PERSPECTIVE ON RISKS,
ENERGY AND RADIATION.
John K. Sutherland, PhD.
PERSPECTIVE ON RISKS, ENERGY AND RADIATION. by John K. Sutherland.
"We cannot prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all before us and with just as much apparent reason. On what principle is it that when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?" Lord MaCauley, 1830.
The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed - and hence clamorous to be led to safety - by menacing it with endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. H.L.Mencken.
We are all biased to a considerable degree whether we recognise it or not. I am biased in favour of a clean environment, a healthy society, freedom from nuclear war, a secure future for my children and a better standard of living for everyone. I would be very surprised if nearly everyone did not support those goals too, but one group thinks it can only be achieved by shunning technology and progress and turning back the clock, and another thinks that technology, science and progress will provide the means to solve our problems. Popular wisdom of the pessimists suggests that:
1. We are being poisoned by chemicals and radioactivity.
2. The health of our society has never been worse.
3. Business and technology are responsible for all of our problems.
4. We must regulate, restrict and ban everything that is even slightly damaging to our environment and health if we expect to survive.
These are believed and vigorously promoted because we appear to be evolving into a gloom and doom society with a fixation on only bad news and focusing on terrorism, war, famine, disease, and disaster. We are also inundated by popular books, newspaper stories and TV programs that tell us about these horrors and others that are more imagined than real, with great conviction and intensity, but without the facts that should accompany the stories. After all, facts are not established by public opinion nor even by the present brand of creative newsmaking, but perceptions certainly are. The North American belief appears to be that:
1. If the media carries a story about absolutely anything and describes it as dangerous and environmentally damaging, even without any facts to back it up, then it probably is.
2. Any attempt by scientists, government or industry to deny or correct the above, by presenting perspective and the missing facts, only indicates that it must be true, as scientists are not to be trusted.
The media itself is a peculiar beast. The media and journalists agitate for control, regulation and responsibility for their actions, of every other industry. Yet the media and journalism insist that there be no such thing as reasonable regulation of themselves. It would be tantamount to the grossest interference with the freedom of the press. The implication is, of course, that journalists are fundamentally honest and can be trusted to present unbiased accurate information, whereas industry or anyone who works for it or sympathises with it cannot be trusted! A recent book, by one of the pillars of the CBS newsroom for 28 years, Bernard Goldberg, wrote a potboiling expose of his colleagues, titled 'Bias: A CBS insider exposes how the media distort the news'. He is now out in the cold for daring to expose the left-leaning manipulation of what the media want the public to know and not know. At last it is openly acknowledged by one of their own. And they don't like it.
All too often, freedom of the press is tantamount to the freedom to misinform its audience and they often do a totally shallow and rotten job of informing anyone and escaping responsibility for doing so; sometimes winning Pulitzer prizes in the process. One point that one maverick journalist pointed out in this context was that there is one industry that consistently exploits its workforce and is ignored. It relies heavily upon child labour, with no control of hours, no regular hours, below minimum wage, work in all weather under dangerous conditions and frequently in dangerous circumstances. In any other industry such malfeasance would be hauled before the courts. In the media industry, using children to deliver the newspapers and journals is accepted practice.
Peter Medawar, a British scientist of repute, pointed out in his `Advice to a young Scientist' that `the intensity of a conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not.' If a foolish belief is held by 50,000 people, it is still a foolish belief. Additionally; 'One should not confuse the truth with the opinion of the majority' - Dutch saying. When anatomists showed that the skeletal structure of males and females was the same and that men did not have an odd number of ribs, this was regarded by some zealots as sacrilegious and heretical and outright wrong. The popularly and dogmatically held belief that the earth was flat - a notion vigorously upheld by the earth's population centuries ago - did not over-ride the physical reality. Galileo almost lost his life for bucking the main dogma of the day in daring to suggest that Copernicus was right and the earth was not the centre of things.
There is no substitute for the facts, but in some areas, especially those where Torquemado and the inquisition prevailed, it was contrary to continued good health and longevity to swim against the tide and profess that YOU were right and THEY were misguided.
In our society, even a single voice of truth should be able to drown out the claques and rattles of a million buffoons, but it often doesn't, as we saw in the recent fiascos surrounding PCBs, and Alar in apples. However, facts are almost as scarce as hens' teeth. If you wonder how this could be, consider how we have become the willing targets of the multi-billion dollar advertising industry. We are ready to believe anything and everything if it is packaged persuasively and appeals to the baser features of greed, vanity, fear, animal instinct, ignorance, or sex. A breakfast cereal, cashing in on the ignorance of the day, was promoted at the beginning of the century as curing such problems as loose teeth, nervous disorders and malaria! We are still just as gullible. Cigarettes, once widely regarded by doctors and others at the turn of the century, as promoters of good health and touted to cure many problems, are now advertised by heroes with fast cars and sophisticated women (image appeal and, most important, sex! See what happens when you smoke? In 1990, it is estimated that 800,000 people will die in India from smoking related disease to join the 600,000 or so that die in North America. It is a pity we don't follow these people to autopsy to really see what happens when you smoke!). Betty Grable - a sex symbol of the forties who advertised and smoked cigarettes - died of lung cancer at 56 and the Marlboro man also recently died of lung cancer and waged a mini campaign against smoking in his last few months. His generous salary while working, caused him to turn a blind eye to the risk he was running until the habit caught up with him. A bit too late to wake up, unfortunately.
Every woman can look as good as the bombshell on the boob tube simply by buying the right makeup. Right? The multi-billion cosmetic industry has a lot at stake in persuading women of this. None of this is very subtle to most intelligent people. But it is still very effective or it wouldn't be part of our society. Appeal to the emotions and there really is a sucker born every minute, and never mind the facts. To understand why none of the 4 points at the beginning is accurate, we need to bypass the emotions and gain access to the facts that allow us to interpret the information. Accurate interpretation however requires not only common sense, which is an uncommon commodity, but also perspective, and an ability to compare the alternatives from the twin viewpoints of detriment and benefit.
Risks and Perspective.
Demands for greater and greater safety, losing sight of perspective, benefit and detriment, become ludicrous as well as being incredibly wasteful and expensive. A classic example of this comes from Sweden (Cooper). The Swedish Space Research Council wanted to study the aurora by sending up sounding rockets with instruments into the auroral zone. What goes up, must come down if it doesn't go up high enough. If any of the returning hardware hits you, it is unhealthy. Since the number of inhabitants in this area of Lapland was small, and since the program was not going to be repeated, it was not worthwhile building shelters -- instead, the handful of people would be evacuated. There were no roads (this is reindeer herding country), so the people were moved out and returned by helicopter, and everybody was happy. Yet when you worked it out, the chance of being hit by a piece of a sounding rocket was less than 1% of the chance of a helicopter crash. On the benefit side of the equation, the risk of being hit by a missile was avoided, but on the cost side, not only was a 100 times greater risk substituted, but the Swedes went to considerable expense to do it, either not realising, or hoping that no-one would find out! If nothing else, they should have known what we are recognising is increasingly important to consider; that money spent (wasted) on the wrong thing, is money that is not available for other, more beneficial, endeavours such as preventive medicine, education and many comparable programs. Wasting money costs lives!
The Delaney clause governing food additives (and drugs) in the U.S. is an example of regulation running amok, supposedly erring on the side of safety. The clause states in part, "No additive shall be deemed safe (?) if it is found to induce cancer (of any kind) when ingested (in any quantity over any time frame under any test condition) by man or (any) animal." The words within brackets are mine. They provide an indication of how this clause can be, and is, mis-used to indict anything as a carcinogen, just by selecting the desired conditions. For example, Saccharin, a much used sweetener for many decades, violated the standards because it eventually produced cancer in mice - but only if the individual mouse ingested, each day, an amount of saccharin equivalent to that contained in 800 cans of diet soda! Sometimes one must place a bolus of test material directly into the stomach of the test animal; often, there is no way the rat would eat the material and would prefer to die! In order to do this without calling down the wrath of protective animal rights legislation and violate principles which ensure that animals are not treated cruelly, the rat has been declared to be NOT an animal by the United States Dept. of Agriculture and is exempted from the Animal Welfare Act. With such ridiculous, and widely applied test conditions which also ignore reality (rats and mice are nothing like man), or even ignore available statistics on the subject of importance - man, we are overdue in banning sugar, tea, coffee, milk, water or even food in general; none of which can be proved safe by anyone, because they are not. If we rigorously applied the standards we would be forced to ban everything! Cyclamate sweetener is about to go the same way. Can Aspartame be far behind? Sugar itself could be much more dangerous, but as it is natural and so widely present in foods, it falls outside of regulatory requirements and cannot be banned with the same ease. Herbal remedies are dangerous and kill and injure many people each year, but remain unregulated as they are natural and no-one made them except nature herself. Honey is a natural and widely promoted health food, yet it is not recommended for anyone under 1 year old because it may contain sufficient botulinus toxin (the most toxic substance known to humanity - and you thought it was plutonium!) to kill an infant. Can you imagine the outcry if anyone tried to ban honey? Ames and other researchers have pointed out that by feeding animals close to the toxic limit of anything, we displace otherwise healthy and required foods and cause the death or illness of the animal by denying it a balance diet, and then blame it on the wrong thing! Some smart eh? There may be hope on the horizon as the Delaney Clause seems about to be scrapped - but don't hold your breath, its still here and its 2001.
Although the FDA is required by law to issue a ruling in 90 days or less, it takes about 900 days or almost 3 years for the FDA to rule upon the approval or not of a new drug. It gave approval for the beta blocker drugs in 1981 and the commissioner pointed to the 17,000 lives per year expected to be saved. He missed mentioning that over 100,000 people had died in the seven years waiting for the drug to be approved!
What these examples show is that actions are often motivated not so much by facts and uncommon sense, as by ignorance, fear of making any kind of mistake (to some people the answer to this, is to attempt nothing), and political design. Tell the voters what they want to hear to calm their concerns. Never mind the facts. Ignore the long term consequences, i.e., those after the next election.
The Public and Media view of Risk.
The concept of Risk is misunderstood by both the public and the media. They tend to believe and demand that absolute safety is not only desirable but achievable, when in fact nothing is absolutely safe. We must recognise that when we assess something as being too risky and opt to do something different we are substituting one risk for another. It is therefore necessary that we understand exactly what is meant by risk or we are likely, in our ignorance, to substitute something very dangerous for something which was relatively innocuous. This is almost inevitable when there is no perspective in which to frame any activity and it happens much more often than you might think.
Risk (detriment), is a combination of probability and consequence. The risk of dying by being struck by lightning is small, because although it is almost always fatal in its effect, the probability or likelihood of being struck is vanishingly small. Similarly the risk of dying from a common cold is small because although the probability of getting a cold is high, the consequences are not usually life threatening to us. Everything in our society is amenable to evaluation in terms of probability and consequence, but only if you have the facts. Facts, and even common sense are sacrificed, for example, in the continuous media flirtation with the validity of long term climatic predictions in the Farmer's Almanac, on the hocus pocus of Horoscope predictions for our future, on the relevance of Ground Hog day (I preferred Candlemas) and its connection with winter weather and on the superstition surrounding Friday the 13th and personal misfortune. Harmless spoofs, you might say. But some people believe them! On the other hand, we make intelligent risk evaluations, subconsciously for the most part, every time we cross the street or drive a car, because we can see in everyday news-stories, what are the consequences of making a mistake. But it is not so obvious to assess the risks of other things with which we are less familiar, such as being 10 kg overweight, drinking another cup of coffee or remaining unmarried (good for some, bad for a few). Through education, we can learn to think about risks for those situations that receive little or no publicity and that we therefore assume are without risk. To say that something is `risky' or `safe', is irresponsible without some way of deciding `how risky?', `how safe?'. One can only decide this by comparison with other activities that are familiar to us and are of known risk. Because risks are being more widely publicised and reported, usually without the necessary perspective, a general impression today is that we live in a society in which man-made risks have been increasing. The reverse is true. How could our life expectancy have risen from about 30 years, 200 years ago, to the more than 70 of today if we had not reduced the obvious life threatening risks of yesteryear? The situation that is most dangerous, most life-threatening, most environmentally damaging, most costly is ..... ignorance.
