tsunami, will ultimately be due to the Fukushima reactors.  But several things are certain:  First, the harm from the nuclear plants will be minuscule compared to the harm from the tsunami itself, and it will be localized to very close to the plant.  Two of the plant workers have suffered radiation burns to the skin of their feet from standing with inadequate boots in contaminated water.  They will recover.

Second, the safety of nuclear reactors everywhere will again leap forward from the lessons learned at Daiichi, though the improvement in reactor design over the almost 40 years since Daiichi began has already been vast.  In particular, the integral fast reactor (IFR) designed at the U.S. Argonne National Labs in the 1940s through 1990s is not only passively safe (no requirement for human intervention), but uses more than 100 times the energy in uranium (almost 100% of it, unlike current U.S. reactors that use less than 1%), and is designed to recycle the fuel within the building and make theft of the plutonium and uranium impossible without immediate deaths to the thieves from extreme excesses of radiation from the spent fuel products, in addition to plant security.  They would also render uranium mining unnecessary by recycling spent fuel.  The Daiichi reactors are to modern reactors, IFRs and others, like the Wright brothers’ glider is to a 747.

And finally, any objective and quantitative approach, uncontaminated by fear, would show that nuclear energy can provide the safest, most reliable, cleanest, and most sustainable source to save the planet for our children and grandchildren.  Other so-called renewable sources like wind and solar may be useful to supplement it, particularly locally, but steady round-the-clock baseload electricity for entire nations cannot be provided by such intermittent and dilute sources.  In addition, the U.S. Energy Information Administration continues to calculate that nuclear energy will prove to be the cheapest form, including wind and solar, though cost in human terms should be our most important criterion.  In that sense nuclear is ahead by orders of magnitude.

By Barry Brook

Barry Brook is an ARC Laureate Fellow and Chair of Environmental Sustainability at the University of Tasmania. He researches global change, ecology and energy.

187 replies on “Lessons about nuclear energy from the Japanese quake and tsunami”

You are right to be skeptical about radiation hormesis and plausible mechanisms to explain it.

At present, the people who are publishing papers showing dramatic reductions in mortality from cancers following radiation exposure tend to be rather cautious.

Here is a paper by Y.C.Luan et al:

This paper requests that the findings be checked by independent researchers. Unfortunately the people with the money to fund such studies (e.g. the EPA in the US) are committed to the LNT model.


Radiation poisoning is 100% LNT. Radiation is probability of decay of an individual isotope (50% at the half life), and the probability of that energetic particle hitting a DNA strand, and probability that said mutation will prevent apoptosis and uncontrolled growth.

100% LNT, if you are never ever exposed to radiation you will never be exposed to the above. Nothing radiation does is beneficial to the body, HOWEVER the body does react to low dosages of radiation and can have beneficial side-effects.

Imagine if somebody set off a small fire every five seconds, sure that might bring the FD over and they may occasionally find a real fire in the process, but anybody that understands the nature of limited resources can see the folly and the DANGER in this exercise.

The real answer is stimulating the immune system/repair mechanisms not exposing people to low level radiation. However people should not panic in case they are exposed to low levels of gamma.

Also the lives saved by damns should also be factored, their contribution to society is electricity, irrigation, and controlling flash floods, the damages is in biodiversity of the mega projects but its mostly crying over spilled milk. (I am opposed to the Amazon damn though)
[deleted personal scientific opinion presented as fact. Please re-submit with refs/links to support your contentions.]



the body does react to low dosages of radiation and can have beneficial side-effects.

By your own words, the effects of radiation exposure are NOT linear.


The location map (fukushima-daiichi-nuclear-power.jpg ) is inaccurate, in particular, Onagawa is plotted far to the north of the actual location. The map of “csmonitor” article which Hank Roberts referred to on 8 April 2011 at 3:09 AM has good locations.


I just read an article in THE AGE newspaper by Dr Karamoskos that left me quite astonished. In the opinion piece, Dr Karamoskos warns the public that all radiation is bad! Now, why do I find this incredible? It’s because Dr Karamoskos is a nuclear radiologist.

Earlier this week I had a heart scan at a nuclear medicine facility. This entailed being injected with a radioactive isotope of Technetium 99m, this is actually a metastable nuclear isomer of Te99 (with a half life of 6 hrs) and it decays or undergoes an isomeric transition by releasing a gamma ray. The total dose was around 1200 MBq, I was assured by the radiology staff before, during and after the injections, that I was in no danger from the short lived radioactivity.

Now, If I am to believe Dr Karamoskos, they were not telling me the truth. Rather than worry me or try to explain the benefits of the procedure over the small danger I faced with the injection, they simply told me a white lie, understandable but not very professional. However, that seems unlikely, for as I mentioned earlier Te99m, is a gamma emitter and gamma rays are the ones you shield with several cms of lead. Therefore over a thousand million gamma rays per second were radiating from my body and yet the medical staff, all well trained in the effects of nuclear radiation, remained in close proximity to me for over half an hour while they assisted me and measured the outcome of required physical testing. They wore no protective clothing and were clearly unconcerned.

When my tests were finished, the next patient (similarly radioactive) was assisted through the same procedure. Waiting for my final scan I was encouraged to visit the Hospital Cafe and enjoy a cup of coffee, denied me for the previous 24 hrs for medical reasons. As I sat over my coffee, I wonder if the young lady opposite me was in more danger from my gamma rays or the cafe latte and cream eclair she was so enjoying.

I think Dr Karamoskos owes nuclear radiologists an apology.


Certainly the 1400 times more radioactive statement is only part of the danger equation. You also have to know

– what type of radiation (hard alpha bioaccumulating in small organs being worst, gamma radiators that don’t bioaccumulate being least dangerous)
– following from this, it is important to know how much of the stuff decays in your body. For example if you live for another 60 years after exposure to a 30 year half life emitter you get 2 half lives or 75% of the isotopes to decay and put energy in you. That sounds a lot more dangerous than that factor 1400 though now we get into the discussion of acute radiation versus continuous exposure, where clearly the latter is many times less dangerous. How much less dangerous gets into the LNT debate again. Considering other examples of toxic substances I’d say LNT seems silly, for example drinking one glass of beer every weekend for 10 years will not have the slightest health effects whereas drinking 500 glasses of beer in one weekend is extremely deadly. Neurotoxins in tiny doses are stimulating to nerve cells whereas large dosis cause paralysis or even death. Pathogens in small doses increase body immune system resistance whereas large doses overwhelm you, potentially deadly.

Speculating, but what may be wrong in many of the panel analysis I’ve seen is that they do meta-studies, lumping different radiological exposures together, giving mixed results, thus no clear conclusions. However if you look at individual studies there is a trend that non-acute external whole body exposure (eg long airplane travel exposure, taiwanese residents living in cobalt-60 houses etc.) is beneficial, whereas concentrating internal dose from radionuclides such as I-131 gets bad for your health very quickly. Depositing the energy in a concentrated part of your body must be the explaining mechanism, overwhelming local repair mechanisms thought responsible for hormesis.


[Comment deleted. Violation of commenting rules.Please supply a link/ref to support your news/up-date information]
When you quote an article/source, giving new information, you must link to it so that others may read the whole piece and thus be able to comment/give you an answer to your questions.


Based on the news report that 3 out of 4 power lines have come down supplying the Onagawa nuclear plan:

I am trying to find out what would happen if the 4th line had also been damaged. Being just a member of the public I incorrectly thought that cold shut down rendered a plant safe. Am I right that electricity and working systems are needed to keep a plant safe (If so for how long before you do not need electricity.


