Friends of Which Earth? Giving Green the Red Light

There was a strong response and discussion following my posting where I mentioned my run-in with David Noonan of the Australian Conservation Foundation.  So I decided to bring this post forward while I work on Part II of the Energy Plan.

Jim Green is a member of Friends of the Earth. I don’t know Jim but FoE is another organisation that I consider to have admirable goals, history and actions in a great many areas. I particularly admire the way FoE seems to get on the front lines in real global environmental  trouble spots such as in settings of rampant deforestation in South East Asia. Here, they seem to do tough work, well, in partnership with other organisations. They appear to build evidence based studies using GPS coordinates, photographic evidence and scientifically referenced information to present the case, and they show no fear. Good on them.

Transplant this verve to Australia and it gets a little strange for me. God knows Australia has environmental problems, including in the management of forests, but we actually are not rampantly corrupt, and we basically manage natural resources like forests in a more sustainable and transparent way than the world trouble spots. My dealings with FoE in this setting, which were limited but direct during my years of working in Victoria, is that they lack a sense of compromise, and lack an appreciation of the value of forest and timber products and the value of jobs. Curiously, when the substitutes for construction timber are demonstrably worse for the environment, being mainly mined minerals, that doesn’t seem to cut through either. In a developed nation we must reach compromise in these areas. We need to accept that we are actually agents of management and stewardship for much of our environmental resources, some of which we will cordon off and conserve, and some of which we will use for a variety of purposes. Otherwise, the resources feeding our consumption will be imported from precisely the trouble spots FoE fights so hard to clean up! In this setting, I find the FoE approach a little hard to take. I concluded to my great disappointment that when FoE talks of a sustainable timber industry, what they actually mean is a cottage industry. It’s not the same thing. I can at least understand their motivations as it is pretty galling when the wrong things happen in our forests. But I disagree with their desired end point.

Then we get to nuclear power, and the situation gets truly ridiculous. They oppose it, vigorously. Exactly whose interests are they presuming to represent by opposing nuclear power? Surely not those in India who still burn sticks and dung for cooking fuel? Surely not those in China who burn coal directly in their homes? Surely not the rest of the Chinese living (and prematurely dying) in the Asian Brown Cloud, made partly from the emissions of factories and power plants? Surely not the poor worldwide who will be on the front line of the worst impacts of climate change?

Based on the article Radiation and Risk by Jim Green, which I was asked to rebut, they would appear to be representing deceased people who probably never existed. I realise that sounds weird, but read on and you will see. When I first read his article I was concerned. It sounded reputable and convincing, and seemed to be supported with his reference to the UNSCEAR. How could I rebut this?

I needn’t have worried. As I read the UN report, I was appalled to realise just how blatantly he had cherry picked from UNSCEAR, and the pains he had gone to in misrepresenting them. The only thing difficult about rebutting this was that the first five versions were unprintably angry. Even the version I eventually submitted to the editor was sent back for a little toning down.

Here is my article. The original on line publication can be found here, and it is well worth a read of the ensuing dual between Jim and I (and several others doing an admirable job of taking him to task) in the comments.

For someone like Jim to change his mind may be a bitter pill to swallow as my subscriber Podargus says, but I promise to be here with the glass of water when he or anyone else is ready. He can’t possibly be a horrible guy. But this type of thing can’t be allowed to go on unanswered and the environmental movement must urgently re-appraise the issue of nuclear power. Otherwise they are not behaving like Friends of any Earth I know.

Giving Green the red light

Ben Heard, Director – ThinkClimate Consulting

10th April 2011

In the fight against climate change, Jim Green and I should be on the same side. But something rotten is at work. Recently, George Monbiot demonstrated how Helen Caldicott rejects science and rigour in the pursuit of her anti-nuclear agenda. Green’s article Radiation and Risk , a rebuttal of an earlier piece by Wade Allison, suggests she may not be alone. There are many misleading lines of argument Green’s column. I’ve decided to confine myself to the cornerstone of the piece: the radiological health impacts of Chernobyl.