WORLD LIFE EXPECTANCY RATES TODAY (Years)
Life Expectancy Country Year Death rate
69.9 Romania 1984 1242
69.7 Hungary 1987 1229.4
71.0 Czechoslovakia 1986 1207.6
71.5 Bulgaria 1986 1170.3
71.0 Poland 1987 1145.7
69.8 USSR 1986 1110.6
71.0 Yugoslavia 1985 1109.2
74.1 Portugal 1987 896.8
74.2 New Zealand 1986 896.0
74.3 Belgium 1986 889.4
74.8 Finland 1986 888.1
74.9 Denmark 1986 877.3
75.2 Israel 1986 877.0
75.1 Austria 1987 860.0
75.3 UK 1987 857.6
75.5 Italy 1985 851.8
75.0 US 1986 828.4
75.8 W Germany 1987 823.4
75.9 France 1986 800.2
76.5 Netherlands 1986 788.2
76.3 Norway 1986 784.3
76.5 Greece 1986 783.9
76.3 Australia 1986 774.9
76.5 Canada 1986 766.3
76.6 Spain 1984 762.5
77.1 Sweden 1986 752.4
77.4 Iceland 1987 715.7
77.6 Switzerland 1987 704.3
79.1 Japan 1987 628.8
* includes all causes and is age adjusted. Life expectancy average per 100000 of population. Data from Centers for Disease Control. Data were not presented for Third World countries. In 1994, it was noted that in the US, life expectancy had dropped back about 4 months. No-one seemed to know why. (Try poverty, overspending on the wrong issues, rollback of medical benefits and treatments, recession, stress, pessimism). The same was true of the former USSR, attributable to economic failure and lack of basic services in health care and substandard, scarce food, energy and other resources.
TABLE 1b LIFE EXPECTANCY IN OUR SOCIETY.
Year. % Surviving to 65 years.
How did we get to live this long? Some of the reasons can be seen in the tables below.
TABLE 2. MEDICAL ADVANCES
1901 X-RAYS FOR DIAGNOSIS
1910 SALVARSAN (treatment of syphilis)
1936 PERNICIOUS ANEMIA TREATMENT
1937 FIRST SULFA DRUG
1944 DDT (anti malaria)
1952 ANTI-HYPERTENSIVE DRUG
1953 CARDIAC SURGERY
1955 KIDNEY TRANSPLANTS
1962 BETA BLOCKER DRUG
1970 CORONARY BYPASS
1975 PARENTERAL NUTRITION
1976 COMPUTER ASSISTED TOMOGRAPHY
TABLE 3. RISK REDUCING ADVANCES
SAFE DRINKING WATER SANITARY SEWAGE DISPOSAL
HYGIENIC FOOD PREPARATION PASTEURIZED MILK
REFRIGERATION CENTRAL HEATING
PARASITIC DISEASE CONTROL RODENT AND INSECT CONTROL OBSTETRICS INFECTION PROTECTION
SURGICAL ADVANCES ANESTHESIA
INTENSIVE CARE UNITS DIAGNOSTIC PROCEDURES
CANCER TREATMENTS ARTERIAL DISEASE TREATMENT PLANNED PARENTHOOD MEDICAL ABORTION
WORKPLACE SAFETY SEATBELTS
One thing is certain. We did not get where we are by prematurely banning, restricting or regulating everything that seemed even slightly hazardous, or we would have been denied many of the above, including penicillin and the Salk vaccine against polio. Now we have human cloning as an issue. As someone sagely pointed out, this issue and fear of cloning is like banning meat and insisting that everyone become a vegetarian, as we all know that it is a very short step from eating a chicken to giving in to our baser characters, and becoming full fledged cannibals!
We are where we are, through education and an intense desire to improve our lot, not by standing still, entrenching, restricting and regulating, as some extreme minority technophobic groups would have us do in the name of a `sustainable' society. Sustainable at what level, for whom, and for how long? If the ancient Romans had decided what was to be a sustainable society from their dominant viewpoint, it would have been AD 75 forever. If William the Conqueror had decided to impose his idea of a sustainable society from his experience and desires, it would have been circa 1066 even now. If we were still alive! Frightening eh? Why should we, in our narrow way, believe that we are now at the pinnacle of achievement and have the answers to all of mankind's problems, even into the future? Let us not deny our descendants the ability to progress beyond our time.
The Cancer Epidemic
We hear much publicity about the elevated cancer death rate in our society. The implication is that such problems can be blamed on our industrial appetite. By the time the facts are presented to show how public hysteria has been used to manipulate the issue, the belief is entrenched. It is true that the risk of dying of cancer has risen along with industrial development and that about 25% of us (the probability) can expect to die (the consequence) from cancer. It is easy to argue that if we are seeing more cancer, that it clearly must indicate a very unhealthy environment. However, despite the publicity which suggests this and attempts to implicate such things as insecticides, dioxin, DDT, PCBs etc., such a belief is unsubstantiated, as explained below. Apart from smoking-related cancers and relatively minor, but well publicized cancers from industrial development, cancer is mostly a disease of the elderly. If you have the sort of society where people get old before they die, you will see more of them die of cancer. Though modern medicine can successfully combat some cancers and many diseases; when we prolong anyone's life by eliminating the diseases that kill off infants, adolescents and young adults, we ensure that he/she is more likely to die of the disease of old age - cancer. Despite the simple logic of this, it still flies against popular belief to state that a high proportion of old age cancer deaths indicates a relatively healthy society. It isn't so much how you die, as when you die. Those societies that are relatively free of cancer, are the so-called under-developed countries in the third world. They are not only relatively free of cancer, but they are also free of most of the benefits in the tables above, and have an average life span that is tragically low. Unfortunately, the statistics were not available to quote in Table 1a, but life expectancy in too many African countries is less than 35 years. Unfortunately our own society, applying the same ill-founded logic as applied to the cancer/industry link, losing sight of the necessary `perspective, benefit and detriment', may help to keep it that way, as described below.
Two of the biggest disasters for the third world were first, the enviro-political (not scientific) decision to ban DDT and second, the decision to ban Dieldrin, another insecticide. Diseases and insects flourish in the tropics and are in constant competition with man. The emotional side of the DDT ban, totally devoid of perspective, was widely publicised, and still is. You may have read Rachel Carson's `Silent Spring' which persuasively built a picture of a hypothetical disaster to all of mankind and wildlife from DDT and other chemicals as seen from the comfort and security of our well-fed North American society. The key word is `hypothetical.' Improper use of DDT did cause some few, well publicized, problems but never on the scale perceived by its critics. There was a risk associated with some of the uses of DDT, but the benefits considerably outweighed the risk, even in our society. The linkage to wildlife problems was questionable and never scientifically established, gaining credibility by the intensity of the accusations and by being often repeated despite the dearth of facts. I rarely see any wildlife program on TV that does not somewhere try to blame some health effect of animals or fish upon insecticides and DDT.
Do you remember Medewar's quote? `The intensity of a conviction....has no bearing on whether it is true or not.' The scare stories were successful in causing a ban on the manufacture and use of DDT. Unfortunately such action whooped up the fears, lost sight of the benefits and, in the name of protecting people and the environment, a most laudable sentiment, condemned several hundred million people to death. More than were killed by Genghis Khan, the Inquisition, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and Hitler combined! Could it be, that the ill informed do-gooders, in the name of protecting the environment, are more destructive of human life (and incidentally, the environment) than tyrants? The fact is that DDT prevented more human death and disease than any other man-made chemical in all of recorded history. Some insight into the scale of the effect of the ban on DDT is evident from the shocking figures from just one small country - Sri Lanka.
TABLE 4 MALARIA IN SRI LANKA. (Data from Whelan)
Malaria cases reported Year Comment
in Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
2,800,000 1948 no DDT.
31 1962 DDT program in place.
150 1964 DDT spraying stopped.
It has been estimated that prior to being banned, DDT saved about 100 million lives in the third world. At the present time, despite much-improved medical treatments, between 2 and 4 million people die each year from malaria (WHO, and UNICEF statistics). All because of a movement turning about the emotional hypothetical premise, without scientific foundation `and no birds sing', from Carson's book. At the risk of seeming flippant, I have great difficulty comparing the saving of more than several millions of lives each year against the possible eggshell thinning of a few birds in a local area (a correctable problem) and finding that the sacrifice of millions of lives is to be preferred. When it is clearly laid out that such eggshell thinning has nothing to do with DDT at all (junkscience.com), then the issue becomes one of criminal, manipulative incompetence. If the existence of an entire species of bird was definitely and irrevocably at stake, I would hesitate in judging this issue the way I do, but it is not.
The usual complaint thrown out against DDT is that of eggshell thinning of birds eggs since it directly killed very few (if any) people. Most of the evidence is anecdotal and poorly linked. The presence of DDT, in any amount (even parts per billion or parts per trillion), is sufficient to trigger afresh, this phobia of the last few decades. In reality, we have now developed analytical techniques to the point where we can detect individual molecules of anything in everything, and allow ourselves to be panicked by it without consideration of any burden of proof of harm, or the concentration required to produce harm. Eggshell thinning in birds is often related to stress and diseases long before DDT came onto the scene. Where there was a direct experimental correlation between eggshell thinning and DDT, the experiment fed two groups of birds; one with added DDT, one without. The other major difference, carefully and selectively overlooked by those who reported the outcome was that the diet of those birds fed DDT was deficient in Calcium! Of course they had thin egg shells. In addition, a beneficial use of DDT which could not have harmed any birds in the first place, was as a solid pellet form placed in the roof areas of dwellings where mosquitoes collected prior to feeding at night. Effective for months at a time! Ignored in the frenzy of opposition to this most useful and beneficial of any chemical ever used by man. For more very good information on this see a web-site; junkscience.com, and look in the top of the home page for a DDT link.
Now, if any study wishes to create a major political impact, all it has to do is to go out into the environment and select a few dead or deformed birds, from whatever cause, and implicate whatever is their target industry or chemical. Politics will do the rest, despite absence of any reasonable proof of cause and effect. Fear and concern define the truth! The best recent example of this is the publication concerning Great Lakes Water Quality. The report is the work of a political committee of individuals with no defined scientific qualifications, who steamroller over the valid questions and objections of the concerned and scientifically qualified. To allow environmental issues to become misused in such an obvious way is to damage all of environmentalism and to bring into question and possibly disrepute, every valid issue that might be of genuine concern.
Between 1953 and 1962 malaria cases in India were reduced from 75,000,000 to less than 5,000,000 and the average lifespan increased from 32 to 47 years. All because of the use of DDT. Dieldrin suffered the same fate with the same effects on third world society. I wonder what ill defined `environmental problem' can possibly compare with the very real starvation now faced by millions of people. On April 22, 1990, Earth Day, the focus was on pollution, recycling, conservation and planting trees. All of which have attracted media attention and mesmerized the general public into activity for one day of token lip service to the problems of the world as they have been persuaded to see them.
Meanwhile, throughout the world: 500,000 women die each year in childbirth (99% in the third world); 500,000 African children die each year from malaria. Total cases of malaria worldwide are about 270 million, of schistosomiasis - 200 million, of lymphatic filariasis - 90 million, of Chagas disease - 16 to 18 million, of onchocerciasis - 17 million, of leishmaniasis - 12 million, of leprosy - 10 to 12 million, of African sleeping sickness - 25,000 new cases a year. Three million children die each year (8,000 per day) for lack of about 2 cent's worth of vitamin A for each of them per day (?). Iodine deficiency causes millions of cases of mental impairment in children each year. The WHO is aware that in the developing world six children die every minute from diarrhoea - four of them because of contaminated food!
WHOs tropical disease budget is a pitiful $70M US to be spent over two years to try and counteract these problems and they are fighting a losing battle. Compare this with the cost of one highly touted newsprint recycling mill at about $65M, which will not save a single life or increase economic benefit or even make a dent in any environmental problem. And we propose building hundreds of them. Our priorities are, in my opinion, out of order.
There is more criminal waste, more direct and indirect deaths, more ignorance in action and more stupidity committed in the name of environmental protection than there ever has been of constructive good to either human health or the environment.
There are hundreds of such examples where powerful crusades by remarkably few, and relatively uninformed zealots, have received widespread media coverage to achieve an end that was never justified. Mostly, these crusades have been based on asking the hypothetical question - What if...?, and then inventing truly nightmare situations to terrify a gullible and uninformed public and cause mis-application of scarce resources to address minor problems. An excellent book describing many such examples is `Toxic Terror' by Elizabeth Whelan. With degrees in Epidemiology and Public Health, she is qualified to write such a book.
TABLE 5. SUBJECTS FOR EMOTIONAL MANIPULATION
ABORTION AIDS ASBESTOS
CANCER CYCLAMATES DDT
DIOXIN POLLUTION FOOD IRRADIATION
MERCURY NITRITES RADIATION
PCBs ACID RAIN FLUORIDATION
OZONE LAYER UFI 2,4,5,T
EMF MEDICINES CLIMATE CHANGE
The EMF issue (childhood cancer and power lines) was just laid to rest AGAIN for the umpteenth time in the New England Journal of Medicine (publicised in July 1997). There have been hundreds of such studies, but the linkage between science (good science) and the media desire to inflame, outrage, and terrify people does not exist, so we can expect to see the allegations paraded before us with some regularity from here to eternity. Anger, fear and outrage, sell newspapers and keep an audience bubbling.
The public perception of risk is coloured by the sort of publicity that surrounded DDT and subsequently, the infamous Love Canal. Extreme, and erroneous perceptions are created by weight of publicity and inaccurate reporting, despite the facts which are readily available.
