Demystifying Nuclear Power: Problem: In a post-Fukushima-triple-meltdown world, do the numbers work for atomic power?

written by Sue Prent

With a giant blot still reading over the page of its public safety record, the multi-national, multi-billion dollar atomic power industry faces  the stark economic reality that without even more of the regulatory and financial support that it has long enjoyed, it cannot successfully compete financially with sustainable methods electrical generation.

Moreover, these preferential government regulations and incredible financial subsidies from countries around the world are more concerned with maintaining a nuclear energy fleet that in the US has long been tied-up with Defense Department interests, and throughout the world has also been an assured method of access to nuclear weapons.

During the early days of atomic reactors, decommissioning, clean-up and long-term radioactive waste storage were not even acknowledged or planned for, and now they crowd onto center stage as aged and leaking plants line up to speedily shutdown and abandon their overflowing nuclear waste cesspools.  In the US, people living near the plants and state governments without regulatory authority over this federal process are stunned to discover the financial burden of underfunded decommissioning funds and inadequate decommissioning procedures that will leave the public facing corporate waste abandonment.

That’s right, here’s the hook: if it weren’t for the scientific consensus view that radiation is harmful, and more radiation is even more harmful, nuclear plants might be a whole lot cheaper to operate. 

Talk about your “inconvenient truth!”

Recent developments suggest that the atomic power industry, with cooperation from the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), may have come up with a crafty way to make the financial numbers work once again: rehabilitate radiation.

If securing the public from risk due to radiation at all phases of the atomic reactor chain – beginning with uranium mining to final decommissioning and waste treatment for 250,000 years – has just become exponentially more costly due to impacts from the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown, the obvious answer for this tainted industry is to deny that radiation risk even exists!

Denial in the face of evidence has certainly been an effective tool to frustrate worldwide efforts to address Climate Change.  Why not attempt the same public relations makeover on radiation?

This new, bold initiative appears to be coming in a two-pronged attack:  the first is reviving an already disproved theory that radiation may be ‘good for you’: hormesis.

The second is changing the world’s perception of the Fukushima Daiichi triple meltdown that released and deposited massive amounts of radioactivity in many areas of Japan.  How?  Persuade the Japanese public in particular, that evacuation from the heavily contaminated exclusion zone at Fukushima Daiichi is not just unnecessary but in fact harmful!  If the corporate power brokers can sell this meme, these nuke power corporations will literally trim billions of dollars in costs for evacuation plans required for operating atomic reactors.

In order to cut the long-term cost of the existing Fukushima Daiichi evacuation burden, evacuees are being told that their evacuation was never really necessary and now, more or less immediately, they must accept resettlement back in their devastated, radiation contaminated towns.  This new and convenient revision of atomic risk by way of the hormesis myth provides even more cover for TEPCO to end compensation and unceremoniously dump these victims back in their compromised homes and communities.

In the US, the NRC is vigorously pursuing the rehabilitation of radioactivity, where it has accepted and is actively reviewing three recently filed petitions demanding that its longstanding position against small amounts of radioactivity exposure be overturned.  Decades of corroborated scientific evidence has proven that no amount of radiation, no matter how small, can be regarded as harmless; (this is called Linear No Threshold, or LNT).

The theory of “hormesis” is that a little bit of radiation may even be beneficial, even though there is significant scientific evidence to the contrary. And now, proponents of the already discredited “hormesis theory”, have launched what appears to be a carefully coordinated and suspiciously timed assault on the public’s perception to their risk from exposure to atomic radiation. 

One of the first hints of this mega-PR-effort was the film Wolves of Chernobyl, which focuses on one large mammal species near Chernobyl that appears to have rebounded in the aftermath of the second worst atomic reactor disaster in history.  The film has completely ignored the loss of biodiversity in the region; particularly of birds and insects, as well as the inability of timber stands to maintain their natural cycle of decay and regeneration through the activity of microorganisms that were simply wiped-out by the extensive Chernobyl radiation.