Cyril R, you’ve given your personal opinions again. I’ve responded to your cites each time, looked up commentary, found followups and citing papers. You’ve got a strong belief, but it goes beyond the sources available.

Can you find any new sources on which to base the opinions you’re promoting? I do think I’ve dealt with the old ones you were relying on in the past. Now you’re saying basically the same beliefs but not citing new sources for what you believe. It seems to be going nowhere.


Eric, the various sets of emergency generators are the next line of defence for circulating cooling water if the offsite power had been lost.

As I understand it, cold shutdown is a safe state, just like power production is a safe state. Cold shutdown is an actively-cooled state where there’s no criticality and no steam production. After fuel rods have aged for about a year they need little more than convection for cooling in the spent fuel pool – effectively a guy with a bucket could keep up with the evaporation. After another couple of years they can be air-cooled in dry cask storage.


[Comment deleted for trolling]
MODERATOR Eric – you are trolling. Constant “Dorothy Dixer’s” are not adding to the content here and your strategy is apparent.
Please note, from the commenting rules:
Trolls will be warned then banned
You have been warned.


Aside to Michael James, your summary from your own research on low level radiation issues above is really helpful. One thought — where you wrote “For example if you believe in the “no safe dose” argument then it is perfectly logical to insist that population-wide breast screening is dangerous” — this is consistent with the information I’ve seen, at least from knowledgeable doctors to educated patients. They acknowledge there is some risk from the screening — lower than the risk (for the average member of the population being screened) of an undetected cancer, and point out this is always the case. Someone who has no cancer gets at least the added risk from the x-rays, and sometimes the added risk from a false-positive report; someone with actual cancer gets the benefit (and risk) that treating the cancer offers.

Everything in medicine, and life, has such tradeoffs. A patient who wants to know has the right to ask, and to try to look them up.

I once knew a pathologist who told me that, based on his own long professional experience looking at the results of surgical procedures at autopsies, he never chose to undergo any elective surgical procedure when there was any alternative. He was quite convincing, based on both his own experience and the statistics from his profession.

I’d guess the major risk is that people listen to the enthusiasts who can’t do the math and don’t bother to think about it before giving medical advice about these questions.


On storing spent fuel, this is a bit old but a good (and clickable-link-available) summary of the issues:

Click to access

One cautionary note: as with so many other issues, the actual details matter more than people thought about ahead of time. Example:

“Shipment of spent fuel is further complicated because there is no standard size of reactor fuel, so no standard size of canister will be practicable, making it impossible to take advantage of economies of scale.”



Eric Moore wrote:

I am trying to find out what would happen if the 4th line [at Onagawa nuclear plant] had also been damaged. Being just a member of the public I incorrectly thought that cold shut down rendered a plant safe. Am I right that electricity and working systems are needed to keep a plant safe (If so for how long before you do not need electricity.

While a few of the backup diesel power stations in NE Japan were shut down for maintenance, and some were leaking fuel, about three power plants in the region switched over to back-up power and did fine. There is also a spent fuel re-processing facility in Aomori Prefecture that faced station blackout and switched over to diesel power. It appears it took 3-9 hours to restore external power to these multiple locations. The Onagawa nuclear plant was not shut down as a precaution but because of a fire in a turbine as a result of March 11 quake (not a lot of details). Many of the power plants and spent fuel storage locations in Japan are now requiring mobile diesel generating trucks to be on hand for back-up power (government advised these purchases be made by end of April). Here is a status update from Kyodo on recent aftershocks:

Some water spilled out of the spent fuel pools at Onagawa as a consequence of the aftershocks. This is consistent with what happened to Kashiwazaki-Kariwa Nuclear Plants after 2007 Chuetsu earthquake (magnitude 6.6), and presumably at Fukushima (although some are still denying this). I suppose nobody wants to design covers or containment systems for these spent fuel pools, likely because it would be a massive retrofit, and also add even more vulnerable components and safety systems to deal with steam and hydrogen management and electricity backup to run fans, venting, filters, etc. A simple improvement, to my mind, would be to provide battery backup for standby gas treatment system (to vent gas from secondary containment and keep reactor building under negative pressure). As far as I know, the hydrogen gas treatment systems don’t have any separate battery or diesel backup (but relies on the same back up diesel generation that is supposed to run the entire cooling system at the time of a station blackout). Could such a simple secondary backup power source (of minimal voltage) have prevented the hydrogen explosions at 3 of the Fukushima plants?


“By your own words, the effects of radiation exposure are NOT linear.”

It is linear, what you are betting on is that your immune system will fix it. You are betting that the FD will put out your small fire.

Your body’s resources are limited, and alternatives are preferable, a healthy immune system can be stimulated without the risk of radiation exposure, just like somebody with AIDS could die from just one photon and lots of bad luck.

Radiation hormesis is controversial to say the least, its a dangerous practice of little reward with big risk. The only consensus is that small doses will not kill you in case of an emergency. But it is LNT.


Hank Roberts, please be more specific. I do have a life and if you disagree with some of my statements, lets hear it with sources. So far it does not appear to me that we disagree on all that much, and your sources support my positions.


Cyril, someone at the Mark Lynas site referred to earlier has followed up in comments another commenter who recommended the same Taiwan/apartment/cobalt study you’ve repeatedly cited.

Turns out it was followed up as the author suggested and the information obtained changed the conclusion.

quoting a bit of that; click the link for more. So my suggestion is, read the followup study and refer to that when you bring up the original study.

“the biggest problem with the Taiwan study was that its findings were confounded by age differences. When the first analyses were conducted, the researchers did not have data on the ages of apartment residents. Thus, in describing their statistics, they explicitly noted that their conclusions are contingent on “assuming the exposed population has the same age distribution as the population of Taiwan”, an assumption they identify as “a critical factor.” However, subsequent studies of this case have shown that, in fact, the age demographic of apartment residents was much lower than that of the general Taiwanese population. On its own this would be expected to result in lower cancer rates. Accordingly, a more complete revised analysis was subsequently published in the International Journal of Radiation Biology. When age differences between apartment residents and the general Taiwanese population were finally controlled for, the data showed a significant dose-response effect whereby radiation exposure was associated with increased rates of cancer morbidity(disease, not death) among apartment residents compared to in the general population”

Over the age of 30, the residents did not show higher morbidity rates.

from paper:

Cancer risks in a population with prolonged low dose-rate γ-radiation exposure in radiocontaminated buildings, 1983 – 2002
2006, Vol. 82, No. 12 , Pages 849-858 (doi:10.1080/09553000601085980)

You can put the DOI into Google Scholar and look at the reference for all available copies; most are PDFs; one gives you a HTML version of the text:,5

from which you can verify the quoted text.

I think we do agree on most things; I think we all need to work very hard at looking up what we believe and correcting our recollections and including new information.

We have to be very careful not to do what’s sometimes called “Reverse Citation” — a typical undergraduate mistake where the kid writes down what he believes, then uses Google and picks out links that he thinks might support them.

The moderators here are trying hard to teach folks not to do that and to check — but we have to check each other.

I’d love to believe hormesis is protective from low level gammas. I’d love to believe CO2 isn’t causing global warming. Can’t do it on the basis of the science available.

So I keep checking.