Recently, there was only minor publicity given to the news that `former residents were now being allowed to return to their homes at Love Canal'. After 10 years of almost hysterical public concern, and pot-boiling headlines across N America, it is now believed that the area was `no more dangerous than almost any other neighbourhood'. It never was! We just listened to the wrong people who were able to grab the headlines with emotional scares to needlessly terrify everyone.
A survey by Decision Research, Oregon, in 1979, indicating the ability of groups of people from different walks of life to accurately rank (I approve of splitting atoms, so I also don't mind splitting infinitives) hazards in our society, (below) revealed some extreme perceptions.
RANKING OF 30 HAZARDS IN SOCIETY BY SURVEYED INTEREST GROUPS.
League of Women College Students Active Club
Hazard ranking by interest group
1 Nuclear Power ! Nuclear Power ! Handguns
2 Motor Vehicles Handguns Motorcycles
3 Handguns Smoking Motor Vehicles
4 Smoking Pesticides ! Smoking
5 Motorcycles Motor Vehicles Alcohol
6 Alcohol Motorcycles Fire Fighting
7 General Aviation Alcohol Police Work
8 Police Work Police Work Nuclear Power
9 Pesticides Contraceptives Surgery
10 Surgery Fire Fighting Hunting
11 Fire Fighting Surgery General Aviation
12 Large Construction Food Preservatives Mountain Climbing
13 Hunting Spray Cans Large Construction
14 Spray Cans Large Construction Bicycles
15 Mountain Climbing General Aviation Pesticides
16 Bicycles Commercial Aviation Skiing
17 Commercial Aviation X-Rays Swimming
18 Electric Power Hunting Commercial Aviation
19 Swimming Electric Power Electric Power
20 Contraceptives Food Colouring Railroads
21 Skiing Antibiotics Football
22 X-Rays Mountain Climbing Contraceptives
23 Football Railroads Spray Cans
24 Railroads Bicycles X-rays
25 Food Preservatives Skiing Power Mowers
26 Food Colouring Football Antibiotics
27 Power Mowers Home Appliances Home Appliances
28 Antibiotics Power Mowers Food Preservatives
29 Home Appliances Vaccinations Vaccinations
30 Vaccinations Swimming ! Food Colouring
The issues most misunderstood (!) by the groups above, are Nuclear Power and Pesticides, as can be seen from the actual rankings below. Both of these receive intense publicity out of all proportion to their danger to society and the publicity tends to be emotionally rather than factually oriented. Such publicity is the reason why DDT was banned and why Dioxin and PCBs make the headlines all of the time despite their minor health impact.
ACTUAL RANKING IN TERMS OF ANNUAL LOSS OF LIFE IN THE US.
Rank Number of lives lost per annum
1 Smoking 635000 inferred
2 Alcohol 100000 inferred
3 Motor Vehicles 50000 observed
4 Handguns 20000 observed
5 Electric Power 14000 observed
6 Motorcycles 3000 observed
7 Swimming 3000 observed
8 Surgery 2800 observed
9 X-Rays 2300 calculated
10 Railroads 1950 observed
11 General Aviation 1300 observed
12 Large Construction 1000 observed
13 Bicycles 1000 observed
14 Hunting 800 observed
15 Home Appliances 200 observed
16 Fire Fighting ** 195 observed
17 Police Work 160 observed
18 Contraceptives 150 inferred
19 Commercial Aviation 130 observed
20 Nuclear Power 100 calculated
21 Mountain Climbing 30 observed
22 Power Mowers 24 observed
23 Scholastic Football 23 observed
24 Skiing 16 observed
25 Vaccinations 10 observed
26 Food Colouring
27 Food preservatives
28 Pesticides, PCBs, Dioxins
29 Prescription Antibiotics
30 Spray Cans
* Actuarial ranking. Some figures updated to 1988.
** However, if you are a firefighter, then this is an extremely significant risk to you (Fishing, farming, firefighting, forestry - the 'F' professions!).
The numbers are either observed, inferred or calculated. Calculated, indicates that few, if any, deaths are observed, but that the process is implicated as a potential cause of death to the degree calculated using pessimistic assumptions. In other words, overestimated in order to be cautious.
The loss of life statistics above, indicate the obvious detriment or human cost of the activity, but one should also consider what are the benefits of each activity. Neither smoking, alcohol consumption nor handguns, 3 of the top 5 killers in the list, provides any net benefit to society. (Actually, moderate alcohol use may reduce the risk of heart disease, but increases the risk of other diseases and if you try to ban handguns then only criminals have them and use them very effectively unless law abiding citizens have the right to own and use them for their own defense - and in so doing discourage a lot of criminals). The benefits provided by the automobile and electric power are of course immeasurably greater than any detriment, since much of our present lifestyle is dependent upon them both. The bottom five (which include pesticides) don't even make it into the statistics, their impact is so low, yet the general belief is that they are significant threats to life and health.
Bad news must have a shock impact or it is of little value and the public just says `ho hum' as it does with the radon issue in homes. Bad news entertains a public hungry for news and bad news sells newspapers. We have come to expect the cancer of the month and the phobia of the moment. Once public impressions are framed and entrenched from the onslaught of bad news, they are difficult to change. Let us look in more detail at the factors that influence our perception of risk, based upon the everyday news familiar to all of us.
1. If large numbers of accidents of a particular type occur, they attract more attention than a few isolated cases.
2. When a large group of people die in one accident and/or there is considerable damage, it will be reported as a disaster, but if the same number of people die in separate accidents their deaths may not be noted. If one fully loaded DC-9 (100 seats) were to crash every week for several consecutive weeks, people would give up flying in a DC-9, yet this is the same as the weekly toll from traffic accidents in Canada, or the daily traffic death toll in the U.S.
Imagine someone saying that he has invented a marvellous item that would sweep the union, but unfortunately, every few years it kills a large number of people about equivalent to the population of San Francisco. Would we adopt it? No Way!!
But we already did. It is the automobile. Large losses of life in North America which are largely unnoticed over the year include 600,000 dead due to lung cancer and heart disease from smoking (equivalent to three 747 crashes each day!), 100,000+ dead from alcohol, 50,000 dead on the roads, 20,000 dead in handgun incidents and up to 50,000 people dead from the pollution effects of burning coal (MIT, Harvard). Few people are aware that about 20 million people died in the great influenza pandemic just after World War I. Probably because the victims didn't all die overnight! In the same vein, World Health Organisation statistics show that 40 thousand children die each day in third world countries, from acute respiratory infection, diarrhoea, malaria, tetanus, tuberculosis, whooping cough, meningitis, measles and typhoid. Nearly all are preventable with a few cents worth of readily available vaccines, drugs, sugar and salt (re-hydration therapy) per child. Third world problems should be of considerable concern to us, but instead, we continually publicise the myth that insecticides in the third world are a greater scourge than is disease! A myth that has killed millions due to the banning of the most useful insecticides!
3. Accidents with immediate effects cause more alarm than those which have a gradual effect. For example, for coal miners in the US, the immediate effect of dying in a mine disaster (about 150 deaths per year at the present time, 88,000 since 1900) is more alarming than slowly dying from pneumoconiosis (black lung disease). Actually the death rate from the disease is considerably higher, taking about 4000 lives a year in the US (Beckmann), and for which there is annual compensation paid of about 1 billion dollars.
4. Unusual events are much more newsworthy than familiar ones. A cancer on the US president's (Regan) nose is publicised the world over; an attack on a president (Lincoln) or rock star (Lennon) will be discussed for decades, while you and I would merit only a few lines in the local newspaper. I doubt that there would be much coverage for you if you fell off the roof while cleaning your solar collector of snow as such falls are common, but there probably would be if you were beheaded by the propeller on your wind powered doodad on the way down. Trivia from the early 1900s reports that the only two motor vehicles in Kansas, crashed into each other.
5. Involuntary risks over which we have little or no control are much less acceptable than voluntary risks, i.e., we demand high safety at work so that we can go hang gliding, white water rafting or mountain climbing on weekends or smoke and drink ourselves into an early grave.
6. Risks that generally are not well understood by the general public cause considerable alarm (alarm, means media attention). For example, the alleged linkage of cancer with electro-magnetic fields from electric blankets and power lines, radiation from video display terminals and now radon in our homes. The attention devoted to highly publicised issues that cause minor, if any, health problems is staggering (e.g., dioxin, PCBs, DDT etc.). With a fraction of the money wasted on hysterical witch hunts, we could achieve some immense advances in medicine and in our hospital treatments; areas where there is the greatest potential for saving lives at little relative cost. Medical advances have given us at least another 20 years of life expectancy in the last 100 years.
7. Risk from the activities of an easily identifiable scapegoat is relatively unacceptable. For example, there are those that would have you insist that all drugs should be totally safe. This is absurd. They can't be totally safe if they are to be effective, and absolutely nothing is absolutely safe. If even a single adverse effect shows up, and if a scapegoat can be identified (such as the manufacturer of the drug or the officials who agreed to its release), public outrage is aroused and in the ensuing uproar to ban the drug, we lose sight of the numerous beneficiaries. However, contrast this attitude with the indifference that exists for the overwhelming evidence of a linkage between smoking and lung cancer as well as other smoking related diseases. Recent publicity suggests that up to 1 in 4 of all deaths between the ages of 35 and 85 in N.A., are smoking related! Unlike medical drugs, there is, arguably, zero benefit from tobacco use. The fact that the tobacco industry has successfully got away (so far) with denying any linkage to ill health, (despite the Doll and Peto statistics) and thus avoids all responsibility at the present time for it, indicates the very different standards and degrees of understanding and acceptability of health hazards in our society. `Beam me up Scotty, I can't find any intelligent life down here!'
Average life lost if all Average life gained if
were banned. all were banned.
(The Benefit lost) (The Benefit gained)
Drugs 20 years 37 minutes
Cigarettes none 4+ years
TABLE 8. MORTALITY RATIOS FROM CIGARETTE SMOKING (Lilienfeld and Lilienfeld)
LUNG CANCER 9.85
CIRRHOSIS OF THE LIVER 2.95
STOMACH ULCERS 2.83
ESOPHAGAL CANCER 2.18
PROSTATE CANCER 2.17
BLADDER CANCER 1.93
STOMACH CANCER 1.86
8. Future shock issues, also called the Chicken Little syndrome - the sky is falling - can be, and are, used to stir up public fears. The question - `But what if....?', that we already encountered, endangers our survival as a species by needlessly diverting funds into some highly imaginative problems but away from where they will do the most good. We are a technological society living in a technological age and yet we have to contend with an extremely powerful and vocal technophobic lobby. We hear predictions of hypothetical disasters because of burgeoning human populations (Malthus revisited), air pollution, environmental pollution, the ozone layer, acid rain, radiation and meltdowns, radioactive waste disposal, pesticides, dioxin, PCBs etc.. We should be careful to whom we listen on these issues - the people who are qualified to know - or those, and they are very few yet they dominate the media, seeking a grandstand for their unqualified viewpoint, while their imaginations run riot in the news media. All of these concerns have some validity (especially concerning over-population in areas that cannot support the numbers), but few to the extreme degree that we are generally persuaded to believe. Where did common sense go? We seem to be more concerned with the most imaginative doomsday scenarios predicted for our future by media proclaimed 'experts', than we are about the present.
Our record of success with fatuous predictions from the past (e.g., `man cannot survive sustained speeds of more than 25 miles an hour!' (?), `The rivers of N. America may all be boiling by 1979!' (Newman, NBS)), `airplane contrails will soon cause the sky to be totally cloud covered', should have taught us more than it has. Lord MaCauley (the very first statement in this pamphlet) knew what he was saying. The pundits of his time, from their limited perspective could have predicted that by 1989, we would probably be struggling neck deep in horse manure. Our perspective of the future, especially with regard to the hysterical nuclear waste issue, will be just as ridiculous no matter how clever we may think we are.
In reverse, imagine going back to Shakespeare's time and trying to explain to the cognoscenti of the day what is a radio, a photograph, a television, a telephone, an electronic computer (L. computare - to reckon) an electron microscope, radiation therapy, a chest X-ray, a fax machine, the human genome project, or E-mail. You would be stoned to death or burned at the stake. No-one from that era ever dreamed in their wildest imaginings of these possibilities in the future. They had zealots in their day, just as we have, who also worked to stop progress (but not too many, life was hard enough that most people felt happy just to survive). These pessimists fervently believed that everything was pretty good and should stay exactly as it was, in the Good Old Days. Their sustainable society was not only highly polluting in all ways, but could only support 1% or less of the people we have today. We've come a long way since then. Why should we stand still at this point? Dare we lock ourselves in the equivalent of Shakespeare's time? A time when they, who lived in it, thought they were at the pinnacle of everything - it had never been so good, but from our point of view today, it was a filthy, primitive and murderous society! We've already lost out on too much progress through the actions of these people down through the ages. We are mostly unaware of what does NOT happen. We only see what actually happens. Without the obstructionist attitudes of too many around us and the gross ignorance and political expediency of those who make our laws and our politics, who could say in what much better future we might have been today.