By way of background, Green works for Friends of the Earth (FoE), an organisation that is trusted by many, with a longstanding opposition to nuclear power. The popular perception of nuclear power as dangerous underpin FoE’s campaigns against it.

The peak body responsible for investigating Chernobyl is the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). Their 2008 report to the UN General Assembly, the work of 21 leading scientific representatives from 21 nations states that, to 2005, the death toll is 28 fatalities among emergency workers, plus 15 fatal cases of cancer. This poses a problem for FoE. If this is indeed the toll from Chernobyl, then nuclear power must basically be safe. If people know this, they will be more open to learning about nuclear power and may then drop their objections all together. Furthermore, the body reporting this finding is impeccably credentialed. The only way to get around this is to somehow both refute UNSCEAR, but also then leech off their credibility to produce a much larger death toll. That’s difficult, though not impossible.

In Radiation and Risk Green refutes UNSCEAR by first cherry-picking one paragraph from UNSCEAR’s 179-page report[1] and using it three ways:

  • Firstly, to infer that any author accurately repeating UNSCEAR’s findings on the specific known death toll of Chernobyl is misrepresenting UNSCEARs report (a shaky claim in the first place)
  • Secondly, to infer that UNSCEAR didn’t do their job properly; that they chose to “shy away” from assessing broader radiation impacts
  • Thirdly, to permit himself to re-calculate the death toll using a methodology specifically excluded by UNSCEAR due to “unacceptable uncertainties”: modelling cancer deaths among large populations exposed to very low level excess radiation over a long period.

So instead of looking carefully at what actually happened to people over 20 years to 2005 (as UNSCEAR did), Green takes the total radiation dose from Chernobyl, multiplies it by a standard rate of fatal cancers, and provides a new death toll from cancer. If that process sounds a bit shorthand to you, well, it is. Having reviewed 20 years of on the ground studies, UNSCEAR’s experts identified 15 fatal cancers.  Green’s modelling estimates 30,000-60,000 fatal cancers. This incredible discrepancy surely confirms UNSCEAR’s point about the unacceptable uncertainty of the modelling approach adopted by Green. Even if the foremost experts in the field got it wrong by an order of magnitude, there would be 150 cancer deaths. Not 30,000-60,000.

Should you suspect me of cherry picking, the report is clear that efforts to understand the effects of Chernobyl have been exhaustive[2], and that there are very good reasons not to apply the modelling approach, such as the lack of evidence of carcinogenic effects at small radiation doses[3], and the fact that any conceivable increase would be so small as to be beyond detection[4] . Two passages are reproduced below. For the purpose of rebuttal the original text is hard to improve upon (my emphases added).

There has been widespread misunderstanding …regarding the scale and the nature of the health impact of the Chernobyl accident. This is in part due to confusion regarding… theoretical projections of effects versus actual observations (pg 56, paragraph 37).

It is important to understand the significant statistical uncertainty associated with any projection based on modelling, which lends itself to estimations that are within an order of magnitude or even more (pg 64, paragraph 95).

So UNSCEAR didn’t “shy away” from modelling. They excluded it because they are professionals, and the modelling generates unreliable outcomes (Green’s 30,000-60,000 provides a good example).

What more needs to be said? Perhaps this. A significant impact from Chernnobyl is not radiological, but psycho-social[5]. Borrowing the language of the report, exposed populations show stress symptoms including increased levels of depression and anxiety, with important consequences for behaviour such as choices in diet, smoking, drinking and “other lifestyle choices”[6]. Calling that what it is, these people feel they have been robbed of their future by an invisible enemy, so see less reason not to eat, smoke, drink and engage in risky behaviour, sexual and otherwise, to the point of harming themselves. It’s tragic, it’s unnecessary, and UNSCEAR offers this reassurance:

From this annex based on 20 years of studies… it can be concluded that…the vast majority of the population need not live in fear of serious health consequences from the Chernobyl accident… Lives have been disrupted… but from the radiological point of view generally positive prospects for the future health of most individuals involved should prevail (pg 65, paragraph 100).

