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The nuclear establishment cannot be trusted on radiation

21 Aug 2018 11 minutes Read


An artists’ impression of Hinkley Point C

Tim Richards

When it comes to questions about the safety or not of releasing radioactive particles into the environment the Nuclear Power industry is economical with the truth but get away with it because the mass media tends to accept what they are told and if anyone disagrees they are called scaremongers who don’t understand the science. They delight in pointing out that many of those who oppose them are not scientists but that is hypocritical as their own pronouncements about radiation risks are very poor science. I am sure they will point out that I am not a scientist so my arguments can be dismissed but it is up to you the reader to decide that.

I am a teacher, not a science teacher but a law teacher so evidence is something that I regard as very important and coherent arguments matter to me. I am a long-term anti-Nuclear power activist and I have written this article to teach people about radiation and, in order to teach it properly, I want to explain it in a clear way that people can understand. So, while I am not a “Scientist” I really do understand radiation because I have been studying it for  over three decades and the purpose of this article is to explain why the Nuclear Power establishment’s views on the safety or not of radiation are wrong.

The Nuclear Power industry created the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) to set the safety standards of the Nuclear Power industry in terms of what they call safe or unsafe “doses” of radiation. Because the Nuclear Power establishment, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sets international safety limits those limits are essentially self-regulation of their own industry and it is not the independent body that many ill-informed people assume it is – but that’s not their fault because the IAEA prefers to keep the public in the dark and not be too closely questioned. They do not like it when people point out that the problem with the IAEA and ICRP’s definition of a safe dose of radiation is that is deeply flawed because it based on old and outdated scientific assumptions.

Radiation does not affect inanimate objects in the same way as living things such as plants and animals. To put it in a more traditionally scientific way, physics and biology are two different sciences and the ways in which they interact means that the way in which radiation was quantified by physicists does not fit the reality of life as studied by biologists.

But the Nuclear Industry’s concept of a “safe dose” of radioactivity, widely accepted by the mainstream media is a very old and out-dated argument which is why it can no longer be blindly accepted as sufficient because science has moved on since it was first put forward, and it is of no use when applied to genetics which was only discovered in the early 1950s.

The IAEA conceptual model for quantifying a radiation dose is that it means the quantity of energy absorbed by matter is treated as if it is uniformly distributed throughout the mass that absorbs it, i.e., the energy is “averaged” over the entire mass. To do this makes perfect sense within the mathematically oriented discipline of physics. However, this model is woefully inadequate when transferred into the discipline of biology where averaging energy over a mass of living cellular material is, in many instances, a useless concept for determining the biological effect.

This quantitative model that was first developed introduced clarity into people’s thinking about radiation’s interaction with matter and so successful was this approach that it influenced all future thinking on the subject of radiation protection. According to this model, the biological effects of radiation were proportional to the amount of energy absorbed by the target, whether this was a particular organ or the body as a whole.

Radiation protection was given a scientific footing that would allow it to keep pace with the revolution that was taking place in nuclear physics and in the new world created by the Manhattan Project, to build nuclear weapons, which required Nuclear Power stations to provide the basics necessary. The first Nuclear Power station in the UK, at Calderhall, was very inefficient in producing electricity but it was primarily built in order to develop the UK’s nuclear weapons.

But a subtle flaw lay at the heart of the initial model of safe doses of radiation because it was all built upon the unfounded assumption that biological effects of radiation depended solely on the amount of energy absorbed. What made perfect sense from the point of view of the physicist was not in harmony with basic biological realities.

At first, this wasn’t apparent. Only in the latter part of the 1950s, after new fundamental discoveries were made in biology, did the major shortcomings to the model begin to intrude into what was already orthodoxy in radiation physics. Thus, the physics-based model — which was hugely successful in advancing radiation research — turned out in time to have been a conceptual blunder that blinded many to a true understanding of the biological effects of radiation. More significant is the fact that it continues to blind the understanding of people today, even people who have spent years of study on the subject.

At low doses, the equivalent energy delivered by x-rays or gamma rays externally and that delivered by alpha and beta particles internally produce different patterns of chemical disruption to individual cells. As a result, low dose effects from external irradiation cannot be used to predict effects from internal contamination.

Radiation comes in three forms – alpha, beta and gamma. Gamma radiation has the highest penetrative power and has to be encased in thick steel and concrete to prevent it from leaking. Beta radiation is less penetrative and alpha decay comes last as it cannot pass through a piece of paper which is why the Nuclear Power industry regards it as safe. However, alpha particles can cause damage even if they have the lowest penetration power among the three because, if they enter the human body by us breathing them in or if we eat something that is contaminated by them then there are very real dangers.