When famous artists of the last century saw the first photographs, some of them, the pessimists, proclaimed the imminent death of art, the artist and his pallet! They could not have been more wrong. It sparked a new level of consciousness about art and encouraged a wider appreciation, not a lessening. If they had had (*) the power they would surely have banned the camera! To join artificial lighting, electricity, most industry, most medicine, all but religious education, and the automobile and airplane.
* One of the quirks of the English language (and others?) is the repetition of some words. See if you can sort this one out, which has 5 `ands' in a row. `The King and And and And and Queen, are too far apart'. I capitalised some of them to help you.
Some Perspective on Energy Issues.
Although Machiavelli knew nothing of electrical power since he lived in the 1500s, he obviously had some perspective as he was erudite enough to realize that `A man's wisdom is most conspicuous where he is able to distinguish among dangers and make choice of the least.' Let us be at least as intelligent as Machiavelli and ensure that before we examine radiation and nuclear power issues under the microscope and conclude, as some do from this narrow perspective, that the technology is too dangerous to consider, we should endeavour to put the energy discussion into some broader perspective and learn just how dangerous it is in comparison with the alternatives. This requires the careful evaluation of all of the reasonable energy alternatives including conservation. Some aspects of conservation are commendable, and so is the concept of using our energy as efficiently as possible. Conservation also has a price tag in the costs of insulation, heat exchangers, re-modelling, ventilation, and more expensive energy-efficient appliances, all of which together may have used up in their manufacture, more energy than you think you will save over the long term, i.e., the solution to the problem just made it worse. There is also a recognised problem with tight houses (UFI, carbon dioxide, formaldehyde), and possibly the need for dehumidification and remedial action to reduce radon and other noxious gases.
Excess energy capacity, does not mean inefficiency and waste. Try explaining to the public, industry or the local hospital why you can't meet their power needs in the dead of winter because, in the name of one particularly narrow view of conservation, you allowed excess capacity to become just sufficient to meet your needs in summer and you forgot how severe winter could get. I can guess what happened to King Canute's advisors when he commanded the tide not to come in and then got his feet wet (if the story is true) - Kings don't like to look foolish. Unfortunately, society today frowns upon such summary treatment of those who irresponsibly mete out bad advice with such a high cost to society. Surplus electrical capacity is good sense, good planning and insurance against huddling around a woodstove all winter without a job. There is nothing more wasteful than unemployment and welfare.
Conservation; the elimination of wasteful practices, is a personal choice; something to be practised by the responsible consumer, you and me, but should never be imposed by politically created shortages. If our only large scale sources of energy were either coal or oil, in limited supply, then draconian conservation measures would be necessary. They are not our only source of energy. We have, even now, in fission and in future breeder and fusion power, realistic alternatives to coal and oil, sufficient to last for thousands of years and more, considering ore reserves on land and in sea water. Contrast this with the two hundred year history of coal and the 100 year history of oil and we can already see the limitations of these in the foreseeable future (50 years for conventional oil - but not for oil from tar sands or oil shales if the price is right - and about 200 years for coal at present rates of usage). With the development of more efficient solar photo-voltaics, there is now the possibility of using solar power in some favourable regions of the world but it will never form more than a small percentage of our requirements. This perspective, the examination of all of our choices and comparing them, is lost if all we have is an emotional phobia against one kind of power while we choose to blindly accept any alternative, especially ones that are much more dangerous or do not make sense in our part of the world. It is amazing, that despite all of the recent publicity given to environmental degradation, mostly due to acid rain and the Greenhouse effect from burning coal, oil and wood, that we still have `environmental' groups who persist in opposing by every means at their disposal, the one option that is universally able to counter these effects almost immediately (if they are valid!) while providing the amount of power that we will need; is the most environmentally benign of all large scale power sources; is cost effective; and is relatively safe....Nuclear Power. The key words which are totally ignored or even disbelieved by these critics despite the ready availability of factual information are, environmentally benign, cost effective and relatively safe. Instead, they pin their hopes (and ours too it seems) on the future potential from wind, solar, efficiency and conservation. The first two are not cost effective at this time.
Efficiency and conservation have been practised by industry for the last 100 years as a means of keeping costs down, and are being achieved but cannot deliver to the degree dreamed about by the theorists. Greenpeace recently was able to find 100 British scientists who were prepared to support their position against nuclear power. Only 100? I wonder what their scientific qualifications were! I wonder about the opinions, beliefs and fields of qualification of the remaining 99.9% who did not sign their paper, and so should you. If such a small proportion of any group are supportive of something, surely one should demand to know why there are so few. I make no apology for my bias; it is an informed, rather than an emotional bias. The facts speak for themselves, but only if you apply the effort to find such perspective. It is completely unthinkable to many interest groups, but nuclear power may well be the salvation of our environment. And our society!
Dr. Robert Gale of Chernobyl fame, said (about 1987) that he believed that the environmentalists in twenty years time will be the ones promoting nuclear power. Already, four prominently anti-nuclear groups have decided to change sides and drop their opposition to nuclear power. Our energy choices, some of which may or may not be viable alternatives in our area, are tabulated below, with comparisons of dangers and costs. This comparison is necessary because any form of energy conversion is dangerous, even the utilization of solar or wind power.
Consider falls from roofs and towers, as well as injuries from flying blades and objects; not uncommon occurrences when one is dealing with tens of thousands of household solar units or windmills, or 50 square miles of collectors in a single large facility. However, we should never lose sight of the fact that the most dangerous situation is that of having not enough energy.
TABLE 9 OUR ENERGY OPTIONS
1. Coal 7. Wind
2. Oil 8. Wood
3. Nuclear 9. Solar
4. Natural Gas 10. Tidal
5. Hydro 11. Peat
6. Geothermal 12. Others
TABLE 10 ENERGY EQUIVALENTS FOR DIFFERENT ENERGY SOURCES (Wyatt).
Energy source Energy Equivalence compared with Coal
(tons of coal equivalence for 1 ton of fuel)
Breeder Reactor (uranium-238) 1,300,000
CANDU (uranium) 20,000
LW Reactor (uranium) 16,000
Oil Shale 0.15
Geothermal Steam 0.1
Water (1 ton) falling 1000m 0.0003
Relative Death rates from the use of most of these alternatives are given below.
TABLE 11 RELATIVE SAFETY. (Data from Inhaber)
Energy Source Relative numbers of deaths
from equal use
Natural Gas 1 (now known to be much higher than this)
Nuclear Power 3
Solar, Wind 100
Coal, Oil 300
Even with accidents like that at Chernobyl (31) or the natural gas explosions in Mexico (500) and the USSR (600), or coal mining deaths (150 per year in the US, 1000 per year in the Ukraine) and injuries, these relationships are not changed as it is the long term chronic risks, causing tens of thousands of deaths each, and every, year from the use of coal or oil for example, that are the real danger. Please note that `safe, clean, free' solar and wind energy, actually rank quite low compared with the others. They are also `free' in the same way that my house and car are free; only if I ignore Capital, Running and Maintenance costs! Also, for a given amount of energy delivered, a solar collector requires about 15 times as much concrete and metal as a nuclear power plant to produce the same power output.
TABLE 11a COMPARING URANIUM AND COAL MINING
Serious Mining Injuries and Deaths over a 30 Year Period (To provide 2000 MW of power from coal or uranium)
Deaths from Delayed Deaths from Serious injuries
mining mining diseases from mining
Coal 75 150 800
Uranium 4 10 40
The table does not consider transportation deaths. When you realize that about 10% of the entire rolling stock of the US is involved in moving coal, you begin to recognize the hazards of this endeavour.
TABLE 12 RELATIVE COSTS
Relative Costs of the Options: (Canadian Cents per kilowatt hour).
Conservation 2.5 and up!
Coal 4.0........7.0 4.4.........6.4
Hydro 3.0........8.0 4.0........13.5
Nuclear 3.0........5.0 7.2
Gas 5.0 8.0........15.5
Solar 7.0 to 150 12.........22
Wind 9 to 25 12.........22
Solar and wind energy remain tantalisingly out of economic reach at the present time without government subsidy, but offer the chance in the future of displacing, or reducing the use of, non-renewable sources of energy. Commercial small scale units are not readily available as their costs make them unattractive to most householders, unless heavily subsidised. Large scale costs are also high but the technology is improving. A recently completed prototype wind project on the Orkney Islands, a very windy place, cost 12 million pounds sterling (about $20M) for 3MW; another major wind project at Livingston, Montana proved uneconomic once the entrepreneurs had run out of subsidies. In West Germany, a major wind project was able to generate 20 million kilowatt hours of power in 1 year from an initial cost of 2.7 million dollars. This is also the power generated by Denmark's entire, highly vaunted, wind power park which, in 2001 was able to produce an average of about 350 MW over the entire year. Although this looks like a large amount of power, it is equivalent to about half a year's output of a single large coal, oil or nuclear facility, and is dependant upon the vagaries of the wind.
A recent prototype solar project in Ottawa was reported to have cost $226,000 for 4.2 kilowatts! I hope it was not an accurate report. Unfortunately, neither solar nor wind power are able to meet more than a small fraction of our total energy needs at the present even if they were economically sound, and they are too unreliable for significant use in industry.
Sweden, in its repeatedly failed political attempts to phase out nuclear power use, is reportedly considering building 300 windmills anchored off the coast! Somehow, I am reminded of Don Quixote tilting at windmills, or even of Gulliver, reporting of the attempts to extract sunbeams from cucumbers. At least Swift, in his vicious social commentary of more than 200 years ago, knew it to be nonsensical. In early 1991 the Swedes decided to cancel the total phaseout plans and in 2000, went for a token close down of just one of their reactors. It was widely publicised to show that they really were serious. They are still agonizing over the political and economic implications. Politicians don't like to look like idiots, and hate to do anything that might stop them being re-elected, no matter how sensible or justified it might be. However, please re-read Mencken's quote at the front of this document. Is it true?
TABLE 13 COST COMPARISON OF URANIUM AND COAL
Cost Comparisons: Bruce `A'(nuclear) and Nanticoke (coal)
Canadian cents per kilowatt hour (Wyatt, 1986)
Bruce `A' Nanticoke
Interest, Depreciation and
Decommissioning ** 1.376 0.377
Operating and Maintenance 0.399 0.179
Fuel 0.510 2.602
Heavy Water Upkeep 0.035 -----
Total Unit energy Cost 2.320 3.158
** Includes future decommissioning costs (0.015), used fuel transportation storage and disposal (0.045) and future pressure tube removal (0.050).
Take a very close look at the footnote above. The supposedly crippling, unknown, costs to which so much publicity is given are in fact, well known and relatively small. In the case of using offshore coal, more than 80% of the value of the electricity in the example above, is sent abroad; just as it was when we burnt oil. All of the nuclear power dollars stay here. The 1984 data in the table below comparing the costs of coal and nuclear power are from an IAEA document, Nuclear Power: Status and Trends - 1987.
Table 14. COMPARING ENERGY COSTS
Country Ratio of costs, Coal/Nuclear.
Belgium 1.62 1.79
Canada: Central 1.44 1.33
West 0.66 0.82
Finland 1.33 1.20
France 1.80 1.45
FR Germany 1.68 1.42
Italy 1.41 ?
Japan 1.37 1.28
Netherlands 1.31 0.95
South Korea 1.20
Spain 1.19 0.97
UK: Sizewell B 1.40 1.06
Repeat Station 1.71
USA: Eastern 1.08 1.07
Rocky Mountain 0.77 0.81
** projected costs, 1995 to 2000, assuming 30 year life, 72% capacity factor, and the price for coal at $60 for 26GJ/tonne, i.e. an average of $2.3/GJ, range $1.7 to $3.1
Only at locations close to the pithead, is coal fired power cheaper than nuclear power, yet there are news reports, regularly aired, saying nuclear power is everywhere too expensive, no matter how often the facts to the contrary are presented! These costs include all aspects of power production. It is well known that the major costs of nuclear power are capital costs, whereas those of coal and oil are the fuelling costs after the plants are built. Point Lepreau GS uranium fuel costs to produce power since 1982 to the end of 1989, were about $90 million. If the power had been from coal, the cost would have been $750 million, and if from oil: $1.5 billion.
The cost, today (1996/7), of a uranium fuel bundle is about $2,000. The costs of the equivalent energy from coal (about 400 tons) or oil (about 1600 barrels) are about $20,000 and $32,000 respectively. With such low uranium fuel costs, it doesn't take long for a nuclear power plant to pay off the capital costs and become a significant asset to the utility, relative to coal and oil. Such low fuel costs are the reason why nuclear power plants are baseloaded, i.e., are used as much of the time as possible. The marginal - rather than major - advantage for nuclear power in the Eastern US, is due to the regulatory burden selectively placed on nuclear plants from constantly changing rules, political interference, regulatory instability, lack of standardization, long construction periods and litigation delays in licensing and operating (Shoreham and Seabrook); a situation that exists nowhere else in the world to the same degree with any other power source. In the next few years the regulatory burden may gradually move to include coal and oil, with legislated restrictions being placed on emissions of sulphur dioxide (as in Europe even now), nitrogen oxides and perhaps even on carbon dioxide! All of these changes have the effect of driving up energy prices and thus compromising human safety, not improving it.