UNSCEAR, using actual observations, gives those affected by Chernobyl confidence of long and healthy lives. The approach taken by Green, using theoretical projections, risks keeping them, and us, deeply afraid of radiation and cancer. That’s not good enough.

Somewhere in their history, the anti-nuclear movement appears to have decided that their ends justify any means. They appear prepared to distort credible sources in order to oppose the only near zero-carbon and scalable base load power source. Climate deniers use the same tactics to tell us climate change isn’t real. Both show a deep disrespect for the impartial ideal of science.

Those who resort to this modus operandi need to realise: this is not a game. Your actions risk exacerbating and perpetuating tragedy, and imperilling our future on this planet. Radiological health and climate change are both substantially informed by science. You have a responsibility to faithfully represent the scientific consensus of the former, as do others the latter. Anything less demonstrates a profound abuse of trust.


[1]The Committee has decided not to use models to project absolute numbers of effects in populations exposed to low radiation doses from the Chernobyl accident, because of unacceptable uncertainties in the predictions. It should be stressed that the approach outlined in no way contradicts the application of the LNT (linear non-threshold) model for the purposes of radiation protection, where a cautious approach is conventionally and consciously applied.” Page 64, paragraph 98

[2] Page 47, paragraph 5

[3] Page 64, paragraph 95

[4] Page 64, paragraph 97

[5] Page 57, paragraph 45

[6] Page 58, paragraph 46

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39 thoughts on “Friends of Which Earth? Giving Green the Red Light

  1. Podargus

    Well,Ben,when you have got religion you don’t allow little things like facts get in the way of proselitizing your beliefs.

    And this is what we are dealing with when tackling the hard core of the anti nuclear movement and climate change deniers.

    I suppose the only answer to this is to keep stating the facts and stay clear of emotive responses.

    Reply
  2. Marion Brook

    I agree it’s crucial we present the evidence and conclusions from the scientific literature clearly and without bias and I also realise when Podargus referred to “emotive responses” what he meant was responses which have no rational or factual foundation and as far as that goes I agree with that too, but I must urge that we don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the facts alone will convince anyone of anything. Facts without a cultural or emotional context are just meaningless trivia. We imbue any fact worth noting with either negative or positive emotional content depending on a whole gamut of contextual information which has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact under consideration. This study, for example, shows counter factual information, such as peer group influences, political affiliations and previously formed beliefs all have a have a bearing on whether or not information is accepted.

    Essentially, affirming group membership feels good, taking a stance against the group feels bad. That leaves climate activists in a bit of a pickle. When being green means being an opponent of nuclear power, we are being forced to choose between peer group membership on the one hand and long term, broad-group well-being on the other. Speaking personally, that feels shitty.

    Ben, as a pro-nuclear environmentalist, you are not only exposing the lies and dogma of the old-style, anti-nuclear, green-groups with this piece, you are also proving there is a new, positive, peer group ‘out there’ for the serious climate activist to be part of – and I’ve got to say, that feels great.

    Reply
    1. Decarbonise SA Post author

      Perhaps the ultimate compliment to the site Marion. Thank you.

      “We imbue any fact worth noting with either negative or positive emotional content depending on a whole gamut of contextual information which has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact under consideration.” Absolutely critical and true. Note that while I was well advanced on reconsidering the “facts” about nuclear when I went to that debate, it was less the information presented by Noonan and more his ultra-combatative demeanor, rusted on politics and his apparently infamous cherry-pick that gave me a solid kick into the pro-nuclear camp. It’s worth bearing the power of this in mind. If there is any trap pro-nuclear has a tendancy to fall into, I can sum it up in a word: “smug”. We must avoid smugness at all costs. Just because we have been acquainted with the facts for a while, doesn’t mean other people don’t deserve to have their concerns taken seriously, and at all cost should not be made to feel stupid. So here’s a job. Fossil fuels result in Smog Alerts. I need a Smug Alert. If I get smug, tell me!!! It means I am being less effective at making change than I could be. I care more about the outcome than about pithy wit for the enjoyment of those who need no convincing; tell me if I am falling into that trap!!!

