A dear friend recently expressed his strong opposition to nuclear power. When I asked him about his reasons for opposing nuclear power, he cited the amount of low-level radiation from nuclear power plants and suggested that I read Dr. John W. Gofman’s book, An Irreverent Illustrated View of Nuclear Power. Dr. Gofman’s early research was in nuclear physics. He worked on the Manhattan Project. Later, he became a professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California in Berkeley. The book, published in 1979, is a collection of his lectures and essays opposing development of nuclear power.
After reading Dr. Gofman’s book, I realized why anyone who believed his analysis, would be strongly opposed to nuclear power. He writes convincingly. Gofman’s opposition stems from two main arguments: (1) radiation leakage is inevitable, and all radiation is potentially lethal; and (2) nuclear power is not needed, because the amount of energy that could be obtained from the limited supply of uranium can easily be sourced by other means including co-generation (i.e., producing steam for heating while also generating electricity). I have refuted both these lines of reasoning in my book and my blog. I will briefly reiterate my reasonings here, starting with the second.
Gofman’s argument about the limited amount of energy possible from nuclear power holds only for the light water reactor designs that use barely 5% of the potential energy from the fuel rods before they are replaced. In fact, with reprocessing and breeder reactors, energy from nuclear fission can suffice to serve all humanities needs for centuries. Should nuclear fusion become a reality the amount of realizable energy is virtually limitless. The world clearly needs a whole lot more carbon-free energy than can be garnered from expedients like co-generation (which are not carbon-free).
Gofman bases his antinuclear arguments in what is known as the linear no-threshold hypothesis (LNT). LNT was postulated by Prof. Herman Muller in 1927 based on the mutagenic effect of radiation and the resultant possible cancers. He got the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1946 for that work. In his speech at the award ceremony, he articulated the LNT hypothesis, “that mutation frequency is directly and simply proportional to the dose of irradiation applied and that there is no threshold dose.” The context is important as it was shortly after the horrific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many scientists pleaded with the governments to cease from developing atomic weapons. They were also troubled by the atmospheric testing of the weapons and the fallout thereof. Muller’s finding of radiation induced mutagenesis, coupled with the fact that we do not know which mutation may tip the cell over to becoming cancerous, provided a rationale for LNT. LNT further posits that all effects of radiation are cumulative.
Note that all this happened prior to elucidation of the structure of DNA by Watson and Crick in 1953, nor the subsequent advances in our understanding of how our body copes with DNA ruptures. The LNT hypothesis has been thoroughly debunked and yet, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues to impose strict limits on radiation exposure from nuclear power plants to 1 mSv/year, one-third of natural background radiation! We now know that in humans, DNA damage arises naturally about 10,000 times per cell per day! Almost all of them are successfully repaired by the body. Biology is truly amazing! It evolved under the stress of radiation.
Living on earth exposes us to over a 100-times the radiation from a functioning nuclear power plant. Natural radiation levels on average are about 3 mSv/year, and people living at higher altitudes and atop granite rocks receive substantially higher doses. Background radiation in Denver is 10 mSv/yr, but epidemiological studies have not shown people there to have a higher incidence of cancer. In addition to this background radiation, people are routinely exposed to larger amounts of radiation from medical procedures such as chest and dental X-rays, CT-scans, and when traveling by air.
In 2014, the UN body studying the biological effects of radiation issued a statement saying it “no longer recommend(s) multiplying very low doses by large numbers of individuals to estimate numbers of radiation-induced health effects within a population exposed to incremental doses at levels equivalent to or lower than natural background levels." Studies on the fatalities and possible cancers arising from nuclear power plant exposures over the last 70 years show that it has the best record of all energy systems. Even if we include 4000 fatalities from Chernobyl as predicted by LNT (actual number is around 50), nuclear power results on average 0.04 deaths per TWh of electricity generated as compared to 160 deaths per TWh for coal. Please see my blogpost about why I favor nuclear power and another one dealing with some common objections I have heard during my presentations.
By adhering to LNT and strict radiation exposure standards, we have unduly instilled a fear of nuclear power in the general public and made nuclear power unnecessarily expensive. As a direct consequence of that many more coal and other fossil fuel plants were installed. Our response to the fear of radiation has caused many more fatalities. The same result was seen in Fukushima. Fear of radiation prompted the unnecessary evacuation of several hundred thousand people and resulted in over 2000 fatalities from stress and mental anguish. Radiation exposure did not cause a single death.
Gofman uses powerful rhetoric. He calls potential deaths from radiation as “random murders,” and he repeats it over and over again to evoke a visceral response. By his logic, he and others opposed to nuclear power are guilty of more murders as their stance led society to use a more deadly technology! Furthermore, Gofman tells the public to not believe anyone who denies LNT as they are lying. He calls them “sycophants of the elite and powerful.” With statements like that, he basically shuts down any opportunity for a meaningful discussion. No wonder, my friend does not want to engage with me on this subject.
Towards the end of his book, Gofman writes about the billions of energy impoverished people. Yet, he never addresses their need for energy, nor how that could be provided. The human cost of energy poverty is enormous in terms of infant mortality, malnutrition, premature deaths, and lost human potential. Currently, 17,000 children die every day from causes attributable to energy poverty. Let that number sink in. It is comparable to the number of people who perished from the Tsunami that hit Northern Japan in 2011. Imagine now, a similar tsunami striking every day and selectively taking the lives of children under the age of five. Between 1980 and 2005, China lifted 600 million people out of abject poverty while simultaneously reducing infant mortality rate from over 2,000 per day to under 700. This achievement was a result of increasing energy production four-fold, albeit that was mostly from increased use of coal and oil. Nevertheless, the importance of energy in bettering the lives of humans cannot be overstated. If you haven’t seen this 10-minute video by Prof. Rosling, please make time to watch it.