Some of the pollution burden is detailed in a table at the end of the document. The cost of a scrubber for even a small coal burning plant today, is about $150 million with additional annual running costs of $20 million. The estimated cost of decommissioning a nuclear power plant (Nuclear News) is about $100 million but depends upon the speed with which it is required to be done according to political dictates. This is the cost estimated by industry. I tend to believe this figure rather than figures pulled out of thin air by the critics, but then I am naive about such things. It represents about 1% of the earnings from the sale of electricity from the same plant over thirty years, of about $10 billion. There is a long way to go before the coal and oil industries achieve the same level of protection accorded to the environment and the general public by the use of Nuclear Power. Even with such factual overkill as the numbers above; facts, taking years to amass, count for little when competing with scares pulled from thin air, and their instant impact, as we discovered with the Love Canal fiasco. Mark Twain noted that a lie can race its way around the world while the truth is tying its shoelace.
Issues that are raised with great fanfare and emotional outrage, creating a great deal of dread in a relatively uninformed public, survive for several months or years until industry lays them to rest, and then the activists and obstructionists dream up another red herring to mislead society. You may recall some of them and smile:
We don't need so much energy and nuclear power cannot provide it anyway.
Nuclear power cannot solve global warming problems.
Nuclear power is too expensive.
Nuclear power is too dangerous, it can explode like a bomb.
Nuclear power is too damaging to the environment.
All radiation comes from nuclear power plants.
Plutonium is the most dangerous substance known to man.
You cannot buy insurance against an accident.
No-one has addressed decommissioning costs.
Cancer and leukemia are caused only by radiation and only that from Nuclear Power.
Disposal of used fuel is an unsolved problem.
Used fuel is too dangerous for millions of years.
Nuclear power causes nuclear war.
When you next go for a medical checkup, I assume that you will be aware that the individual to whom you are trusting your health and existence is qualified to do what will be done. You would no more go to a charismatic spiritual healer for this, or a plumber or labourer, than you would trust a street-corner busker to give you the best buy on the stockmarket that day. Yet, the above statements are promoted by those who are similarly least qualified to make them (and they are all untrue), and tend to be believed and repeated. We all know that if something is repeated often enough it takes on an aura of truth. And the media love to repeat scary things, true or not.
Other sources of energy are either of limited use or are being considered for future use. These include fusion power, geothermal, ocean thermal, biomass etc.. Relative costs and safety to human life from the options, paint their own picture. As if that were not enough, environmental reality, places both natural gas and nuclear power well ahead of coal, oil, wind, solar or wood power! Consider also that nuclear power frees us from the increasingly serious problems of acid rain and the greenhouse effect (burning one pound of coal produces about three pounds of carbon dioxide!) while presenting us, on the negative side, with a relatively small amount (in terms of both quantity and risk) of radioactivity added to the environment. Just how small, we shall see in the discussion ahead, but it is still outweighed, in routine circumstances, by the radioactivity released into the surface environment by burning coal!
Some coals contain up to 1000 ppm of uranium, making them sufficiently rich in uranium to constitute uranium ore and it is this radioactivity which is concentrated and some of it released upon burning. Estimates from the UK concerning the release of natural radionuclides in the burning of coal, place the radiation dose to the public from burning coal at about 0.004 millisieverts per caput per year whereas the average radiation dose from the operation of Nuclear Power plants is half that, at about 0.002 millisieverts per year. These radiation dose units are described ahead.
Radiation, is of course, the perceived problem with nuclear power. That, and especially the perceived radiation problem from spent nuclear fuel. It becomes relevant then to ask - How many people have died of acute radiation effects (military or industrial or utility) in the last 50 years? How many have died from any radiation effect from used nuclear fuel? The latter is easy - NONE. In the former case, they are listed below. What is surprising about these numbers, is that they are so few. Is it then surprising that the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine urged the senior Bush administration to support the development of advanced nuclear reactors? He ignored them. Are you likely to see such heavyweight support publicized in the news media? Of course not. Why not? Now even the Vatican believes that Nuclear Power is not the work of the devil and is worth supporting over the alternatives. Ho hum! Now George Bush junior is treading the same ground. Vice President Cheney knows what its all about, but no-one seems to be listening in the aftermath of 9/11.
Year Country Type of accident Number of deaths
1945 US Military, critical assembly (Slotin) 1
1946 US Military, critical assembly (Dagnian) 1
1958 Yugoslavia Experimental reactor 1
1958 US Critical assembly 1
1961 Switzerland Tritiated paint 1
1962 Mexico lost radiography source 4
1963 China seed irradiator 2
1964 US Uranium recovery plant 1
1975 Italy food irradiator 1
1978 Algeria lost radiography source 1
1981 US industrial radiography 1
1982 Norway instrument sterilizer 1
1983 Argentina Research reactor 1
1984 Morocco lost radiography source 8
1986 USSR Chernobyl, power plant 31
1987 Brazil Stolen medical source 4
1989 San Salv. Irradiator accident 1
And other medical (many between 1896 and 1945) and irradiation accidents.
Total to 1989 61
An interesting view of how the world energy picture has changed in the last two decades is provided by data from the US. The operation of nuclear power plants in the US has displaced 4 billion barrels of oil from 1973 to 1990. This works out to savings of $115 billion dollars, paying off the $106 billion total investment in nuclear power plants. And these same plants will deliver about four times as much power through their remaining lives i.e., will much more than cover their costs through savings alone. Furthermore, the marked drop in oil demand (about one fifth) because of the growth of nuclear power after the energy crisis of the 1970s caused the price of oil to drop, benefiting other nations still heavily dependent on oil.
I will leave this section with the words of David Fishlock, the science editor of the Financial Times (Atom, Nov. 1988). He quoted the words of a leading opponent of nuclear power as follows - "The nuclear threat is the hardest test the environmental movement has yet faced. Nuclear power lies at the heart of a vision of the future committed to an expansion of the present pattern of economic and industrial development. If we wish to argue for alternative patterns of economic and industrial activity, more nationally secure, more personally satisfying and more environmentally sustainable, then we must succeed in stopping the development of nuclear power."
Fishlock's analysis of this statement was to the effect that such opposition to nuclear power ".. has nothing to do with the alleged hazards, present or future, or with doubts about the economics -quite the reverse in fact. .... The `nuclear threat' is nothing more than its ability to deliver low-cost dependable power. .... Their purpose has nothing to do with safety - if it did, they would be campaigning against coal and oil - but aims to deprive the community of future advantages of a power source which could hinder their own political goals."
You may notice, that in the opponent's statements, nothing was said of what energy source would be reasonable as an alternative to nuclear power as this would immediately have exposed the fact that cleaner, cheaper, safer is not part of their agenda when it comes to their phobia against the development of nuclear power. I think we are long overdue in becoming suspicious of the motives of those who are so terrified of progress for all. Some Perspective on Radiation. Radiation is one of the biggest of the bogeymen causing public concern. It seems to be the least understood hazard by the general public who get whipped around by scare stories of Leukemia and other cancers, but is the best understood hazard by those in industry. Some knowledge of what radiation is and where it comes from, as well as the recognition of its dangers in relation to other common hazards is presented below.
Where does radiation come from?
The approximate average contribution that the different sources of radiation make to our total exposure, is about 3 to 5 millisievert (mSv) each year. Typically this is made up of about 75% from nature; about 25% from medicine; and everything else - including nuclear power - is piddling. Some explanation of this unit of radiation dose is given ahead. For those undergoing special medical treatments, their annual radiation dose is commonly 500 times larger than this i.e., about 1 sievert and may be up to 10 sieverts, (generally regarded as a fatal dose!), in an increasingly common treatment for leukemia.
SOURCES OF RADIATION.
There are two major sources of radiation: Medical radiation from all of the various medical procedures most of us undergo at one time or another to diagnose and counteract the many diseases and problems that would otherwise shorten our lives, and Natural radiation from the ground, the air and the food we eat (About 200,000 atoms of carbon-14 and the same number of atoms of potassium-40 decay in our bodies each minute). Industrial sources of radiation (including nuclear power) and fallout from bomb tests make up only about 1% of the total. Nuclear power is one tenth of this, or 0.1% of the total, yet it is this small contribution that receives the most strident publicity and engenders so much fear. Nuclear Waste - the most recent issue to terrify the public represents a radiation dose that is millions of times less than this, yet also causes paroxysms of horror in those who cannot, or will not try to understand relative risks.
Radiation has been used in medicine, in X-ray diagnoses and treatments, since before the year 1900. If you consider Hot-springs to be therapeutic, then the use of radiation harks back to the dawn of man, even though he may not have been aware of it. Because of the very widespread use of radiation in modern medicine, involving so many millions of people treated at sometimes massive dose levels, it is unavoidably, the most studied and the best understood of any of the numerous carcinogens by which we are surrounded despite the almost total absence of adequate record keeping of such exposures in medical usage. Medical uses of radiation include the following: Cancer therapy using cobalt-60, X-rays, CAT scans, Linear Accelerators, Betatrons, radioactive labelled compounds, cystoscopy, fluoroscopy, angioscopy, dental radiography, thyroid diagnosis and treatment, barium enemas and many more. By the way, the most radioactive materials moving on the face of the earth are all medical devices - not nuclear power plant materials or waste. There are also about 18 million shipments of medical radioactive devices each year, and relatively few from nuclear power plants, as all radioactive materials are generally managed on the reactor site.
Before the advent of radiation protection regulations in the 30s and 40s, many unnecessary and frivolous medical procedures using extremely high doses of X-rays and radium treatments (radium-226 was once prescribed as a tonic, and radon gas still is promoted in health spas), placed the general public at an unacceptable and unrecognized risk. It is accepted today in principle, that the risks of the medical uses of radiation should be less than the risk of receiving no treatment. However, mixups do occur, though rarely. In many cases even now, there is little discussion between patient and doctor concerning such treatments, nor is there any formal control over how much radiation any patient may receive in any one year because of treatment by different doctors or at different facilities. The full dose history of every patient should be a legally required part of hospital treatment, if for nothing else than to keep a record in the National Dose Registry, for epidemiological purposes, of this very large population exposed deliberately to such high levels of radiation. Instead of doing this, we totally ignore these medical exposures and, in response to public and political clamour, try to correlate adverse health effects with radiation doses around nuclear power plants. No wonder the epidemiology is uncertain when we try to correlate an adverse health effect with a documented radiation dose that may be wrong (too low) by a considerable degree. No wonder we tend to over-estimate radiation risks.
The radiation dose from industry is often hardly detectable and usually is less than 1% of any radiation dose attributable to many medical exposures. If radiation was not such a weak carcinogen, then we would be seeing a significant proportion of radiation related health effects in the 70+% of the population who undergo such routine medical treatments with radiation, despite the lack of adequate record keeping. Such effects are not generally obvious, but after calculating the risks relative to the benefits obtained from (for example) mass chest X-ray screening programs of millions of the generally healthy population, Public Health groups that had promoted these tests, discontinued them, realizing that their calculations showed they might be creating more problems than they were likely to detect.
X-rays were being used in medical treatments within about a week of their discovery by Roentgen in 1895. Soon after that, some of the adverse effects of uncontrolled high exposures were recognized. Much of the data we have on the dangers of radiation come from this pioneering medical use; from luminous dial painters of 50 years ago; arthritis treatments; Psychotherapy in sanatoria and from the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The use of medical radiation under progressively more carefully controlled conditions has escalated from the 1900s to today where very few individuals in western society do not benefit from some medical procedure using radiation. The use of radionuclides in internal medicine has become very important for diagnosis and treatment. In many cases it is a preferred alternative to surgery. We, in the Nuclear Power industry, are made aware of these treatments when the portal monitors which detect the movement of radiation on people and things at Nuclear Power plants, alarm for apparently no reason when no one is close by. We usually find that they are picking up radiation from as far as 30 metres away, from some visiting member of the general public or even a worker who has been discharged from hospital after receiving an injection of any one of many radionuclides used in nuclear medicine. Such patients, for example those treated for thyroid malfunctions, or cancer of the thyroid, are individually emitting more radioiodine in the first few hours after treatment than most nuclear power plants emit to the environment in a year. A typical administration to each of those out-patients undergoing thyroid treatment in our hospitals each week, is about 1,000,000,000 Bq of I-131, or about 7,000 times higher than that emitted from Point Lepreau Generating Station in New Brunswick in all of 1987! From each patient! Compared with this figure, 10 becquerels of I-131 per litre of rainwater seems distinctly lilliputian, but it triggered a politically inspired ban (nothing to do with public health, or else milk would be permanently banned as it contains 50 Bq of K-40 all the time) on rainwater consumption in Canada after Chernobyl! This was a case of pandering to public hysteria and political posturing rather than dealing with the facts which indicated minimal health risk.