      Reply
      1. John Morgan

        Agree totally. Changing ones mind is a process, it takes time, and may take you through some awkward stages of cognitive dissonance along the way. People need to be allowed the space to change their mind, and will rarely do so if pushed into a defensive posture, whether by belligerence, or condescension.

        Reply
  3. Deckermann

    This is the same well sourced thought out rebuttal (kudos) Grorge Monbiot blogged about in his deconstructive (In my opinion) rebuttal of Helen Caldicott’s lack of credible sources.

    What is more interesting is that the UNSCEAR report is hardly mentioned by Caldicott and Green. It’s rather interesting.

    I can’t remember where I’ve seen this but the Report that is apparently printed by the New York Academy of Sciences that notes 900,000+ deaths from Chernobyl has been either un-endorsed by the Academy or been taken out of context completely? Can someone enlighten me on that point?

    Reply
    1. Decarbonise SA Post author

      Thanks Deckerman. Yep, they would really rather pretend UNSCEAR do not exist.

      My understanding is that the NYAS were responsible for bringing this study into the public domain, but have since stated that they have neither peer reviewed it, nor should their support for the document be inferred. As for the 900,000 deaths, the rough methodology seems to have been to attribute every post-Chernobyl excess death in the region to Chernobyl, whether the death had a clearly linked radiological cause or not. Given that 3 years later the Soviet Union broke up, leading to massive social and economic upheaval, the premises of this death toll are patently ridiculous. I’m short the reference here, but I am pretty sure I read this from Monbiot’s dissection of Caldicott’s statements. Others may have better detail than that.

      Reply
    2. Decarbonise SA Post author

      Here’s the link for what I mentioned. It was indeed courtesy of Monbiot, http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/04/evidence-meltdown/ . Here are the relevant passages:

      “Like John Vidal and many others, Helen Caldicott pointed me to a book which claims that 985,000 people have died as a result of the disaster(14). Translated from Russian and published by the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, this is the only document which looks scientific and appears to support the wild claims made by greens about Chernobyl.

      A devastating review in the journal Radiation Protection Dosimetry points out that the book achieves its figure by the remarkable method of assuming that all increased deaths from a wide range of diseases – including many which have no known association with radiation – were caused by the accident(15). There is no basis for this assumption, not least because screening in many countries improved dramatically after the disaster and, since 1986, there have been massive changes in the former eastern bloc. The study makes no attempt to correlate exposure to radiation with the incidence of disease(16).

      Its publication seems to have arisen from a confusion about whether the Annals was a book publisher or a scientific journal. The academy has given me this statement: “In no sense did Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences or the New York Academy of Sciences commission this work; nor by its publication do we intend to independently validate the claims made in the translation or in the original publications cited in the work. The translated volume has not been peer-reviewed by the New York Academy of Sciences, or by anyone else.”(17) “

      Reply
      1. Deckermann

        That’s where I saw it too. Thanks for clearing it up. I’ll keep that noted so when someone mentiones that report I can rebut with “it wasn’t peer reviewed, used questionsable modelling, and was refuted by a peer reviewed journal on Radiation”.
        I think somewhere someone needs to collate the most used anti-nuclear arguements and highlight the missed context, the cherry-picking, or the converse argument in one central location and keep it updated. At the moment it’s fragmented between a few bloggers.
        You can’t force someone into an opinion (often it goes the other way with force) but you can give them the whole picture to make them a more informed person.

        Reply
  4. Podargus

    Marion,you are correct in saying that the peer group is a big factor in how most people arrive at their opinions/positions.I guess I don’t have much sympathy for those people because,while I have belonged to various groups throughout my life,either by choice or because of occupational strictures,I’ve never given myself over entirely to the conventional wisdom of those groups.But I’m just a real ornery cuss at the best of times.

    Not being a psychologist I have no idea how a pro-nuclear activist could break these counter productive peer group pressures.All I can advocate is to keep the arguments calm and rational.There are surely some people in the anti-nuclear crowd who are open to reason regardless of what their peers think.

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  5. wilful

    I wonder to what extent and at what sort of time scales the bigger debate on climate change will influence the debate on nuclear power.