PS, I recommend the joint post, by Chris Goodall of and Mark Lynas. It’s at
It’s a long thoughtful piece.
(The Taiwan/cobalt hormesis notion was _not_ raised by Lynas; it and the update were cited by readers posting in the comments — it’s an example of someone going too far and distracting from the real good science that is actually reassuring)


PS again, another example of going beyond the science and making claims that are embarassingly easy to check — the one you often hear that Denver has less cancer than New Orleans and is higher up. This like that Taiwan cobalt study ignores the demographics needed to make a comparison.
Example of how it’s checked:
where you can read:

“Cancer Alley is an 85-mile region from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, Louisiana with very high cancer rates. The area was originally referred to as the “petrochemical corridor”, but the name was changed with the growing cancer rates.
In 2002, Louisiana had the second highest cancer rate in the nation. It was also second for total onsite releases. Cancer Alley has high rates of industrial accidents and chemical releases, primarily from the Condea Vista company.
Cancer Alley is, demographically, primarily African-American and lower income. Unemployment is high in the area, and most residents lack a college education. ”

How does this differ from Denver? Well, just about every item listed relates to cancer rates.


Let me sum up because this _is_ a distraction.

Radiation health, like climate change, is an area where a very small signal emerges from a noisy statistical background over decades or more. Sometimes more than a human lifetime is needed to accumulate data that will detect the likelihood of a trend statistically.

Biologists can point to signals in nature that are consistent with what’s expected from knowing the physics.

Biologists are often very emphatic about the problems they can see coming from climate change.

Biologists have to be careful to carve OFF the exaggeration, the bogus alarmism, and the hopeful wishful daydreaming that are so terribly tempting when trying to explain the real science to the public — and persistently reject the bogus stuff that will continue to be brought up over and over and over.

Stay with the science, cite sources, read footnotes, read cited papers, check the work — and stay aware that you need to _keep_ checking. New science gets published often; the weight of the evidence changes more slowly and the consensus takes time.


Hank Roberts, we know very well that cyclic hydrocarbons such as benzene are carcinogenic and genetotoxic, and petrochemical refineries release *lots* of those.

From the Taiwan cobalt-60 data, I noted earlier that they are a lower age population and that this explains perfectly the lower incidence of cancers right at the start, but this does not explain why the total cancer incidence went down hard to very low levels immediately after the buildings were occupied, whereas the overall Taiwanese cancer rate increased. This is explained perfectly if you believe hormesis, it is very hard to explain if you believe LNT.
I read a lot of scientific work, thank you. Two weeks ago you did not know the difference between a fuel rod and a fuel assembly. I’m not going to cite the obvious like the fact that there are actually *multiple* fuel rods in a fuel assembly, but if you want specifics on what you disagree on, I can find you some of the work I’ve read.
Please supply some refs/links. This argument is becoming circular and deteriorating rapidly into acrimony


“Cs-137 is longer lived, with a half life of 30 years, but by the same token, atom for atom, it is far less radioactive, by a factor of almost 1,400.”

Atom by atom, this is correct. But we see radioactivity reported in units like Bq and Ci. 1 Bq of Cs-137 is as radioactive as I-131 now and will last much much longer.


Haru, my point was that there are 1400 times more Bq coming out of the total dispersed I-131 than out of the total dispersed Cs-137, because the numbers of atoms of each are comparable when U-235 fissions. So atom by atom is the relevant consideration. Of course, the Cs-137 will last 1400 times longer, but its biological half life in the body is much smaller than 30 years, so you don’t get as much total over the years as you do from I-131, and, as I pointed out yesterday, the I-131 is concentrated in one part of the body (the thyroid gland), while the Cs-137 is widely dispersed, another diluting factor for the Cs-137.

On Hank Roberts’s point about Denver versus New Orleans, you are correction that this is not a good comparison when applied to natural background radiation. But thousands of other geographical comparison that are not compounded by high concentrations of carcinogenic chemicals (a much stronger carcinogen than radiation, by the way) are also consistent with the hormetic effect, namely lower cancer rates in places with higher background radiation.

The comment that radiation damage is accomplished according to LNT but the repair mechanisms are mere side effects is an arbitrary division of effects. If the “mere” side effects are universal, then they are not mere side effects, but rather effects of the radiation, even if they are indirect.


> thousands of other geographical comparison
> that are not
confounded by other factors

I’d welcome citations to such comparisons.
I have asked for refs to be provided, however, as I have already noted the argument is becoming circular and starting to flood the thread – take it to the Philosophical Open Thread please.


One other point to GCB who had the nuclear medicine imaging study: In the U.S. at least, and I don’t know about Australia, radiologists and nuclear physicians, as well as technologists who take the images, are all trained in the principle ALARA, which stands for as low as reasonably achievable, when it comes to doses of ionizing radiation. I know, because I’m a diagnostic radiologist, and I trained for one year in nuclear medicine, as well. When I first learned of the hormetic effect 8 years ago, from a health physicist, I was already 18 years into my radiology career. I cannot find a single other radiologist who is aware of even the concept of hormesis, never mind whether they believe it. We are all trained in the LNT approach. So if Dr. Karamoskos believes in it, it may be because Australian radiologists and nuclear physicians are also not trained in hormesis.

For me LNT was a case of cognitive dissonance that was dispelled in an instant, when I first heard about hormesis. After all, I knew that the body is capable of developing defense reactions to invasion of germs, chemicals, and other invaders, so it made instantaneous sense that the same would hold for radiation, particularly since humans evolved in a sea of radiation.

Dr. Karamoskos, in short, may be a victim of his training. The best that radiologists and nuclear physicians with that training can do is weigh the assumed risks of radiation against the known probably benefits, and that indeed is adequate for them to advise patients that the radiation will do them more good than harm. For me, it’s simply a distortion of the truth, and without an understanding of hormesis in virtually all chemical and physical influences it is difficult for many people to accept nuclear energy.


looking for studies that control for factors other than geographic location using

finds a few, but only a handful (surely there are more that can be found by someone who knows how?)

Here is a recent one:
Risk of malignancies in relation to terrestrial gamma radiation in a Swedish population cohort

SCIENCE OF THE TOTAL ENVIRONMENT Volume: 409 Issue: 3 Pages: 471-477 Published: JAN 1 2011
Abstract: Results of epidemiological studies on terrestrial gamma radiation (TGR) and related malignancies have not been consistent. This study is a thorough examination of this relationship. Records on all individuals living in two Swedish counties in 1973, along with their annual dwelling coordinates during the 28-year follow-up period, were retrieved from the National Archives and Statistics Sweden. We used Geographical Information System (GIS) to match the individuals’ dwelling coordinates annually to the TGR given in 200 x 200 m grids produced by the Geological Survey of Sweden. Cases of malignancies and deaths were retrieved from the Swedish Cancer Register. During the follow-up period 61,503 incident cases were included in the analyses and in total 11 million person-years were recorded. … Adjustments were made for sex, age, and population density. The hazard ratio (HR) per 100 nanoGray/hour (nGy/h) was significantly increased for total malignancies and for several sites: however, contrary to expectations, an obvious and anticipated linear exposure-response relationship could not be identified. With the lowest exposure category (0-60 nGy/h) as reference, a statistically significantly increased HR for total malignancies was seen in all exposure categories, except in the highest category 96-366 nGy/h. For breast cancer, thyroid cancer and leukaemia an obvious exposure-response could not be seen. (C) 2010 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.


Actually Hank, Denver vs. NewOrleans is a strawman. That is not a claim I have ever heard. If you have heard it other than in a debunking article, let me know.