Natural radiation, which is that from all natural sources; food, air, water, the ground we stand on, the houses we live in, is for many of us the biggest source of radiation contributing about 3 to 4 millisievert a year. Some millions of people live in high background locations and receive doses from natural radiation that may reach 50 to 100 millisievert each year, with rare cases considerably higher than this. The most noteworthy to date concerns an Effective Dose Equivalent of 5 sievert in a year from a radon exposure in someone's home! You might appreciate how large a dose this is when I tell you that the industrial dose limit (high enough to make strong critics blanch, pass water and become hysterical) is only 1% of this. (This potential radiation dose has been surpassed by data from E. Germany. A basement in the university of Hamburg was measured to contain about 270,000 Bq (radon and daughters), per cubic metre of air. This translates to approximately 10 sievert of whole body dose over the course of a year. Now even this has been exceeded by a potential dose of 100 Sv per year in a tin mine used for prospector training, in Cornwall, England. No one has too obviously died because of this.)
In the last two or three years, radon and its daughters have been implicated in developing lung cancer and have come under the public spotlight. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, in the U.S. indicates that 1 out of every 5 homes in 10 states studied, has radon levels high enough to be of concern (whatever that might mean). In the Reading Prong geological area (45 miles long and about 7 miles wide containing 20,000 homes) of Pennsylvania, radon radiation levels are relatively high. Some residents in this area are exposed to higher radiation doses than the allowable limits that govern Atomic Radiation Workers (ARWs) at work. The phenomenon received some publicity in 1984, when an ARW (Stanley Wattras) returning from vacation, tried to enter the Nuclear Power plant under construction, where he was employed and triggered the alarms on his way in. The EPA estimated that his dose, at home, was equivalent to about 100,000 chest X-rays in a year! Bang go his chances of suing his employer after that! He might try suing EPA for mental anguish! However, the feature that most intrigues me, is that there are no adverse health effects that can validly be related to any of these natural exposures. There are however, some indications of better health and lower lung cancer rates from such higher natural exposures! Bernard Cohen has written all about this and shows that the lower lung cancer rates are associated with the higher radon concentrations!
By the way, consider this research topic and its implications: The EPA, in spending billions of dollars to regulate the saving of a hypothetical life, actually causes more real deaths and cancers than it allegedly guards us against with its costly and ineffective barrage of regulations and restrictions. Assess the situation, and suggest a rational course of action.
In the workplace, radiation regulations are in force with severe penalties on the employer if radiation dose limits are ever exceeded. Yet the employee can go home, or receive medical treatment, to many times those levels without restriction. At these radiation levels you would expect that this family and others in this Reading Prong area would demonstrate clear adverse health effects to permit an epidemiological correlation between radon and ill-health. Such correlations are not statistically supported in either this region or from studies in many similar regions in other countries with the possible exception of Norway (ICRP 50, 1987). The lung cancer rates observed however are always very strongly correlated with smoking habits with only possibly tenuous links to radon.
Hormesis, suggests that radiation is beneficial, rather than harmful, to many living organisms at low doses (still much higher than natural background) and such beneficial and life-prolonging effects have been demonstrated many times in carefully conducted laboratory experiments. This is an issue that has been ignored for too long, but one for which there is an increasing amount of supportive data; at least 1,000 reputable scientific papers to date. There are some interesting data from human studies which may support the view that radiation is just as much an essential ingredient to our health and well-being as other `toxic' materials like selenium, arsenic and others. It was recognised more than 400 years ago that - `it is the dose, that makes the poison.'
Data showing significantly lower cancer mortality rates in those States with the slightly higher background radiation levels are not statistical aberrations, but have been known for many years (the Argonne Study, and now Cohen's work).
A similar study in China (1972 to 1975), comparing two relatively immobile populations of about 70,000 people, showed that the cancer death rate in the higher background radiation area (still very low doses), was about half that in the lower background area. These data, collected on millions of people in one case and on tens of thousands in the other, also support the suggestion that at some particular level, radiation may be more beneficial than harmful. This contradicts the widely publicized views of those few, who in the face of such figures, doggedly maintain that all radiation is harmful. In the present litigious climate in the US, many Atomic Radiation Workers (ARWs), suffering from cancer or ill health are suing the employer for radiation insult and mental trauma. After all, the only radiation record that can be entered into the proceedings, because it is the only one available, is from the work location, even though the litigant may have received heroic hospital treatments which gave many times the dose received at work, but without legal record. And, in any case, few people successfully sue hospitals.
When a few million dollars is the possible gain it is not surprising that ethics, morality, judgment and even the truth, become casualties in the haste to profit from this traumatic situation that affects ARWs and non ARWs alike. One of many of the more tragicomedy examples of this litigation circus is that of an individual suing a utility after being stung by a bee that he said flew by a nuclear power plant and therefore picked up radiation. The way the courts behave in the US, it is not inconceivable that he could win a major settlement. Against the utility of course - the one with the deep pockets -, not the bee! You can't sue nature, and win, even when lawyers make up the rules. Another is of the psychic who claimed that she lost her psychic abilities after having a CAT scan. How come, if she really was psychic, she didn't know beforehand that she would lose her powers? (If you believe in this stuff - I have a big bridge that I am prepared to sell you).
Such fear of radiation pervades society. Why? One obvious possibility was outlined by a utility engineer who believes that it is related to the extreme precautions that we take. As he points out, if you park an ambulance on a beach with a big sign saying 'Shark Attack Unit', bathers would more likely leave the area, not swim, or be afraid of swimming. Even if there were no sharks in the area. In terms of a nuclear power plant, workers are scanned for radioactive contamination because it is so easy to do: when you have been working in a coal mine, you are not examined for particle penetration of the lung tissue because it is so difficult to do. It is impossible to measure the effects of air pollution on an individual, so it is not done. It is easy to collect, store and monitor the small volume of radioactive waste and so it is done: it is impossible to collect and store and monitor all of the forms of combustion waste and so it is not done. So, could it be that one of the major reasons people fear nuclear power so much is that the safety measures are so highly visible and well publicized?
There are many Industrial uses of radiation. They include such uses as baggage scanners at airports, sterilization of medical supplies, food irradiation, insect sterilization, seed germination, sprouting inhibition, smoke detectors, runway lights, exit signs, satellite power, remote weather station power, radiography of welds, identifying metal defects, radio-pharmaceuticals, labelled organic chemicals, permanent press clothing, neutron activation analyses, anti-static devices and many more. Unfortunately radiation is also an unwanted effluent from our nuclear power stations. Hopefully, you will now recognize that this fraction of the total radiation picture, is very small (about 0.1% of the total, i.e., one part in one thousand), compared with environmental and medical radiation.
Unlike many of the hazards surrounding us, radiation is easily detected. Most chemical pollutants can be detected down to a level of, at best, one part in a billion. Radiation can often be detected to a level that is even a billion times better than that, which is why we know more about radiation in our environment than about any other hazard. Unfortunately this also translates into the popular but erroneous dictum, that if it can be seen, it must also be significant; which is not so. Radiation effects on health cannot be demonstrated at the low doses that we typically see (in fact they cannot be seen where the acute dose does not exceed 200 mSv) and therein lies some of the problem.
The fact that adverse effects are so difficult to demonstrate even over the last thirty years or more of examining populations of millions, (we would need to study trillions of people), indicates that we are not dealing with a life-threatening phenomenon of the magnitude that one might think from all of the adverse publicity surrounding radiation. In this case, the absence of demonstrable effects is not due to ignorance or incompetence on the part of scientists, but is a result of being hidden from us because either they do not occur, or because they are so small, in comparison with the myriad of more significant life-threatening effects we live with, that we can't see them for the 'noise'. The conclusion that is inescapable is that Radiation is a weak carcinogen.
Before we can compare the effects of different doses of radiation, we must describe the units we use to measure radiation dose.
The unit for the biological effect of radiation dose is the sievert (Sv). It corresponds to the deposition of 1 Joule of energy in a kilogram of tissue. It is a large unit, useful in radiotherapy, but too big for radiation protection purposes. So we use the millisievert (mSv) and the microsievert (uSv). One hundred rems - the old unit - are equal to 1 sievert. 1 Sv = 1000 mSv = 1000000 uSv.
Our knowledge of radiation effects is derived from the very high exposures used in some medical treatments and from studies of the Hiroshima/Nagasaki survivors, most of whom are still alive. I do not mean to sound callous, but until they are all laid to rest we will be struggling to come to grips with reasonable estimates of radiation risk. If the data show hardly any effect at all (and that's the way it is right now) we will be unlikely to say that the risk is small and we should stop looking. The public will get even more concerned that we still haven't defined this nasty problem and insist we spend even more money.
We classify radiation effects as acute or chronic. Acute effects are those where the harm is felt immediately, i.e., within hours, days or even weeks. Chronic effects show up much later (if at all), say 10 to 50 years after the exposure. An example of the use of acute and chronic from everyday life is a truck driver. He runs a known acute risk of getting smashed up, and a largely unknown chronic risk of health effects caused by diesel fumes, noise, stress, vibration, junk food, and punk rock. In terms of radiation, the only acute risk is radiation sickness. It will lead to either recovery (for single exposures of less than 3000 mSv) or death (for single exposures of greater than 6000 mSv) within a period of about a month. Within these limits, it depends on your health, medical treatment and luck. 3500 mSv of acute dose, is considered to be an even bet (survival versus death) without medical intervention. For lower exposures, or those spread out over the year, as with most occupational and natural exposures, the effects are not visible and can only be calculated. The precautions taken, derive from pessimism regarding these calculations and include assuming that the effect of a fractionated dose (one given over a long period of time), is the same as an acute dose. This does not take into account the well known repair mechanism that takes place all of the time in the body, that reduces the risk by a factor of from 2 to 10 relative to an acute exposure.
It is also assumed that the effect is a directly linear one, which may also have the effect of overstating the risks of very low radiation exposures by up to 200 times. Using this linear hypothesis, one can calculate that there may be about 150 cancer deaths per year from the use of nuclear power in the entire population of the world. If this calculation of risk is valid, then an equally valid calculation of risk from medical exposures and natural radiation shows that one can attribute 45,000 deaths per year to the use of medical radiation and 105,000 deaths per year from natural radiation.
An additionally valid calculation using the same risk assumptions shows that by using uranium, we remove some of it from nature and stop it from transforming into radon daughters. Bernard Cohen, in the American Journal of Physics for 1986, indicated that the nuclear fuel cycle, by cutting down on radon production, saves more lives than are taken by the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Hard to believe, but if you accept the international ICRP estimates of radiation risk, then his calculations are just as valid as the others. We know that high, non fatal, doses of ionizing radiation can cause cancer in man. With its Jekyll and Hyde character, radiation at very high doses can also cure it, as many cancer patients have been happy to discover. We know that the risk of inducing cancer increases with the radiation dose. We also know that if a cancer is induced by a radiation dose, it will not appear until ten to fifty years after the exposure, depending on the type of cancer (leukemia can show up after five years). The table below, summarizes some of the responses of our bodies to acute doses of radiation.
Acute Whole body Dose Effect.
0 to 250 mSv No detectable effect. Delayed effects may occur,
but are unlikely.
250 to 1000 mSv Slight blood changes with later recovery. Delayed
effects are possible, but improbable.
1000 to 2000 mSv Nausea and vomiting. Blood changes detectable.
2000 to 3000 mSv Nausea and vomiting. General debilitation.
Possible death in 2 to 6 weeks. Most healthy individuals
3000 to 6000 mSv Nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea within hours.
General debilitation over a few weeks.
Without medical treatment there will be death to about
half of those receiving 3500 mSv.
6000 mSv and more Generally fatal, with the above symptoms. Medical procedures can (6 sieverts plus) save up to half of those exposed up to 10,000 mSv (10 sieverts) in a hospital treatment of leukemia, all of whom would otherwise die.
100 sieverts Immediate prostration, coma, followed by death within 1 or 2 days.
1,000 sieverts Immediate death from coagulation of protein.
In order to keep the chances of developing adverse effects from industrial radiation exposures to a minimum, Canadian law imposes dose limits upon both ARWs and the General Public. The assumption is made that if a high dose of radiation is known to cause cancer and death, that lower doses will cause lower effects, but all in direct proportion (the linear hypothesis), even if the effects will never be seen and can never be demonstrated. This is a precautionary assumption, but is not a realistic one, as the Argonne data show and as is known from data about the repair mechanisms in tissue when the dose is spread out in time. This fractionation effect can be understood by looking at the example of taking aspirins. A single dose of 100 aspirin tablets would probably be fatal, but one aspirin a day for 100 days would have little effect on anyone. The same is true of radiation exposures but we ignore it and try to calculate deaths and injuries from very small doses to very large populations.