    I am not fervidly pro-nuclear, I am fervidly anti-climate change. nuclear power is for me solely a means to an end. While I agree that nuclear power would be better than coal anyway, without CO2 issues, if they weren’t in play I wouldn’t press for nuclear power at all.

    At some stage Australians will wake up, shake the fog off them that has been generated by Big Carbon (assisted by a compliant Opposition and complacent media) and demand action on climate change, without having to turn all our lights off. We need to sow the ground ready for a harvest of nuclear converts, make it easy. We’re not going to change the dyed-in-the-wool anti-nuke crowd, that can’t be our audience, we’re going to convince the unconvinced.

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  6. Marion Brook

    @ Ben and John
    Yeah, I’ve been guilty of smugness and condescension from time to time, particularly in my off-the-cuff responses to comments, posts, etc. which, I feel, are themselves disrespectful. Of course, this is the point where an ability to maintain a calm, respectful tone would make the most impact on anyone else who might be following the conversation. I’m learning to sit on these more ignominious comments for a while, sometimes though, my temper does still get the better of me and I’ll hit post with a great flourish and no thought – it never ends well…

    A “smug alert” sounds just the ticket. If we (in the pro camp) pull each other up on this we can send the message that this forum is a place for informed, non-judgemental, discussion and learning.

    @ wilful
    I agree. For me it’s not about nuclear power per se, it’s all about which strategies and technologies have the ability to decarbonise SA (or anywhere) fastest.

    @Podargus

    But I’m just a real ornery cuss at the best of times.

    Ha! And here I was thinking you were an old softy. You’re passionate though, I’ll give you that.

    (My computer is playing up. I haven’t had it home for a couple of days:( and may lose it again tomorrow, so if you don’t hear from me, blame my computer!)

    Reply
  7. Pingback: A new Age for nuclear? Don’t hold your breath | Decarbonise SA

  8. Lady B

    It seems that the most accurate description of the issue is that we just don’t know how many health problems or deaths were caused from Chernobyl.

    The intractable problem with radiation is that its impacts are insidious, hard to detect and present with great time lags and in combination with many other factors… just like the implications to our planet from the release of greenhouse gas emissions.

    Some people apply a calculation which only includes individual deaths which can be proven, which appears to be a nonsensical approach. Equally, modelling that every death above background trend in the region was caused by radiation, is equally nonsensical.

    Its the same difficultly with impacts of climate change on say extreme weather events like cyclones, we can’t tie many individual weather events to climate changer per se – but statistically across a population we can see a significant impact an see great deal of risk.

    Its a confusing issue, but I don’t think either side should be belittling others views, they are both supportable – because essentially nobody can prove they are right.

    I agree that the anti-nuclear lobby can be rabbid at times, but that doesn’t detract from the core logic of their claims which are quite sustainable.

    I get the unfortunate sense from this blog, that your trying to pat yourselves on the back and obtain self congratulating re-assurances from each other about how anti-nuclear environmentalists are some kind of crazy old school quacks, and that you are the only ones with courage to address the “entombed values” of the green movement. That might make you feel better or special or part of the “new generation” of enviromentalists, but I really don’t think it helps the dialogue on an important issue.

    Reply
    1. Decarbonise SA Post author

      Addressing you final paragraph first, that’s unfortunate that you take that impression. Has your reading of the blog been thorough? I am genuinely interested because what you have described is not my intention. It is certainly not meant to be self-congratulatory, and I occasionally yearn for more folks like you to come along and engage. I think it just so happens that there are far more people out there who are quite comfortable with and in favour of nuclear power than popularly presumed. Given the treatment the issue gets in mainstream media and the dominance of anti-nuclear sentiment in these quarters, perhaps blogs like this serve as a refuge.

      “It seems that the most accurate description of the issue is that we just don’t know how many health problems or deaths were caused from Chernobyl.” Well, yes and no. The point of this article is that UNSCEAR have looked at it for 25 years and come to the conclusions I have outlined. They are the expert body, and their finding should be treated as such. 25 years is greater than 1/3 of a good human lifespan. Were cancer to be presenting, it would be doing so by now. They do indeed leave the door open to some kind of potential impact, but note that it is so low as to be undetectable.