The claim I have heard is that Denver has higher background radiation rates but lower cancer rates than the average of the rest of the country. And that variation is so well acknowledged that attempts to shore up no-threshold beliefs in the face of that evidence have to conjure, without visible support, the idea that lower oxygen pressure reduces cancer.


Joffan, read the original post that starts this thread.

Then look for a source with Google:“New+Orleans”

and with Scholar:

That story may be like the ‘hydroelectric dam’ story, a dramatic claim so easily believed that people don’t bother checking it.

But “ordinary claims require ordinary evidence.”

Dr. Sacks followed up in the comments, “Denver versus New Orleans … is not a good comparison …. But thousands of other geographical comparison … are also consistent with the hormetic effect ….”

Those should be findable, by someone with better search skills than I have.

As Peter Watts points out: “Science is so powerful that it drags us kicking and screaming towards the truth despite our best efforts to avoid it.”


Some thoughts on LNT and hormesis…

In spite of its’ broad acceptance, I am unimpressed with LNT as a robust scientific theory… given its’ origins as an ultra-conservative standard, imposed (by default, as it were) in the absence of solid, long-term data on the health effects of radiation, its’ singular, stubborn resistance to any refinement after 60 odd years experience smacks of bureaucratic entrenchment and regulatory inertia rather than standing on its’ own merits. Its’ persistence seems to be a product of its’ historical ubiquity and apparent conformance with the “Cautionary Principle” rather than its’ predictive power… in other words, it is not durable because it is robust, it is robust because it is durable. History provides too many examples long-established backward thinking, of well-intentioned, pernicious error, for me to find satisfaction in such flimsy foundations.

LNT is at the bottom of all radiation safety standards, dominating and directing every aspect of nuclear risk assessment… as such, its’ implications are profound. Perversely, it is precisely in the range where it offers the least predictable utility that its’ influence is most powerfully felt! There is no argument about high dose radiation effects… the literature is replete with tangible, repeatable, predictable observational phenomena to support a linear spectrum of detrimental effects at high levels. In safeguarding against these risks, just like in improving energy efficiency, the big gains come early and relatively easily. But at some point you reach a point of diminishing returns, and eventually the effort to achieve inconsequential, incremental improvement overwhelms the value of the end result. However, unlike energy efficiency, where at least there is a measurable result to be observed (regardless of the energy and resources expended to get there), and rational thermodynamic boundaries as to what is possible (< 100% perfection), in the case of LNT the negative effects of chronic low dose exposure remain perfectly unverified in an arbitrary universe that brooks nothing less than an implausible, perfect standard of unity… and so we are left in the dark, pursuing a benefit we have no assurance of approaching, much less hope of attaining. At low doses, LNT is a Will o’ the Wisp. It is an endless journey, of dubious utility, with a destination infinitely far.

This is unsatisfactory to me. I am persuaded that over the course of time, LNT’s apparent conformance with the “Cautionary Principle” has been exposed as an illusion. Due to its impossible demands, it has served to perpetuate an irrational fear of radiation, and is the fuel that feeds the regulatory/bureaucratic conflagration that consumes so much nuclear capital. It has played a huge role in denying much of the world the tremendous boon of clean, reliable, sustainable nuclear power, it has delayed the development/deployment of safer, more efficient reactor designs, and having accomplished that, is at least indirectly culpable for the necessary expansion of coal and the deaths associated with that expansion. To my mind, this is the proverbial road to Hell paved with good intentions.

Radiation hormesis on the other hand, while I don’t consider it conclusively proven, at least has the benefit of being consistent with the observed effects of other potential/actual toxins. Nor is it lacking in tangible evidence… the following snippets from the BEIR VII report provided by Mr. Lewis (Appendix D, pg 333).

“Although evidence for stimulatory effects from low doses been presented, little if any evidence is offered concerning the ultimate deleterious effects that occur.” (emphasis mine)

This is a clear acknowledgement that evidence supporting hormesis had been reviewed by the panel, but in typical LNT-centric fashion, what is “not known” trumps what is “observed” based on an assumption of possible future damage that never seems to manifest itself in any statistically significant way. Much of what follows the above statement would require a board certified geneticist to follow precisely, but, without presuming to expertise in the niceties of cellular biology, my layman’s sense of how this vetting process plays out is like this.

A researcher identifies a statistically significant hormetic event, and proceeds to try and explain the phenomena with a possible genetic/cellular response mechanism. Another group (appropriately) reviews the other groups’ work, and offers counter-scenarios that cast plausible doubt upon the original researchers’ work, without necessarily disproving it. As the back and forth proceeds, each side delves ever deeper into more and more esoteric areas until it becomes clear that no final, conclusive explanation for the event is forthcoming. In the face of the absolute demands of LNT, and a lack of an absolute explanation of the phenomena, with the eyes of the world upon them… it’s hardly surprising that the BEIR panel would elect to err on the conservative side of doubt and uphold LNT. However, in the meantime, the original “holistic” hormetic event remains unexplained, lost in the minutia. Since I’m feeling proverbial today, I suggest this resembles a “Can’t see the forest for the trees” scenario… or perhaps more appropriately, “Can’t see the organism through the cells”.

Under “Adaptive Response”, the BEIR VII folks go on…

“…results suggest that occupational exposure may have induced chromosomal damage in the worker population while protecting lymphocytes from a subsequent experimental radiation exposure administered years after initiation of the chronic exposure. It is unclear whether such competing events would result in a net gain, net loss, or no change in health status.”

Once again, a glaring admission of lack of clarity. Has there ever been a fundamental tenet for an entire branch of research, so dependent on uncertainty, yet so cloaked with impenetrable gravitas, as LNT? Personally, I find it remarkable. Once again, in the body of the text, this (non)conclusion is fortified (muddled?) with abstruse genetic/cellular analysis. From my layman’s perspective, I find myself wondering if this isn’t more indicative of the current limitations of cellular biology than a persuasive refutation of hormesis?

The good people at BEIR conclude (Phase 2, pgs 9 – 10)…

“…some materials provided to the committee suggest that the LNT model exaggerates the health effects of low levels of ionizing radiation… they say low doses of radiation may even be beneficial. The committee also this hypothesis. Instead, the committee that the preponderance of indicates that there will be some risk, even at low doses. As the in this Public Summary show, the risk at low doses will be small.” (emphasis mine)

I think language choices matter. “Does not accept” rather than “rejects”, the committee “concludes” rather than “firmly determines”, preponderance of “information” rather than “proofs” or “evidence”… rather non-committal for my taste, but par for the course. Such imprecision is the necessary mother-tongue of LNT because its’ very nature defies specificity. Its’ boundaries are infinite, and infinity defies precise definition. Not to worry though, no need to wade through the jungle of impressive, $100 dollar words used to debunk hormesis in order to understand LNT, kindly just refer to the “simple risk calculations” in the Public Summary to put your troubled soul at ease… how convenient!

Sorry for the sarcasm, but… really? Between BEIR and UNSCEAR, the acknowledged global authorities on radiation effects, the best they can do after all that work is lay down a tepid conclusion that appears to me an obvious choice between unknowns? Am I the only one not impressed?