These legal dose limits are: 50 mSv/y for Radiation Workers, and 5 mSv/y for members of the public. In 1994, ICRP-60 suggested that for ARWs the limit should be 100 mSv over 5 years with no more than 50 mSv in any one of the five. The general public dose limit was reduced at the same time to less than 1 mSv per annum. In addition, all Canadian nuclear utilities have (and meet) a corporate target of keeping public doses below 0.05 mSv/y = 50 uSv/y. At Point Lepreau, the annual public dose for the last 20 years has been 2 microsieverts per year or less.
However, All of these regulations, constraints and limits, apply only to the industrial contribution of the radiation impact to the general public. You can see how small this is, about 1% of the total, by consulting the pie diagram given earlier. One of the biggest effects, that from natural radiation, is of course unregulatable; that from medical treatments in hospitals (10 to 12 million diagnoses a year in Canada) sometimes with single doses as high as 10 Sv, is completely ignored and is without legal liability!
In a report of a recent survey of the larger diagnostic centres in the UK, (British Journal of Radiology, vol. 60, 1987) it was pointed out that the average developing temperature for X-ray films was about 2oC lower than recommended by the film manufacturer, requiring a higher radiation exposure to achieve a quality image. An estimated 10 to 25% of radiation dose from these exposures, could be saved immediately and at no cost by simply operating according to instructions. Thus, with this and other minimal improvements in medical X-ray procedures (since the problem is not unique to the UK), a significant fraction of the total medical exposure to our society could be eliminated. The elimination of only 10% of medical radiation dose in this way would represent about 20 times the total radiation dose actually received by the general public from the entire nuclear industry.
Because of our phobia against radiation in industry, we insist on spending billions of dollars to control and limit, already minuscule exposures, yet at hardly any cost at all we could achieve many times the desired result by tidying up medical diagnostic procedures. This, of course, would in no way diminish the public fear of radiation from industry.
Range of Radiation Exposures
The range of radiation exposures which people may experience is enormous, and it can only be shown on a logarithmic scale.
A LOG-SCALE OF TYPICAL RADIATION DOSES
100,000 | Typical acute dose to the thyroid - radiation therapy.
| Dose to Chernobyl firefighters who died.
10,000 | Hospital Leukaemia treatment - 50% successful.
| Largest annual radon dose in a UK home.
| 3.5 Sv. LD50/30.
| No observed adverse health effects below 200 mSv/a.
| Annual natural radiation dose in parts of the world,
100 | and many health spas.
| Annual dose to a pack-a-day smoker (80 mSv).
10 | Approx. annual dose to commercial flight crews.
| Dose (10 mSv) from early tuberculosis screening.
| Typical natural background annual dose (3 mSv).
0.1 | Unavoidable annual dose from K-40 in all foods (0.18 mSv).
| Dose from one return flight - NB to BC (0.04 mSv).
| Annual dose from uranium and thorium from coal burning.
0.01 | Annual dose from luminous signs, TV, smoke
0.001 | Annual dose to local residents from routine nuclear power
| emissions (1 micro-sievert (uSv)).
= = = = = = = = = =
1E-08 | annual dose to an individual of the critical group
| from nuclear fuel waste disposal is less than this dose.
Near the top we have the LD50 (lethal dose to 50% of the people), while above it at 10 Sv (10 000 mSv), is the acute radiation dose given in the hospital treatment of Leukemia and above that, the treatment to elimnate the thyroid. Not far below the LD50 is a typical daily radiotherapy dose of 1000 mSv. For cancer therapy, you might get a daily 1000 mSv shot for 20 days in a row. This treatment won't kill you because only the cancerous tissue and not the whole body gets the entire 20 Sv dose. Radon in homes spans the entire range from the highest so far seen of 5 Sv down to almost nothing. We go down a decade, to exposures received by employees in health(!) spas, natural hot baths rich in radium and radon, like Bad Gastein, Austria. At 50 mSv, we come to the maximum annual dose limit (no more often than one year in five) for radiation workers, e.g., the staff at Point Lepreau. This is the legal limit imposed by the AECB. In keeping with the ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable) principle, we strive to remain well below this with average worker doses of about 2 mSv per year.
In passing, there is a logical contradiction in radiation issues in some parts of the world. In connection with the nuclear power industry, we assume that all radiation is harmful, and there are dose limits for any radiation exposures. In the case of `Radon Spas', legislation is in place to ensure that such registered watering holes do not have less than minimum defined limits of radon in their waters, as radon, in this case, is promoted as a tonic and a health agent! It is healthful apparently, everywhere but in our homes and industry.
Since we started up Point Lepreau in 1982, we have averaged about 2 mSv per worker, with the highest annual dose to an individual being 17 mSv; less than even background radiation for millions of people in some parts of the world. One mSv is the present annual radiation dose limit for members of the general public. It does not take into account medical doses, or the background radiation dose which we all receive and that, on average, is about 3 mSv. Going further down, 0.8 mSv or 800 uSv is the maximum dose any member of the public received from the accident on March 28, 1979 at Three Mile Island. I hope that you will now appreciate that this was not the big threat to public health that it was made out to be by the media. Despite Rosalie Bertell's persistent invention of 50 000 deaths attributable to TMI; a figure supported by no one who knows the facts, no one actually died because of this accident. I have seen the calculated estimate that perhaps 0.7 of a person might die because of this accident. Laugh if you will, but that's what calculations can do.
Brick contains more natural radioactivity than wood, and 300 uSv (0.3 mSv) is the extra annual dose you get from living in a brick rather than wood house. 200 uSv is a typical chest X-ray with modern equipment and is also the radiation dose we all of us get, without exception from the natural potassium-40 within our bodies (nothing to do with nuclear power). 50 uSv is our annual target; it is about the same as the dose from one return flight from N.B. to B.C. At about 200 times that, at about 10 mSv, is my estimate of dose received by all flight crew who make such flights each working day, but are not monitored for radiation exposure. The annual dose from luminous signs, smoke detectors and TV is about 10 uSv, and this is about the dose we all get from the natural carbon-14 contained in our bodies. Incidentally, you get about the same annual dose from sleeping with your spouse because of the internal sources of natural radioactivity he/she contains. But don't buy a single bed -- you run a greater risk from the added chance of falling out of it. Then we get to 5 uSv. This is my estimate for the annual radiation dose at the boundary fence, from Point Lepreau in twenty years or so. By that time, we will have built up much more radiation than we have now. Maybe we'll do better, maybe worse but this is as close as I can estimate it at this stage.
At 4 uSv, we have the estimated radiation dose to each resident of the British Isles from burning coal. Yes, coal! We go down another decade, and we get to about 1 uSv. This is the calculated annual dose at the boundary fence from Point Lepreau emissions up to 1994. Calculated, because there is no way that we can distinguish anything this small from a natural background that is about 3000 times greater. We make measurements at the release points, and calculate what the impact will be at the boundary fence and then assume that it is the same in the areas where people live. This is also the dose you receive when you make a single flight from Saint John, Fredericton or Moncton to Montreal, but that is ignored.
Below the break in the scale is the likely radiation dose to the most exposed people from radioactive waste storage. This engenders a degree of concern and fear that is out of all proportion to its assumed impact with a risk of about 1 in 10,000 billion! The reason is simple. Ignorance is a most powerful tool for the spread of misinformation and fear. Your risk of a fatal auto accident in your lifetime (if you drive all of your life) is 1 in 100!
Now that I've shown you that the dose, and hence the risk, from routine operations of the Point Lepreau plant is trivial, you might say, "Well, that's OK, but what about the risk from accidents?"
The public attitude to reactor safety can be summarized as:
IF IT CAN HAPPEN, IT MUST NOT MATTER.
IF IT MATTERS, THEN IT MUST NOT HAPPEN.
We translate this into scientific terms by limiting accident risk, which we define as: RISK = PROBABILITY (of an accident occurring) x CONSEQUENCE (of the accident if it does occur).
Since the consequences of reactor accidents (high releases of radioactivity to the public) are potentially much greater than those of normal operations, the probability of accidents must be made correspondingly smaller so that the risks remain comparable. This is achieved by implementing safety systems and procedures so that the probabilities are indeed lowered. Although the fear of nuclear accidents (melt-down, China Syndrome) has been used to generate considerable agitation against nuclear power, the effects of even the worst accident do not change the relative standing of coal fired or nuclear power, with coal being about 100 times more dangerous to human life.
In the last 30 years, there have been 3 major nuclear accidents; Windscale, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The first two involved no loss of life (although Rosalie Bertell is on record during a David Suzuki program as saying that there were 55000 deaths from TMI, when in fact there were none! - He did not correct any of this as it was also part of his own agenda) while Chernobyl took 31 lives and inflicted considerable economic penalty on the USSR. Bear in mind however that this was not an accident in the true sense of the word so much as the outcome of incompetence, stupidity and deliberate disabling of safety systems against the advice of the operators, coupled with a flawed design. Regulations in the West do not allow such testing and we should not have to shoulder any responsibility for Chernobyl or have its effects hanging over us.
Long term effects from any of these accidents tend to be viewed with extreme pessimism by critics, because of the lack of any solid correlation between radiation doses and demonstrable health effects at anything but very high levels of dose. Although the people affected at Chernobyl will be closely observed for many years (almost 10 years have gone already, and the UN is on record as stating that the main illnesses in the area are of a psychological nature) It is unlikely that any additional deaths or health effects attributable to this accident, will be seen, although there is the possibility that some few thyroid cancers - which are rarely fatal - are now developing. Incredible isn't it? But it will take many years to verify this. Meanwhile, horrific and irresponsible estimates of tens to hundreds of thousands of additional deaths over the next fifty years will continue to receive (decreasing) credibility, especially as people have not been dropping like flies in the last few years.
Data from the Windscale accident (30 years ago), Three Mile Island (11 years ago), and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (45 years ago), show that long term adverse health effects are few, and other than those of a psychosomatic nature around Three Mile Island since 1979, are not statistically validated. (The TMI study, conducted by Columbia University researchers and the National Audubon Society (!) recently released results that showed no statistically validated health effects in the area, associated with TMI. They were abused by a few members of the local population, displaying pictures of two headed calves etc., who did not believe them).
Relative to a control population in Japan, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors (more than half of them are still alive) are more healthy, with 600 more survivors than would be expected relative to the unexposed control group. No genetic effects are evident in any of the more than 75000 offspring of the survivors.
Media attention upon births around Chernobyl in the year following this accident, was short-lived and generated little coverage when it was discovered that all of 2,000 births were normal. Normal, in this context, presumably means that there were the usual number (about 10% or 200!!) of expected birth defects, stillbirths, etc. since one can be certain that anything out of the ordinary would have received instant global attention. A CBC news report (Feb 1989) however made great play upon a report of numerous birth defects in animals on a collective farm 50km away from Chernobyl and referred to a doubling of the cancer rate in the area! Just as they did after TMI. The doubling accusation is strange, since medical records in the area are known to be poor. This begs the question, doubling relative to what? The other CBC report of 10,000 deaths in the liquidators cleaning up after Chernobyl went to great pains to avoid pointing out that 10,000 deaths are to be expected in a population of over 600,000 individuals of that age range, if they are followed for several years! In other words they had nothing to do with Chernobyl at all! So much for honesty in the media. Now we get treated to the Children of Chernobyl tragicomedy every year, promoted by professional mischiefmakers who deliberately confuse, concerned and gullible parents. Even effects like nosebleeds and bruising in these kids gets blamed upon Chernobyl, next it will be haemorrhoids, ingrowing toenails and dandruff. All nonsense of course.
A report from the USSR, not widely circulated for obvious reasons, pointed out that the one veterinarian who pointed the finger of blame at Chernobyl, may himself have been responsible for livestock problems by allowing too close in-breeding of stock. If there is any connection with Chernobyl, I wonder why this sort of thing is appearing only now, several years after the fact, and not before, when radiation levels were higher; why there are not similar reports at other farms around and closer to Chernobyl, and on what figures, is the doubling of cancer rates based when the effects of radiation (other than for very rare leukemia) do not show up for at least 30 years and when health data from the area have generally not been carefully collected up until now? The figures were nonsense and were designed to terrify the gullible public.