This was known a century ago when it became obvious that workers painting luminous Radium on the faces of clocks, watches and compasses to make them glow in the dark. World War 1 boosted demand and through the following decades, hundreds of girls and women were employed to paint dials and pointers. They would routinely put the tips of their paint brushes between their lips to obtain a fine point for the trickier numerals but by 1923 it was clear that the Radium they ingested was causing dreadful, agonising and frequently fatal illnesses.

Radium (which emits alpha particles) mostly lodges in bone, so the diseases affected the blood-forming function of the women’s bone marrow, leading to anaemia. Those with higher body burdens had ulcers and their bones were weakened to the point where vertebrae collapsed and legs would break spontaneously. The first deaths directly attributed to Radium Necrosis came in 1925. Court cases, compensation payments and improved workplace practices followed starting with a ban on licking brushes.

The simple conclusion that, dose for dose, internal emitters may produce a more negative biological effect than external irradiation is a disaster for the nuclear establishment and they lose the plot when confronted by it. Using external irradiation as a model, the physicists of the Manhattan Project argued that internal emitters would produce the same biological effect for the same amount of energy deposited by radioactive decay (with consideration given to the quality factor of each type of radiation). To capture this energy transfer in their mathematical calculations, the energy transmitted by alpha and beta particles during radioactive decay was averaged over the entire mass of the target organ to yield an organ dose.

Unfortunately, the IAEA continues to this day to insist that this is the proper way of calculating dosages from internal emitters. Alpha particles on average traverse no more than 30 to 40 microns, approximately 3 to 4 cell diameters but that is the point – it is at the level of the cell where radiation effects become significant, not over large masses of tissue. When emitted from an atom undergoing radioactive decay, these particles travel along discrete tracks within a small volume of cells. Biological damage is produced within individual cells along these particle tracks. While in transit, they initiate the ionization of molecules only along their path of travel, either hitting vital molecular cellular structures, such as the DNA molecule, or missing them altogether. Not all cells within the range of the particle are affected. Biological alteration occurs only in those cells that are hit by the particle. Cells that are missed by the particle suffer no injury. With internal emitters, the unit of interest for gauging biological effects is individual cells, not whole masses of tissue.

This is particularly true for the induction of a cancer. Cancers arise from mutations within a single cell. This being the case, averaging the effect of a particle over an entire mass is ludicrous. Being a hit or miss phenomenon involving individual cells, how can the effect of an alpha or beta particle be averaged over the entire organ?

The conventional approach of averaging the energy transfer from radioactive decay events across a whole organ or the entire body is like emptying a rifle into a football stadium and averaging the effects of the 6 bullets across all the 25,000 spectators. The assumption that between them 25,000 people should be able to stop six bullets without any of them feeling more than a tap on the arm will not console the six grieving families. In this example, the 25,000 spectators are the cells of an organ. The six bullets are like six alpha particles. By the averaging model, the energy from the velocity of the bullets is treated as equally distributed to all who feel no more than a tap as a result. But this model simply does not reflect the reality, that the full energy is absorbed by only six spectators but with catastrophic consequences for them. In terms of biological effect, it makes no sense to speak of the impact of six alpha particles distributed over 25,000 cells. Only the individual cells hit will suffer biological damage. The remainder will escape unscathed. The dose is not received by the whole organ. It is absorbed completely by only a handful of cells.

The IAEA assumption, made long ago,  that external and internal radiation produce the same biological effects has never been validated and is now regarded as an unsubstantiated theory that is deeply flawed. For many years I have heard the Nuclear establishment use this deeply flawed science in a hypocritical way by arguing that when large amounts of leukemia is found in children near Nuclear Power stations that it cannot be because of the Nuclear power station, because the dose released by that station is too low to be the cause. The biased use of poor science by the Nuclear power establishment in a circular fashion can produce ridiculous results that well illustrates why they cannot be trusted.

This became obvious after the Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster in 1986 when huge amounts of radioactive particles were released into the atmosphere over Europe. While the 2005 IAEA report predicted that only 4,000 additional deaths would result from the Chernobyl accident, the most recently published figures indicate that in Belarus, Russia and Ukraine alone, the accident resulted in an estimated 200,000 additional deaths between 1990 and 2004.

When it comes to safety and internal radiation doses, the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR) has, in recent years, identified it as a serious misuse of scientific method in the extension and application of the traditional model. Such a process involves deductive reasoning. It falsely uses data from one set of conditions — high-level, acute, external exposure — to model low-level, chronic, internal exposure. The procedure is scientifically bankrupt, and were it not for political consideration, would have been rejected long ago, according to the ECRR.

It is high time that politicians caught up with the realities of life and realised that the Nuclear Power establishment are hoodwinking them about the safety or not of radiation. That is particularly true when it comes to them making decisions which concerns the release of radioactive particles into the atmosphere as if they accept their assertions without having advice from independent scientists then they are gambling with people’s lives.

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