U.S. regulators may radically revise safety assumptions about atomic radiation.
Wade Allison, emeritus professor of physics at Oxford, has a more realistic idea for fighting global warming than any being promoted at this week’s climate summit in Paris: Increase by 1,000-fold the allowable limits for radiation exposure to the public and workers from nuclear power plants.
Sweden a few years ago finally acknowledged nearly a year’s supply of reindeer meat was needlessly destroyed after Chernobyl. A Japanese survey in 2013 found 1,600 premature deaths from “evacuation stress” (including suicides and loss of access to critical health care) among those forcibly protected from Fukushima exposures that posed little or no threat and were less than residents of, say, Finland experience on a normal basis.
In 2001, America’s then-chief nuclear regulator cautiously admitted that “excess cases of leukemia that can be attributed to Chernobyl have not been detected.”
In the 1980s, 1,700 apartments in Taiwan were built from recycled steel contaminated with radioactive cobalt. In a 2006 study that found residents suffered unusually low cancer rates, the authors suggested that, by correcting our risk estimates, “many billions of dollars in nuclear reactor operation could be saved and expansion of nuclear electricity generation could be facilitated.”
They were right: Exaggerated radiation fears have been crucial in driving up the safety, waste storage and licensing costs of nuclear power. But change may finally be coming—a paradigm shift in how we think about nuclear risk.
By now hundreds of papers have added evidence against LNT. A study last year from Munich’s Institute of Radiation Biology showed a specific mechanism by which low levels of radiation induce a nonlinear response in certain cell protection mechanisms.
The consequences have been incalculable. Not from any intrinsic cost, safety or efficiency advantage coal became the world’s go-to electricity source in the early 21st century. China and India today would not be opting for coal. They would be choosing among an array of off-the-shelf, affordable, safe and clean nuclear reactors developed in the advanced industrial countries.
How foolish have we been? In a month, coal mining kills more people than all nuclear power industry accidents since the beginning of time. Though it opens a can of worms, by the standards of LNT, coal is also more dangerous than nuclear. The particulates, heavy metals and radioactive elements coal plants emit are estimated to cause 13,200 deaths a year, according to the American Lung Association.