Now the NRC has abruptly discontinued its publicly-funded study of the relationship between the incidence of cancer and the proximity of operating atomic reactors.  Why was this study that began in 2010 abandoned?

“…the NRC said that continuing work on the NAS study was “impractical, given the significant amount of time and resources needed and the agency’s current budget constraints.”

I can’t help but wonder what the data already collected from this study has revealed and whether it was headed in a direction that could further tarnish prospects for a nuclear energy future, like the in-depth study conducted in Germany did. Conducted by Wolfgang Hoffmann and Eberhard Greiser who are located in Bremen, the study entitled, Epidemiologic Evaluation of Leukemia Incidence in Children and Adults in the Vicinity of the Nuclear Power Plant Krummel (KKK) unequivocally showed an increased incidence of cancers in children living near nuclear plants.

Nuclear medicine interests share some of the existential angst experienced by their atomic energy sector colleagues. So it is not surprising that Carol Marcus Ph.D., M.D. is a professor of Nuclear Medicine at U.C.L.A is one of the petitioners to the NRC to demand that it relax radiation illness standards.  Nuclear medicine is where expansion of the development and application of new radiology treatments and specialized equipment represent a huge corporate industrial growth opportunity.

Ms. Marcus and her colleagues have a special interest in countering many medical evaluations and admonitions that are routinely raised by doctors and hospitals around the world about the over-use of radiation for diagnosis and treatment.

Adoption of the hormesis theory of benign radiation would really help the nuclear medicine industry as much as it will help the atomic reactor power industry.  In fact, Dr. Marcus’ petition to the NRC seems to equate the fact that radiation can be useful in diagnosis and treatment of cancer with evidence that low-dose radiation is indeed beneficial, in spite of years of data proving that is not true, including the lengthy German study.

To that, one must counter that the benefits brought to cancer treatment by radiation have a very specific tissue-destroying capacity rather than any positive health function.  There is no scientifically corroborated benefit for even an extremely low-dose of radiation. Rather than providing any actual proof for her hypothesis, the balance of Dr. Marcus’ petition seems to be filled with complaints detailing how existing radiation protection guidelines hamstring her profession. 

The second petition to end LNT, submitted by Certified Health Physicist Mark L. Miller relies heavily on language identical to that of Dr. Marcus, suggesting a collaborative relationship.

The third petition was submitted by a group lead by one of the principle voices supporting the hormesis theory, Mohan Doss Ph.D.  His cosigner’s predictably represent atomic corporate interests that have heavily financially invested in the success and expansion of atomic industries.

According to the Fox Chase Cancer Center website, Mr. Doss, who is an MCCPM (Member of the Canadian College of Physicists in Medicine) radiology practice includes

 “Exploring cancer prevention and treatment using low-dose radiation (and)Control of non-cancer diseases using low-dose radiation.”

Mr. Doss, who has found a well-spring of opportunity in the convenient meme of hormesis, is quoted along with the other two petitioners in a New York Times article that uses the number of deaths from suicide and accident that have occurred among evacuees from Fukushima evacuation zone as a rallying call.

The New York Times argues that the evacuations were unnecessary and caused these unnecessary deaths.  This argument claims that people in the exclusion zone were/are exposed to negligible amounts of radiation, even though scientific studies do not corroborate this fallacy. 

The truth is that terrible stress is being experienced by the evacuated victims of this atomic reactor disaster, and the remedy is to not allow nuclear reactor disasters to happen ever again. 

Rearranging the narrative so that the atomic industry and its alleged regulators can conveniently dismiss evacuations as ‘unnecessary’ is an appalling way to address that personal stress and does a great injustice to the victims of Fukushima Daiichi.

If the NRC accepts the proposed rule change, it will be shifting even more radiation risk onto innocent people around the world as the nuclear energy industry looks forward to saving billions of corporate dollars on radiation clean-up and disaster management.

The nuclear power industry with its ongoing promotion of atomic reactors has simply doubled down on flimflam rather than learning from the real lessons from Fukushima Daiichi disaster.

The potential ramifications for public health are huge.