A recent report in the Economist (Sept 22-28, 1990) painted a picture of almost complete medical incompetence in this region of the USSR suggesting that any reliable medical data was unlikely to exist. Yet we uncritically believe almost everything we hear. In contrast, the long term effects from coal mining are readily evident in the statistics for pneumoconiosis and silicosis in coal miners, showing several thousands of sufferers and a rate of about 80 deaths each and every week of the year, (see the Loss of Life Expectancy (LLE) figure in Table 17 of 1100 days for US coal miners). The general public suffers from transportation accidents moving coal (about 1000 deaths in the US each year, (Cohen)) and moving the millions of tons of residual waste to disposal sites, as well as in the ongoing air pollution deaths amounting to tens of thousands in North America alone each year, also reflected in the LLE estimate of 12 days. Nothing hypothetical about those figures! Contrast these figures (over which the resounding public clamour is unheard) with the estimated loss of life figures from reactor accidents, assuming that all electricity in the US were generated by nuclear power. The general public risk is estimated to be from 0.012 to 1.5 days LLE. The 0.012 days, (18 minutes) is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimate based upon factual information available, and the 1.5 days is the extreme (by comparison) estimate published by the much quoted anti-nuclear Union of Concerned Scientists (Cohen), in their endeavour to show how unsafe this industry is. Compare these with the Loss of Life figure of about 450 days from all accidents. Can the UCS (representing less than 0.1% of all scientists, but whose utterances are given publicity as though they spoke for all scientists) really be unaware that their own figures indicate that even the worst, hypothetical, effects from accidents with nuclear power (even if all power were nuclear) make it much safer than the everyday effects from the present levels of power generation from coal burning? I wonder why they are not crusading against the greater and more obvious danger. Could it be for lack of perspective, misplaced concern, mischief, or are they just uninformed? In any event, they do not demonstrate the calibre of science that we must demand of those who call themselves scientists.
It is easy to be against anything. It is much harder to be informed. More recently (1990), the UCS appears to have recognized this illogicality and have now suggested that the nuclear option should be re-examined. As a result they are now regarded as renegades to the cause of some environmental groups. However, they are not in bad company, as more environmental groups recently made the switch, along with (horror of horrors!) the Club of Rome and the Vatican.
Lost Life Expectancy: A Way Of Expressing Relative Risk
The concept of Lost Life Expectancy (LLE) has become popular in recent years. It's a useful method of comparing risks.
TABLE 16. RISKS OF CANADIAN INDUSTRIES (1967 -1976) ----------------------------------------------------
Industry LLE (days)
Average (all) 70
Mining (mostly non-coal) 660
Fishing (sea) 430
Police, Fire Depts. 62
The LLE, is of course a statistic that applies to no-one in particular but is valid only for a large population. For example, a loss of life expectancy of 1600 days for smokers (table 17), indicates that on average, the life span of the entire population of smokers will be shorter than the life span of the non-smoking general public by this amount, but there will be a wide range of values, from no obvious loss of life to a loss of 10, 20 or 30 years or more for individuals in this population. An individual smoker may live to 90, and achieve a dubious fame by being pointed out as indicating that the critics are wrong and that smoking is thus not harmful. Such an observation may be true for this one person. However, other smokers cannot be paraded before an impressionable and gullible public because they were buried out of sight long before their expected life span.
Dr. Bernard Cohen, Professor of Physics at the University of Pittsburg, has taken this much further. He's analyzed U.S. risk data for all kinds of activities. Some of the information in Table 17 comes from his recent book.
TABLE 17. LOSS OF LIFE EXPECTANCY - LLE (COHEN 1990)
(* average over total US population. The rest are those exposed)
Activity or risk LLE (days)
Living in Poverty 3500
Being Male (vs female) 2800
Cigarettes (male) 2300
Heart Disease * 2100
Being unmarried 2000
Being black (vs white) 2000
Socio-economic status 1500
Working as a coal miner 1100
Cancer * 980
30 lb. overweight 900
Grade school dropout 800
Sub-optimal medical care * 550
Stroke * 520
15 lb. overweight 450
All accidents * 400
Mining construction 320
Alcohol * 230
Motor vehicle accidents 180
Pneumonia, influenza * 130
Drug abuse * 100
Suicide * 95
Homicide * 90
Air pollution * 80
Married to smoker 50
Speed limit 65 mph vs 55 mph. * 40
Falls * 39
Radon in homes * 35
Fire, burns * 27
Coffee (2.5 cups/d) 26
Radiation worker (age 18 to 65) 25
Firearms * 11
Birth control pills 5
All electricity - Nuclear (UCS) * 1.5
Peanut butter (1 Tbsp/d) 1.1
Hurricanes, tornadoes * 1
Airline crashes * 1
Dam failures * 1
Living near Nuclear power plant 0.4
All electricity - Nuclear (NRC) * 0.04
The facts show that the risks from radiation are not proportional to the attention devoted to them by the media. In fact, you could argue that travelling from Saint John to a job at Point Lepreau Generating Station (LLE = 300 + 4 days) avoids the risk of being poor (LLE = 700 days). And if you smoke.......look at the table again. Dr. Cohen has taken this approach to its logical conclusion; he argues that those activities with a high LLE obviously should have more resources devoted to improving their safety than those with a low LLE. In practice, this doesn't happen, and it brings us to the next logical question, which few people like to address. How Much Should We Spend To Save A Life?
This is an emotional question with many answers. With the establishment of Mobile Intensive Care Units (MICUs) in the US, a typical municipality appears to value human life at less than about $50000. The Department of Transportation in Canada places a stated value of $500000 on a life. Rather than give you my opinion on what I think the answer is, let's work out what value would be implied if we decided to reduce emissions at Point Lepreau even further, as has been suggested by people fearful of man-made radiation in the environment, and compare it with these two figures. In 1976 we did a study on how the population is spread around Point Lepreau. Based on this it turns out that if we emit radiation to give 1% of the 1987 permissible legal limit (i.e., at 50 microsieverts/year) to the most exposed persons, there will be an annual radiation dose of 0.2 sievert spread over 175000 people. If we assume that 1 Sv implies a 1% chance of a fatal cancer (it is always being looked at and changes from time to time), 0.2 sievert implies a 0.2% chance each year that one of these 175000 people will contract cancer from our emissions. Compare this with the reality that about 20 to 25% of this number (35000+) will normally die of cancer over the next 50 years anyway. As total emissions for the last few years have been 50 times less than the 1% target at about 1 microsievert, there is about a 0.004% chance of causing 1 cancer in 175000 people. If we assume that for a million dollars per year we can reduce the emissions to virtually zero (it would probably cost a lot more than this), then we would be spending $1M/year to remove a risk of 0.004%/year (assuming 1 microsievert/y from emissions). This implies a value of $25 billion for a statistical life to be saved. This suggests also that we would have to wait for several decades or even centuries before we might see any such benefit in this area.
Based on our current emission rate (up to 1994), giving a dose of about 0.7 (to 1 microsievert) at the boundary fence, it comes to a value of almost $35 billion. Yet Environment Canada in their Codes of Practice initially insisted that utilities should use the best available technology, regardless of cost to reduce radiation emissions from nuclear electricity generating stations to the lowest achievable level. It is the understatement of the year for me to say that this does not make sense to me when I think of how many lives could be saved by spending that money elsewhere, especially in either preventive medicine or on education. Overspending upon safety is a violation of the safety ethic and costs more lives in some other direction by needlessly wasting resources to reduce a minuscule risk a minuscule amount.
Fortunately, this illogical, uninformed and wasteful position did not materialize when the sheer incompetence of the action and of what was being suggested was pointed out, but others just like it in other sectors of society have been emplaced, and at horrendous societal cost to us all.
A situation in Britain illustrates the extreme. British Nuclear Fuels is currently spending about 500 million dollars to further reduce discharges, aimed at saving 2 theoretical lives over the next 10,000 years! (Atom, November 1988).
Table 18 shows US data (in 1975 dollars) concerning the amount of money that is spent there to avoid fatalities, or conversely to save a life.
TABLE 18. THE COSTS OF SAVING A LIFE (Cohen)
Item $ per Fatality Averted.
Immunization in Third World Countries less than $100
Medical X-Ray Equipment $3.6k
Medical Screening and Care in the U.S. $10k to $70k
Traffic Safety $20k to $300k
MICU: Mobile Intensive Care Units $30k
THE COSTS OF REGULATION (to avoid one theoretical fatality)
Sulphur Scrubbers in Power Plants $500k
Coalmine safety $22E6
Radioactive Waste Storage U.S. $10E6
Radioactive Waste - Iodine-131 $100E6
Defense High Level Waste $200E6
Hazardous waste incineration (EPA estimated) $288E6
U.K. Radioactive Waste Storage $25E9
Least costly: less than $1 per life year saved.
Standard for Concrete construction
Flammability standard for childrens' sleep-ware
Vaccinations for measles, mumps, rubella
Most costly and therefore most wasteful per life year saved.
EPA regulations $7,629,000 per l.y.s.
Radionuclide emission control at coal fired plants $2 billion/life year saved.
Benzene emissions control at tire plants $20 billion per l.y.s.
Chloroform ..well emission standard, 48 pulp mills $99 billion per l.y.s.
COSTS PER FATALITY AVERTED (1975 U.S.$) ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
Item $ per fatality averted
Cervical cancer screening 25k
Mobile intensive care units 30k
Breast cancer screening 80k
Improved skid resistant surfaces 42k
Breakaway signs and lighting posts 116k
Air bags (driver only) 300k
Premium tires 3 M
Large versus small car 6 M
Smoke alarms in homes 60k
Scrubbers in coal-fired plants 500k
Civilian Aircraft (France) 1.2 M
Coal mine safety 22 M
Improved medical X-ray equipment 3.6k
Nuclear power plant emissions (legislated) 10 M
High activity waste disposal 20000 M
From the figures above, one can see that in some segments of society it seems possible to throw away up to 20,000 million dollars (20 billion) with the expectation of preventing a statistical death from the much overblown emotional red herring of radioactive waste disposal (largely because of the fear generated by the `What if...? question), and all of which is added to our cost of electricity or of doing business, while the same money could save thousands of actual - not statistical - lives in any other endeavour, while keeping power costs down - a double benefit, since they would both save lives.
No one has yet died or been injured from radioactive waste and it is of very low probability that anyone will. However, if the public is concerned about radiation, our government will spend tremendous sums of our tax dollars to protect it from nuclear power radiation; but if the public is not particularly concerned about medical screening or highway safety, spending in those areas will be meagre.
The dollars tend to go where there is the greatest clamour and publicity - no matter how few lives are jeopardised - not to where the danger is. One interesting figure recently publicized, is that about 40% of all low level radioactive waste, is from hospitals.
There are many cases where people have been put in real fear, because a very small risk to which they have been exposed has been described to them in frightening terms without benefit of perspective or facts. TMI, Chernobyl, AIDS and more recently the St Basile Le Grand fire involving PCBs, are good examples.
One of the greatest problems facing us in risk management is to find out how to explain to people what risks they run and how serious these risks are without inducing in them a state of fear. This never seems to be easy, and when the source of the risk is the subject of social controversy, as it is in the case of the nuclear industry, the problem appears to be insoluble until and unless we can better educate people. When asked why students around Dounreay, Scotland, were somewhat more pronuclear than their teachers, one of these students pointed out that by the time coal and oil ran out, their teachers would be dead!
I derive hope from the consideration that our unsophisticated ancestors were not able to block progress and did not sit on their hands rather than pass down to us what seemed to be irresponsible problems. (I hope, for the sake of my grandchildren, that this statement is still true 100 years from now). Consider this quote in Wyatt's book, The Nuclear Challenge:
"Is there any thinker alive watching this still utterly preventable calamity without horror and despair? Horror at what must come of it, if not promptly stopped; despair that men can be so blind, so hopelessly and childishly the slaves of their own marvellous inventive development of the black arts of warfare; ever such an occasion for the Powers in conference to ban once and for all a new and ghastly menace?"
No, it was not a quote aimed at nuclear power, sliced bread, or the passenger pigeon but was written in 1911 by John Galsworthy of Forsyte Saga fame, bemoaning the potential use of airplanes in warfare. Guess where we would be today, if he had succeeded in banning airplanes because of his limited view of their potential.
Other people have written similar outcries against the automobile, vaccination, surgery, electricity, steel, nuclear power etc., all of which have turned out to be much more of a blessing than a curse. I think! Without such fiendish inventions as electricity, the infernal combustion engine and thousands of other advances especially in medicine, all of which were violently and vocally opposed by a few well-intentioned zealots, we could still be enjoying life in the style of the 1800s or earlier. And might not know that we had killed the chance of something much better! The further and more advanced the technology; the more it appears like magic to unsophisticated minds and the greater the clamour to control or stop it.
The Good Old Days, included horse drawn buggies, sailing ships, TB, pellagra, rickets, diphtheria, typhoid, cholera, smallpox, polio, childhood mortality approaching 50% in some areas (and higher), and 70% of the total work force farming to feed our population as it did in 1830 before the advent of mechanization, herbicides, pesticides and food preservatives. Coupled with this elusive good life was a life expectancy about 40 years less than today! Those who have lost perspective and forgotten that it is to such things that we owe our longevity today, would have us return to the simplistic ways of yesteryear. The possibility terrifies me! Take another look at the title page and what Lord MaCauley said in 1830. It is just as true today. Let us not fall into the trap of assuming that our descendants will be exactly as we are, no more intelligent nor more capable of easily solving our weighty problems, or we are condemning them to enjoy our primitive life-style.
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