But then, I’m a reasonable man. I am not dogmatic about hormesis and am willing to meet the champions of LNT halfway. I suggest a compromise. If we can agree with BEIR and UNSCEAR that there is an indeterminate range of low radiation exposures where negative health effects have not been conclusively and incontrovertibly proven, we can meet on the middle ground of some unknown threshold below which low dose radiation is not a valid concern… as the old joke goes, “now we’re just dickering over price”. At that point, reasonable risk assessment can begin…

John Rogers


Oops. For those paragraphs where I reference an “emphasis”, I somehow managed to delete the words I meant to emphasize! Dadblamed computatin’ machine! They should read…

“Although evidence for stimulatory effects from low doses “has” been presented, little if any evidence is offered concerning the ultimate deleterious effects that “may” occur.” (emphasis mine)

“…some materials provided to the committee suggest that the LNT model exaggerates the health effects of low levels of ionizing radiation… they say low doses of radiation may even be beneficial. The committee also “does not accept” this hypothesis. Instead, the committee “concludes” that the preponderance of “information” indicates that there will be some risk, even at low doses. As the “simple risk calculations” in this Public Summary show, the risk at low doses will be small.” (emphasis mine)

John Rogers


@John Rogers, Excellent analysis. This is why I dislike the debate being fought as LNT vs. hormesis, instead of LNT vs. threshold. First we need to establish the latter, then look for evidence of the former. Right now the issue is getting falling into the fallacy of the excluded middle (or more properly a false dichotomy)

In other words there are two questions here and the more important one is LNT vs. threshold


@DV82XL, thank you, and agreed.

There is precious little rational debate on these question, and it’s too important to indulge in a pie fight.

The only certainty is that neither LNT or hormesis has proven incontrovertably robust… that leaves a median threshold almost my default. Kind of an Occam’s Razor situation…


> “… the risk at low doses will be small.”
That’s the key to emphasize. Very, very small, compared to what we’re doing right now with fossil fuels. In many ways.

Worth reading:

Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Nuke power: still too safe, still too expensive, and no one’s changed their mind

where he points to
(outdated on the reactor news but useful for this):
“the most likely alternative energy source is fossil fuel. And by any measure, fossil fuel is more dangerous. The sole fatal nuclear power accident of the last 40 years, Chernobyl, directly killed 31 people. By comparison, Switzerland’s Paul Scherrer Institute calculates that from 1969 to 2000, more than 20,000 people died in severe accidents in the oil supply chain. More than 15,000 people died in severe accidents in the coal supply chain—11,000 in China alone. The rate of direct fatalities per unit of energy production is 18 times worse for oil than it is for nuclear power….OECD’s 2008 Environmental Outlook calculates that fine-particle outdoor air pollution caused nearly 1 million premature deaths in the year 2000, and 30 percent of this was energy-related.”

And he refers back to his 2005 post

in which he wrote:

“… Nukes are ridiculously safe compared to the thousands of people killed annually by coal power plant emissions, so reducing nuclear safety margins and shifting power from coal to nuclear would end up with a net safety benefit. This is politically unacceptable, though, so it’ll go nowhere.

As to nukes producing emissions comparable to coal/gas, I also highly doubt it. Even when I worked for Natural Resources Defense Council and we were fighting some lies on emissions put out by the nuclear industry, we didn’t make this claim….”

Point, same old theme — be clear when the claims being made aren’t supported — including claims made by people “on your side” politically that go beyond the facts .

This isn’t easy.

The best way to spend less money on safety for nuclear power plants is — not to need so many safety features. And it appears the way to do that is to build real Gen4 plants with improved fissionable reduction processing equipment on the same site.

No transportation of large volumes — except to bring spent fuel from old Gen 2 and Gen3 plants in for processing.

Wild idea, huh? Is anybody pushing for that besides Barry here?


I went to Navy nuclear prototype training at INEL, eastern ID, in the 80’s when EBR-2 still powered the site. Took multiple tours, even tried to get billeted out there in a training position rather than going to the fleet right away. It was the original IFR, and an unbelieveably impressive facility. Never got the billet, unfortunately.

Needless to say, I’ve been a frustrated Gen IV advocate for more than 2 decades.

John Rogers
John, Hank, Cyril, DV8 etc. As I said before, the argument is becoming circular and flooding the thread. Please move the conversation to the Fukushima Philosophical Open Thread. Comments on this topic will, from now, be deleted and you will be asked to re-post in the OT. We do not have the facility to move comments between threads.


@John Rogers “.. Has there ever been a fundamental tenet for an entire branch of research, so dependent on uncertainty, yet so cloaked with impenetrable gravitas, as LNT? ..”

An interesting and insightful question. However, my concern is rather expressed by replacing “for an entire branch of research” with “for an entire basis of regulatory limits and actions” , as in:

Has there ever been a fundamental tenet for an entire basis of regulatory limits and actions, so dependent on uncertainty, yet so cloaked with impenetrable gravitas, as LNT?

I can see why it is so- clearly it is an easier and more conservative to set limits based on a linear model. But it may not be the correct model.
Please move conversation over to Fukushima Open Thread. See comments from me down-thread.


One lesson is to tsunami-proof other reactors in Japan.

Tsunami countermeasures for Kashiwazaki Kariwa

but possibly the more importatn lesson is that peak demand is down about 20% from before 2011 Mar 11 and so the rolling blackouts are over. While some demand decline is due to reduced economic activity this still suggests a quite amazingly (to me) elastic demand for electricity.


@MODERATOR – While I yield to your decision, it seems to me that the issue of LNT is very germane to the general topic of this thread. Pronuclear supporters, have never been comfortable with LNT, but until this incident, it has never been so clear just how much trouble policy based on this idea can cause.

Thus there are lessons pertinent to nuclear energy being discussed.
DV8 – I agree that LNT is germane to this thread and that is why I let it stand here for some time. However, it has become apparent that it is deteriorating into a “I said, you said” argument and getting nowhere – most useful points have been made by both sides of the argument and it is now becoming repetitious – ergo the Philosophical OT is the place to take the argument/discussion IF it is going to continue.I suggest it has run its course for now.


> philosophical

Agreed, going nowhere.

Moderator — once you get the cite you requested for the geographical comparisons, please add it or xref it here somehow. This blog will be a historical reference; loose ends will merit tidying whenever the missing info can be filled in, for later readers.


One lesson I haven’t seen elsewhere that several of us here have remarked on — with multiple reactors on the same site, some (3 and 4?) sharing a single control room — failures can’t be assumed to occur independently and risks assessed one at a time.

That’s even assuming all the maintenance has been done correctly and up to date (and assuming there exists no shared problem due to mistaken maintenance or common flawed hardware or software).

Do we know any details of the risk-based management of the plants?

Another lesson is — when the manufacturer recommends a fix, apply the fix.

Another is: older plants have more problems

“In the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, the latest data available, Daiichi had the highest accident rate of any big Japanese nuclear plant, according to data collected by the Japan Nuclear Energy Safety Organization, a mostly government-funded group that monitors safety and conducts inspections. Daiichi’s workers were exposed to more radiation than their peers at most other plants, the data show.

Tepco says… the plant’s age accounted for the higher rate of accidents, all of which were relatively minor until March 11.”

I wonder if this aging effect is considered when estimating risks — do risks go up as plants approach their original design end of life, as Fukushima 1 has?


My primary concern at the moment is that in sorting through all of the data and updates from fukushima daiichi, they say that they are injecting fresh water into the RPVs at between 6cubic meter and 8 cubic meters per hour. But no where do I see any indication that they have re-established any cooling loop.

So where is all of this water they are injecting going? Do they have cooling loops up and running? or no?


Pertaining to safe, or ‘healthy’, levels of radiation:

Are the affects of background radiation the same as the affects from Iodine 131 & Cesium 137 radiation?