      “Some people apply a calculation which only includes individual deaths which can be proven, which appears to be a nonsensical approach. Equally, modelling that every death above background trend in the region was caused by radiation, is equally nonsensical.” I disagree, your latter example is truly nonsensical. The former is the methodology applied by the world’s foremost experts and while you can sum it up in a sentence, that does not do justice to the efforts that have gone to reaching that finding. How could you equate the two???

      It is a stochastic risk yes, but the fact is, for the levels of radiation in question there is actually no evidence whatsoever of harm, only very dubious modelling based on a completely different situation. Please note the most recent post from a genuine expert exploring this. You assert that the position of Jim Green etc is “supportable”. I assert that it really is not, and is in conflict with expert findings. I also assert that we have a situation where people claiming to be compassionate environmentalists are blatantly abusing this situation to serve a desired political end. They are using other people’s suffering and creating more suffering by doing so, as UNSCEAR point out. I condemn this. I don’t think it helps the dialogue on this important issue to treat the people who do so with kid gloves; they know what they are doing, and will not be swayed by evidence and argument. It must be called out, loudly.

      Reply
  9. Lady B

    I don’t particularly support Jim Green’s position either, but I think some of your comments in the article are just as strange.

    As far as I can see the UNSCEAR report acknowledged that it could not determine the affect of lower level doses across a large population. That is fine, all scientific reports have to acknowledge areas they cannot look at due to lack of scientific certainty, but as far as I am aware there is legitimate debate as to whether low levels of radiation across large populations (which is still radiation above background level) cause significant cancers (i.e. the level of radiation is not linear to the risk of cancer, just because its “low” doesn’t mean its of equal low risk). There is a difference between not having an accurate agreed and robust scientific methodology which proves the affect, and proving that there is no link between low level radiation and cancer.

    You might find Mr Green an easy target because he comes across as a radical green, and it helps the general sentiment of the new “professional” class of environmentalists to try to distinguish themselves from what you see as the “old left” greens, but for example Professor Ian Lowe who was a nuclear scientist also estimates the death toll to be between 4,000 and 24,000.

    Whilst I agree that people should not scare monger, you have to admit that the nature of radiation in itself is what scares people and there is no getting around that. People want to know whether or not they will be affected by radiation, when all we can say is maybe but might not happen for many years and even if the radiation causes you cancer we cant prove it was the radiation, then that is very hard for the human mind to deal with. That is not a product of anti-nuclear crowd per se, that is a product of the simple characteristics of radiation. The “mental health affect” of radiation is something inherently caused by radiation, not by lobbyists (although they made add to it I agree).

    Reply
    1. Decarbonise SA Post author

      Well, I see some definite convergence in our thinking there. Most certainly, radiation itself meets many of the characteristics of the type of hazard that people “dread” all on its own for example, unseeable and an impact that is essentially unknowable.

      But that is NOT the same is suggesting we know nothing about it and cannot make a pretty accurate description of the hazard. So what I object to is that the like of Green take this dread factor and amplify it to suit their ends, rather than helping people understand it better (the main way to overcome dread) and come to an informed position.

      To “prove” no link between low level radiation and cancer can only ever be a process of continually failing to find any evidence of such a link. Now, when that happens for long enough, the experts start to say “Move along, nothing to see here”. Others (Green etc) deliberately exploit this impossible burden of perfect proof to keep people afraid.

      I have more respect for Lowe than Green on all matters to be sure. But on this matter I have much, much more respect for UNSCEAR than Lowe, and for very good reason.

      Do me a favour if you have not already. Please read the last post from Baht on my blog on this very topic. Please also read the relevant annex report from UNSCEAR. Here is the link, it is not a very tough read but we might not catch up until tomorrow. It is the basis of the debate between Green and I. I think you might be underestimating what we DO know and over playing what we do not know. http://www.unscear.org/docs/reports/2008/11-80076_Report_2008_Annex_D.pdf . On climate change I ask people to start with IPCC and work their way outwards from there. This is the equivalent process.

