Radiation – how can the industry begin to deal with its biggest challenge?

15 December 2014

Antipathy to nuclear power is partly based on fear of radiation. The commercial nuclear industry needs to be more forceful in asserting that, except in the most extreme cases, fear of radiation is nothing more than fear of fear itself. By Steve Kidd

In last month's article (October 2014, "Public acceptance - is there any progress?") I argued that until there is a much better public understanding of radiation, the prospects of the nuclear industry will be severely constrained. At the very least, the fear factor surrounding nuclear power will result in substantially increased costs that will limit economic viability, while in other cases (Germany is a good example) there may be outright prohibitions on its use. Even if an increasing number of influential people, backed by learned reports, advocate that much more nuclear power should be utilised to mitigate global warming or enhance energy security of supply, not much is likely to happen if the general public is afraid. The "dreaded risk" of radiation exposure will remain, as even minor incidents at nuclear facilities provide "confirmation bias" that nuclear is indeed a rather dangerous activity.

The industry has traditionally responded to this rather obvious problem by appealing to rationality, and referring to the facts. Any incremental man-made radiation coming from nuclear activities is essentially no different to natural background radiation, and there is plenty of that. There are areas of the world where natural background radiation levels are well above even the maximum annual allowances for nuclear workers, without any detrimental effects noticeable in the local populations. Individuals in the developed world actually receive far more radiation from routine nuclear medicine (such as CT scans and mammograms), which doesn't attract the same degree of concern from the public. A severe nuclear accident increases the radiological risks, but the dose received by the general population at both Chernobyl and Fukushima was at a level low enough to make an increase in cancers or other medical problems unlikely. Indeed, the bigger health impacts have come more indirectly, from the impact of the evacuation of large numbers of people from their homes. And in many cases, these evacuations are not supported by sound science, as the biological effect of the incremental exposure of staying put would be so small. Finally, studies comparing nuclear power against other modes of generating electricity show that nuclear has relatively few impacts on human life: it and renewables share a very good record, whereas coal plants are particularly bad.

Ultimately the industry's approach relies on rebutting the so-called Linear No Threshold (LNT) theory of radiation exposure. On the upper extreme, it is certain that very high exposures to radiation (such as that experienced by atomic bomb victims in Japan in 1945 and some of the workers who tackled the Chernobyl accident) caused Acute Radiation Syndrome and death. From these very high radiation exposures, a straight-line or linear extrapolation to zero would give the probability of death for any doses in between. All radiation is believed to have a biological effect; in other words, there is no threshold below which there would be no health effects. Therefore, any radiation exposure above background is believed to be potentially dangerous and must therefore be minimised. Since the 1950s, official international advice on nuclear radiation (from UNSCEAR, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation and ICRP, the International Commission for Radiological Protection) has recommended that only the lowest achievable dose levels should be considered safe (As Low As Reasonably Achievable: ALARA).

Until relatively recently, the nuclear industry has been largely content to go along with these principles, even though the risks to human health at low levels of exposure are purely theoretical and cannot be demonstrated. Enormously expensive efforts have been made both to limit radiation exposure at operating facilities and to minimise the chance of major accidents. More recently, however, backed by eminent scientists such as Wade Allison, professor emeritus at Oxford University, the industry has started to challenge both LNT and ALARA. Empirical evidence suggests that the LNT hypothesis is invalid at low levels of radiation, and that creating additional radiation, within specified limits, should be acceptable. Some scientists go even further, arguing that low levels of radiation are actually beneficial to health: the so-called "hormesis" effect. But that may be going too far. The industry only needs to convince people that the low levels associated with nuclear power are acceptable and that spending huge sums of money to further reduce exposures fractionally is not worthwhile. People concerned about improving public health would make far greater gains by devoting their efforts to fighting well-understood and common hazards, such as reducing the number of people who smoke or improving road safety.

The experience of both the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents should have encouraged the industry to firm up its position. In both cases, the authorities evacuated regions where the contamination was arguably far below any level of risk, causing severe stress in the population, deaths among the elderly, alcoholism and family break-up. In the case of Fukushima, it is alleged that more than one thousand extra deaths, unrelated to radiation, have occurred as a result of the government's response. Everything that the authorities did served to undermine public confidence.

Taking a step back, it is clear that we need to learn from both disasters. But rather than ask, 'how do we protect people from radiation,' observers such as Malcolm Grimston at Imperial College have posed a different question: 'how do we protect people from the effects of the established radiological protection regime?"

There has been a complete failure to communicate the facts about radiation and its health impacts to both the general public, and to the politicians and decisionmakers who are supposed to protect the general public. The professionals within the radiological protection community must take their share of the blame for this.