These studies are critical to expand the awareness of people about radiation and for the success of gaining popular support. I would like to then see these studies of low level radiation also include an emphasis into any increased effects on children and the risks of birth defects.
[Deleted violation of the citation rule]
Please check the commenting rules, in particular the “Citing literature and other sources”, before posting again. The rules appear on the “About” page, however the citation rule has been highlighted twice down-thread for other commenters.


To Moderator:
Sorry. I have read the rules but I am still not clear as to why some of the post was deleted.

This is what Prof Brook has stated:
BARRY BROOK The commenting rules are not meant to be confusing, they’re meant to be logical. This is not a forum for cut-and-pasting slabs of text, with no other comment other than a link. Tell people why you think they should be interested in reading this, and what it means for this discussion. Otherwise, you’re not thinking and not contributing. Simple as that.
Citing literature and other sources: appropriate and interesting citations and links within comments are welcomed, but please DO NOT cite material that you have not yourself read, digested and understood. As a general rule, please introduce any and every link or reference with a short description of the material, your judgement on its quality, and the specific reason you are including it (i.e. how it is relevant to the discussion).


This is useful additional information that provides some perspective:

Note, in particular, the high dose rates, ironically, for cancer treatment: 20 Sieverts total for all treatment sessions!

I think an important lesson is that many people don’t understand the units, even SI units like micro and milli, so they are susceptible to fearmongering by the media.

How’s this for a lesson: make radiation and nuclear physics basics a standard course in highschools and college?


The ratio 1400 comes from the 30 point something year half life of Cs-137 versus 8 days for I-131.
30×365= 11000
11000/8 = 1400
Rough figures.

I guess this means that the main problem, at least at the moment, is contamination from the released I-131 and that the radiation intensity being caused by the released Cs-137 is only a tiny fraction, ~one thousandth, of the total radiation intensity. This is the level that will matter once the plant is under control. Does anyone know how this level compares with background radiation?


People don’t understand numbers, that’s right!
That’s also the reason why Hitler was so succesfull! Have you ever listen to one of his speeches? A lot of emotion, with no rational content at all! Emotions is what people get from the news. Rationality only makes its way very, very slowly, specially only after time has eroded emotion…
We are facing a very difficult fight. Yesterday most media in Portugal reported about “radioactivity leaks” in Onagawa and Higashidori, and those media were copying from the international news…!


I think you have to divide the 1400 factor by the half lives already happened, so about zero for Cs-137 but 3 or 4 for I-131. Lets call it 4 half lives (its been almost a month since shutdown) so 1400/0.5^4)=87 times less. But then we also must compensate for how much cesium versus how much iodine is lying/floating around. But it gets more complicated still because of bioaccumulating, this is much less bad for Cs-137. According to Wiki the biological half life for Cs-137 is 70 days:

It gets even more complicated! Because Cs-137 decays to Ba-137 which is a gamma emitter. Though the amount of Cs-137 decaying in 70 days is very small considering its 30 year half life, so this shoudn’t add that much (and gamma radiaton is less concentrating damage than beta from Cs-137 itself).


Rather than guessing its better to look at the trends from measuring points:

Click to access ENGNEWS01_1302227043P.pdf

Highest values from this data set are around 6 microsieverts/hour in Iitate village. This was right under a fallout plume. Trend seems to be downward over the last two weeks (due to not needing steam release anymore and no more hydrogen explosions that can help push nuclides in the air). Trend seems to be to go to 4 microsieverts/hour long term for Iitate village.

It could be that there are some local ‘hotter’ spots under the area near Iiatate, where plants accumulate some of the volatile fission products. This will require investigation.


A 4 microsievert/hour dose would be 35 millisievert/year dose or about 10x background. If you’re a farmer and spend a lot of time outside you might attenuate something like 20 millisievert/year perhaps?

Doesn’t seem so bad to me.


This is a note I received from Ted Rockwell, a longtime nuclear engineer who worked with Admiral Rickover on nuclear submarines and who has authored a number of books and articles on nuclear energy. It was in response to my posting above. Barry Brook suggested that I post Ted’s response here, and Ted agreed to let me do so. I am posting it more for Ted’s interesting comments on Chernobyl:


Pls excuse my delayed response. I had to wade through a tsunami of correspondence to get to it. You’ve done an excellent job! Congratulations. The specific examples you cite add a lot to the generic statements. I’m printing up a copy to quote from.

I have a few suggestions for future papers—I wouldn’t try to pack any more info into what you’ve written.

Chernobyl will be much in the news, as we approach its 25th anniversary. There are several wholly different points to be made.

1. We shouldn’t have to mention it at all. We never claimed it was safe. It was a weapons reactor, only incidentally selling electricity. No one is talking about building more of them. In fact, Ken Rogers, then NRC Commissioner, told the Soviets publicly that the design was inherently unsafe and could not have been licensed to operate here. Its biggest inherent flaw is that its graphite moderator make it over-moderated, so that as its water heats up or boils, its neutronics makes it get even hotter, and it overheats and melts down. No physically achievable events could make one of our reactors undergo such a meltdown. To make this case clear, you have to write a long tome on why you shouldn’t be discussing the subject at all. Not a winning rhetorical position.

2. Too much is made of the fact that Chernobyl had no container, unlike our reactors. This is true, but it implies that, inside the TMI containment was a Chernobyl cloud straining to get out. That implies that containment leak-tightness is critical, whereas we learned just the opposite. Measurements inside TMI containment, backed by other data, showed that the swirling cyclone of air, steam and water, plus the multiplicity of cooler metal surfaces, scrubbed most of the worst radioactivity out of the containment air.

3. The Chernobyl meltdown is one of the most carefully studied events in recent history. The official consensus is the public health impact OF THE RADIATON ITSELF WAS MINOR. The various reports by WHO, UNSCEAR, et al., emphasize that FEAR OF RADIATION, and ill advised action based on that fear, was far more harmful than the radiation. This is true, even if we were to accept oft-cited figures as 4000 ultimate deaths. But we shouldn’t leave such unfounded figures unchallenged. Nor should we accept baseless claims of malformed infants, and other fairy tales including six-foot chickens wandering the forests. It’s fair to point out that, even if such claims were accepted, Chernobyl would rank low among industrial accidents. But unsubstantiated claims of “ultimate cancer deaths” are not valid, and reports by self-appointed experts should not be taken at face value. We’re too willing to accept claims that we can still live with, rather than showing many such claims are dead wrong.

We should ask, when people press for more radiation data, what is the fecal coliform count? The pesticide level? The level of other poisons such as mercury?

There are people today saying “One side claims a million people HAVE DIED from Chernobyl, and the other side says the ultimate cancer deaths will be 4000. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle.” That sounds very reasonable, but it’s just plain wrong. We have to show why that’s so.

Ted Rockwell


One of the lessons learned from Fukushima will be the time and astronomic cost involved to clean up the radioactive waste. There are dozens of other aging reactors waiting to be decommissioned. Even under normal circumstances this can take decades and up to a billion dollars each. Are we honestly factoring in these costs when we consider the cost of nuclear power?

End to Japan nuke crisis is years, a fortune away

Decommissioning usually takes three forms: dismantling or decontaminating parts of the reactors so the land can be used; safely sealing off and monitoring the nuclear plant while the radiation inside decays; and entombing radioactive parts in concrete and steel.