It is easy, however, to understand how we came to the current situation. People who contribute to UNSCEAR and ICRP and their committees are well-intentioned regarding protecting the public and have their own individual professional egos to protect. Mostly, they are unsympathetic to the commercial nuclear industry; a few are quite hostile (believing that it imposes an additional risk on society). They are particularly ill-equipped to put radiological protection in context of other risks within society, so that balanced decisions can be taken. The same goes for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Their Radiation Safety Standards Committee (RASSC) develops the international standards relating to radiation protection that are then be incorporated in national legal systems. Participants cannot be assumed to have the interests of the commercial industry at heart - indeed, the IAEA as a whole often acts in ways which are damaging to the industry. International bureaucrats cannot be expected to support a commercial business; the companies involved and their representative associations must take matters into their own hands. It was notable, for example, that IAEA Director-General Yukiya Amano's speech at the recent General Conference mentioned many opportunities and challenges for nuclear technology, but said nothing about the need for clear communication on radiation. The situation at Fukushima is still a huge mess and is having very adverse effects on the future of civil nuclear power. The local people just don't know who to believe - the authorities have failed abysmally in attempting to explain the possible health effects of the accident, and what is safe or is not.

When passengers board commercial aeroplanes, they are unlikely to ask the pilot if it is safe to come on the flight. Although a few may have some fear of flying, most passengers recognise that the chance of the plane crashing will be very small. Everyone is assured that as much as possible has been done to minimise the risk, which is definitely ALARA. Contrast this with the position of the nuclear sector. Although important lessons may have been learned from Chernobyl and Fukushima, they haven't when it comes to radiation. If there were another accident tomorrow leading to the offsite release of radiation, the same degree of confusion is likely to ensue. There will be hysteria and misunderstanding about everything from the units of measurement used to the safety (or otherwise) of sheltering at home near the stricken plant. The Collective Dose Hypothesis will get wheeled out again, claiming thousands of additional deaths due to alleged very small increments of cancer risk within a large population of millions. Nothing has fundamentally changed: the industry has so far failed to get to grips with the nature and magnitude of the task it is facing.

But let's not be too pessimistic. There are some forms of radiation that are already treated sensibly. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is present in sunshine and its danger is quite well known to the general public. The damage caused to living tissue (which we all know as sunburn) is usually corrected in a day or two, through cell death when layers of skin peel off. UV radiation can also cause skin cancer years later. People are becoming increasingly aware that this is often fatal if not treated. Public education has concentrated on the need to cover up exposed skin with clothing or high-factor sunscreens.

Although exposure to sunlight is to some extent voluntary in nature, exposure to radiation from nuclear facilities is involuntary; apart from moving away from the source, nuclear workers' means of alleviating the risk are rather limited. Similar situations of persistent exposure have occurred before in the history of the human race, suggesting that there may be another mechanism to safeguard the species from radiation, if not necessarily the individual. Humans appear to have adapted a resistance to UV exposure: native peoples in tropical countries where the sun is strongest have dark skins that offer them some protection. Might a similar adaptation occur (over many generations) in peoples who live in areas where natural background radiation is many times higher than average levels, surpassing limits set for nuclear workers? The absence of higher cancer rates amongst them may be evidence for adaptation to a higher-radiation environment.

The industry has not devoted sufficient resources to facing the challenge of communicating about radiation. One might have thought that Fukushima would have prompted a bigger response than there has been, with the companies of the nuclear industry and representative associations like the World Nuclear Association and the national bodies doing rather more then they have done. Relying on websites and news services to communicate nuclear is quite inadequate; participating in bureaucratic committees at IAEA and ICRP is largely a defensive measure (against the possibility of the imposition of even more ridiculous rules and standards). A more aggressive approach is warranted. It should be based on the principle that education and communication are cheaper and more effective than searching for technical silver bullets. The industry has spent decades and billions of dollars on the latter and is still in an awkward position. Indeed, a steady decline into irrelevance is now arguably more likely than any nuclear renaissance to fight climate change.

One idea is to seek allies in the field of nuclear medicine. There is increasing concern expressed about the possible dangers of exposure from radiation therapy, and there are significant commercial interests which may be increasingly threatened by such concern. There may be some opposition to associating with the nuclear power sector, but surely the interests of both industries are similar. The public deserves to be able to understand the real truth.

About the author

Steve Kidd is an independent nuclear consultant and economist with East Cliff Consulting. The first half of his career was spent as an industrial economist within British industry, followed by nearly 18 years in senior positions at the World Nuclear Association and its predecessor organisation, the Uranium Institute.

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