With so much radiation spread about, experts said a combination of these is likely to be used at Fukushima. Once the reactors cool, heavily contaminated areas could be entombed by pouring concrete on top and tunneling underneath to insert a slab to prevent seepage. Other tainted areas could be locked down. That would allow the radiation to decay naturally but put on hold usual tasks like dismantling parts of the complex.

“The best solution is to entomb the site for 40, 50, 60 years,” said Arnold Gundersen, who wrote part of the Energy Department manual on decommissioning and runs the U.S.-based environmental consulting company Fairewinds Associates.

A Fairewinds study cited cost estimates for decommissioning the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, whose boiling water reactors are similar to Fukushima’s but have fewer problems, that ran as high as $950 million last year and would likely exceed $1 billion next year. Gundersen said the tab for the Japanese plant may end up being many times that amount.

Hidehiko Nishiyama, chief spokesman for Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, has said ideally the Fukushima complex eventually will be returned to “flat land,” meaning the facility is dismantled and removed.

Though an avid user of nuclear power with 54 plants, Japan has little experience in decommissioning and none involving problematic reactors. The first, the Tokai Power Station’s No. 1 reactor, is 13 years into a 22-year process. Its fuel rods have been removed, and its turbines and other equipment are being dismantled while the reactor is isolated, its vents and ducts closed.


[Comment deleted. Wrong thread.]

Please note that the discussion on radiation has been moved to the Fukushima Philosophical Open Thread where the commenting rules are more relaxed. We do not have the facility to move comments between threads.


Shelby, yes those cost can be easily factored in. Put a small amount of money per kWh sold in a fund (bank account). The money piles up and after 30-50 years, when you want to decommission, there is enough money available. In fact 0.02 cents per kWh (yes thats zero point zero two cents per kWh or 0.2 euro per MWh) gets you almost half a billion at the end. The historic cost of decommissioning is more like 0.3 billion per reactor, however some times cost more to decommission, for example the British gas cooled graphite moderated designs.

We do need to make sure the money is actually there, so making the fund a legal requirement would be a good idea, in my opinion.


I was wondering the other day how many nuclear power plant workers have died in car accidents on their way to and from work, by contrast to the number (0?) who have died from radiation exposure.

Some industrial installations do track this as part of a holistic safety programme. Even without that, presumably one could get a good estimate just from the number of nuclear power employees and the average car accident frequency. Probably it is in the dozens, if not hundreds, over the history of the industry.


Just found an interesting study result from workers of Manhattan Project (ie bomb makers/researchers handling plutonium).

“Twenty-six white male workers who did the original plutonium research and development work at Los Alamos have been examined periodically over the past 50 y to identify possible health effects from internal plutonium depositions. Their effective doses range from 0.1 to 7.2 Sv with a median value of 1.25 Sv. As of the end of 1994, 7 individuals have died compared with an expected 16 deaths based on mortality rates of U.S. white males in the general population. The standardized mortality ratio (SMR) is 0.43. When compared with 876 unexposed Los Alamos workers of the same period, the plutonium worker’s mortality rate was also not elevated (SMR = 0.77). The 19 living persons have diseases and physical changes characteristic of a male population with a median age of 72 y (range = 69 to 86 y). Eight of the twenty-six workers have been diagnosed as having one or more cancers, which is within the expected range. The underlying cause of death in three of the seven deceased persons was from cancer, namely cancer of prostate, lung, and bone. Mortality from all cancers was not statistically elevated. The effective doses from plutonium to these individuals are compared with current radiation protection guidelines.”

Now this group is too small for any sound statistical conclusion, but still, interesting.


The estimate on death toll (by cancers) by WHO (World Health Organization 2006 p106) is 4000 among the 600000 most exposed, however with many caveats. (I believe it is too high).
This corresponds to a several times higher number for the world population using “LNT” estimates.
Greenpeace presented a document 2006 p10 mentioning recent studies pointing on 200 000 dead in Russia, Belarus and Ukraina. In recent documents suggested death toll is 93000.
The body which institutionally should make estimates from a trusted source is UNSCEAR (The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation)., information to press at .
An annex to a report which can be said to be the most important recent document on the issue of the death toll of Chernobyl was presented February 28 2011 (two annexes with some bearing were presented still later. The report does not give a projection (estimate) of expected total death toll because of “unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions,” the Committee decided not to use models to project absolute numbers of effects in populations exposed to low doses.
I think it is very unfortunate that UNSCEAR cannot not clearly put a higher limit on what the death toll (global and preferable all time, but at during a century) might reasonable be, ruling out some high numbers suggested. This leaves the floor open for all sorts of speculations what a trustworthy projection maybe. Many reads the UNSCEAR report as the death toll is around 50 and not more (which actually I do not trust in), while many will believe in the magnitude 100 000. Is not scientific precision about what a lot of people have studied a lot of time and society really wants a clearer answer more accurate than that?
The projections are difficult for many reasons. One is that the “LNT” model is in serious doubt and positive effects of radiation has been suggested and such issues must be addressed probably revising the conclusions by BEIR (A committee which derives its mandate from NATIONAL RESEARCH COUNCIL OF THE NATIONAL ACADEMIES, USA.) Suggests in a report 2006 no threshold on cancer incidence and no positive effect of low doses (hormesis) That looks a most trustworthy report regarding its source and it is not old.


Dag, one of the interesting things about the BEIR VII report is that they do not actually use LNT. They use a special low-dose version that if anything is even less well supported than LNT, since it makes an arbitrary adjustment called “dose and dose-rate effectiveness factor”, DDREF. See here. Any data set that contradicts LNT can then be accommodated using DDREF.

The report also has something interesting to say on a group whose exposure is carefully monitored – nuclear industry workers.

In most of the nuclear industry workers studies, death rates among worker populations were compared with national or regional rates. In most cases, rates for all causes and all cancer mortality in the workers were substantially lower than in the reference populations.

Hmm – sounds convincing – will this result be allowed to challenge LNT?.

Possible explanations include the healthy worker effect and unknown differences between nuclear industry workers and the general population.

Very woolly.


How I see it?
It is a fact beyond reasonable doubt that a single decay of a radionuclide may change the hereditary material, which at the end may be fatal. Thus the effects of low doses have an element of linearity without threshold. “Linear without a threshold” (LNT) is an oversimplification, which is both right and wrong concerning Chernobyl. The problem is that the path from decay to effect is not straightforward. The path is individual and very variable. What appear as mutations may be different events. The nucleic acids and their structure may change in different ways. The body has systems for copying, reading, editing, rearranging and repairing nucleic acids; many of the systems also include nucleic acids. The initial event caused by background radiation may be change path by the Chernobyl event. Maybe low doses trigger a repair system and that maybe the explanation of the hormesis effects. Some stages are particularly sensitive (DNA replication, meiosis), there really low doses may trigger something. There are plenty of ways the path may change, an initial damage may be healed, and the triggering event may harm repair capacity rather than a structural gene. The large variation in paths is evident when grouping cases in categories, where things like genotype, sex, stage, type of effect, age etc may have large effects, but the individual cases are of course still more different. For parts of the events low doses will have thresholds. Each case will have its own potential dose-effect relationship although it receives only a certain dose. When data are pooled from many cases the large individual variation may often look well approximated with a linear dependence with a threshold for low doses. But the most useful approximation is probably a low dose linear with a shallow slope and without threshold, which goes over in a high dose linear with larger slope and pointing at the dose-axes at some dose. The key to estimates for small doses to large populations is the slope of the low doses in the range of the natural background.
Thanks Joffan, that is a very good and relevant comment and thank you for focusing my attention on this! One of the reasons I write here is that I hoped for such comments. DDREF is actually nearly what I am suggesting or rather thought about before my time-out (see below)! The complete BEAR report costs money, so I did not look closer if they really used DDREF and the value they assigned it and the reasons to choose that value. Of course we cannot get it from epidemiologic studies. There are studies on mutations in Arabidopsis around Chernobyl; perhaps these data give an idea. And one has to think on how different cancers occur.
Cyril R points out the fear, which is strengthened by the Greenpeace report. However not just Greenpeace, there are authors and acknowledgements in the report and other organizations are behind. And the purpose for most behind may be to benefit Mankind or spreading facts, as we do here.
Who I am?
45 years ago I was a postgraduate student in radiation biology. I followed seminars and discussion which now are highly relevant. Some of the people appearing in the recent debate I have met. I participated in experiment to study dose-mutation response down to the background. We got responses supporting effects of extremely low doses. The trick to get large experimental populations convenient was to use starch composition in pollen grains (male gametes). So no threshold was supported. But the response curves were not simple linear clearly indicating that complex mechanisms played a role. Certainly that made us think in tracks described above. When I made a carrier in a different field and am now retired and returning after 45 years time-out. Not very much has happened since I left the field, e.g. LNT is still a doubtful general model. Scientists must have spent much time thumb rolling the past 45 years.? Opinions about the radiation effect of low doses have widened. We thought radiation induced mutations were a bit more of a threat to the human genome, and thought induced mutations would play a bigger role in plant breeding than they have done. Nuclear testing in the atmosphere, spread of nuclear weapons and build up of huge arsenals for “Mutual Assured Destruction” were on the agenda. Part of the propaganda was the consequences in terms of ionizing radiation. We were living closer to the early times when humans really got harmed by large doses to considerable numbers, like miners, atom bomb survivors and early physicians and scientists. Thus “we” may have overemphasized the negative effects of radiation. Nuclear bombs felt more appealing as target than environment friendly energy production.


Dag Lindgren, it is fact beyond reasonable doubt that ionising radiation can easily kill a single cell, including all DNA in it.

However, every cell has the DNA code within it.

If the ionising radiation damages DNA it can be repaired by various biological processes such as the enzyme repair mentioned in the main post by Dr. William Sacks.

Certainly this repair mechanism and others as mentioned above by Dr. Sacks have their limits, which is why acute radiation exposure to large doses can be very harmful.


The anti-fracking Gasland documentary is very biased and makes a lot of wrong statements. See .
It isn’t any kind of reputable evidence against “fracking” (hydrofracturing).
The gas industry is subject to some of the same sorts of antagonism as is nuclear power. A lot of people apparently are “idealistically” against various sources of energy, while also driving their cars or SUV’s, heating their houses and using electricity freely. I don’t think much of that kind of idealism!
A lot of people don’t make the effort to check factual claims, or to fact-check their ideas, that’s why the Gasland movie can be as popular as it is, and why the exaggerations about nuclear power risks.


Re: Large Historical Tsunamis

@David B Benson, @Hank Roberts, @David Lewis and possibly others

Besides this 869 AD mega earthquake that generated a very large tsunami, there evidently have been at least three EQs in the last 115 years that have generated 23+ meter tsunamis in Japan:

Along the Sanriku coastline (200 km N of Fukushima) there was a 33 m tsunami in 1896 and a 23 m one in 1933. In 1993 there was a 30 m tsunami off the west coast of Hokkaido. Links to sources regarding these can be found at:

In addition, it is common knowledge in the seismological and geological fields (hence I am not looking up a citation thereof) that large subduction earthquakes can cause the dropping of near-shore coastal areas near the source region by several meters or more. This happened at some coastal city during this last event; the city had been hit once before by a 10m tsunami, and so had built a tsunami wall this high to protect it; however, the coastline dropped several meters and was again badly damaged by a comparably sized tsunami (saw this on a NOVA special and a Nat. Geo. special; don’t have a more academic citation for it).

Charles Darwin noted this affect after an earthquake in Chile, during his Beagle voyage. In fact, a large component of coastal paleoseismology entails looking for submerged wetlands and/or forests in the stratagraphic, which are indicative of such earthquakes.

So, in fact, one doesn’t have to go all the way back to 869 AD to find such large tsunamis along the Japanese coast. In addition, some of the above tsunamis were generated by earthquakes smaller than this recent one; in fact, one was generated by a 7.2 EQ. The particular EQ mechanism as well as the local bathymetry strongly affect tsunami size.

Given these fairly recent historical tsunamis, it beggars belief, how the builders of the Fukushima plant didn’t take such events into account when designing the layout of the plant. Due diligence in designing a coastal nuclear plant in a known earthquake/tsunami zone requires it. That such large tsunamis occurred elsewhere on the Japanese coast, suggests that all coastal areas with similar seismic hazards are capable of experiencing a similar sized tsunami event.

It is glaring oversights like this, amongst other safety issues, that give rise to the distrust of the nuclear power industry and skepticism about nuclear power plant safety in general by persons like myself.

The Fukushima plants never should have been built where they are as they are. I’m not just saying this in hindsight; rather, ALL the other nuclear plants similarly built along the coast or near dormant volcanoes (such as the five plants built around Mt. Fujiami) are disasters waiting to happen.

I have yet to hear anything about higher ground emergency generators and fuel tanks being built for Japan’s other coastal reactors, nor have I heard anything about the removal of the spent fuels from their precarious near-ceiling ponds above their reactors. Thus it looks like the Japanese nuclear industry has learned nothing from this catastrophe; nor has US nuclear industry, as it stores its spent fuel rods in the same manner for the same type of plants and has no near-term plans to do otherwise.


Regarding Fracking


Do you consider the scenes where the homeowner lights the gas coming out of his kitchen sink to be biased?

Do you not believe that there is likely causation between a spring-fed stream in a rural area that was potable as far back as people can remember, but is now causing animals to die and has been found to contain chemicals likely part of fracking fluids, e.g. benzene?

Don’t you find it curious that VP Cheney snuck into energy legislation a provision that fracking fluids don’t fall under EPA regulations regarding injecting pollutants into the ground by the reasoning that they are all withdrawn, even though it is well known that all such fracking fluids can’t be withdrawn?

I find it curious that these drilling companies don’t even have to tell the EPA or anyone else what chemicals are in their fracking fluids as it’s “proprietary” information. I’m sure nuclear power enthusiasts would love to get away with such a deal regarding the secret ingredients in their fuel rods…

The director/producer was not against fracking until he started seeing what was happening to his neighbors water wells, and then began interviewing people elsewhere who had sold mineral/gas rights under their property.

I find it most notable that the gas companies tell these folk that their well water will be fine, but when the drilling people are offered cups of the post-fracking well water to drink they refuse.

The whole idea of fracking is to fracture the rock and then to inject fluid to push the natural gas up and out of the drill wells. This crushing or fracturing of rock requires high pressures, which will push the toxic/carcinogenic injection fluids into the outermost regions of these fractures rock zones, that may be intersected by natural fissures that go up to the water table.

Moderator: I realize that this thread isn’t probably the appropriate one for comments on fracking, but I am just responding to someone else who brought the subject up.


Nuclear Layman, on 14 April 2011 at 8:16 PM — Please do read “To EnginERR is Human” by Henry Petroski.

I assure you that lessons will be learned from this event.


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