      Reply
  10. Lady B

    I assume the recent study in France about populations near power stations which showed significant elevated levels of cancer in the population above background levels could only possible relate to “low level” long term exposure risk? I think this study also confirmed an earlier study in Germany which also made similar findings. I’d happy to be corrected on the studies, because I don’t know all there assumptions etc but would be interested to hear your response?

    Also the comment about non-linear above is a bit confused, apologies.

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  11. Lady B

    If there is overwhelming evidence proving that low level radiation does not cause negative health affects then I’d be happy to agree with you once I’ve read it. My position is though, that from the perspective of someone who has working in environmental management their entire life, I’ve seen so many examples of industry using a lack of scientific knowledge to justify harmful effects don’t exist. That is the whole reason we use the precautionary principle and also why risk assessment and management approach is important. Sometimes “science” it twisted to say that just because we can’t prove it, it doesn’t exist. With so many examples, tobacco, lead poisoning, greenhouse gases, hydrocarbons, CFCs, asbestos, even affects of particulate matter, have shown is a very poor approach.

    Reply
    1. Decarbonise SA Post author

      I would need to read the studies, I never comment on such things without doing so. Can you locate them and post a link?

      “If there is overwhelming evidence proving that low level radiation does not cause negative health affects then I’d be happy to agree with you once I’ve read it”

      It’s funny you know, I have been doing this for about 1 year now, which is to say I formed a position on nuclear but that definitely did not mean I knew everything. This is perhaps the main area where my knowledge is still on the big early learning curve, this week especially.

      What I have found is, once I stepped away from the op-eds and into the research,
      1) a really, really astounding lack of serious suggestion within the expert literature that harm at such low doses does exist,
      2) a pretty steady feed confidently asserting that it does not,
      3) a surprisingly large and credible body suggesting a hormetic effect but
      4) EVEN LITERATURE IT DOES lean to supporting the possibility of increased harm, it is universal that the level of harm we might be talking about is staggering in its insignificance compared to both a) other risk factors for cancer and b) the horrible health harms of fossil fuel and burning biomass like sticks and dung, to say nothing at all of climate change and c) the very real damage that can be done from an irrational fear of this, deliberately stoked by some. It’s like freaking out that there is a snail in the vicinity, and ignoring the pack of dogs busy chewing your arms off.

      What there is rather is a general effort to adhere to the concept of As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA). What seems to have been the result is guidelines and standards that truly are very, very precautionary as Mahmat Baht explains in his post; even within his clinic the expected “safe” behaviour is to avoid hazard that is almost absurdly small.

      Barry Brook ran an open post to look into this in a genuine way. It is an excellent collation of relevant links and has good discussion. http://bravenewclimate.com/2011/07/21/radiation-hormesis/

      As a practising environmental professional like myself, you would agree that in decision making about any environmental impact we never have perfect knowledge, and we never expect zero impact. This is not unique to radiation. I can only suggest you keep reading around and make a determination for yourself. For me two outcomes have become very clear in the journey so far:
      1) Any miniscule additional benefit that might, might be achieved by trying to further control such low radiation levels is woefully small compared to the benefit of succeeding in a rapid transition away from fossil fuels.
      2) The approach to this issue by some individuals is deeply and fundamentally unscientific and frankly, quite immoral and dangerous.

      Reply
    1. Decarbonise SA Post author

      Blimey that was quick. Ok, I have read the abstract carefully and in full. I’m pretty clear on how this should be regarded; which is something that sounds like a good and robust study that delivered minimal finding of potential harm; some increase over one time period, nothing at all over another, little consistency in proximity to the NPP. I could not alter either my stance or any decision making process for energy I was involved in based on this.

      You?

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    2. John Morgan

      I don’t think this French study says what you think it says.

      It concludes (p15) that:

      There was no association between [acute childhood leukemia] and [dose based geographic zoning] for the whole period, 1990-2007.

      Thats unequivocal – no increase in leukemia with increasing radioactive dose around nuclear power plants. Thats the key finding of this study.

      Now, they do report a possible association with distance, rather than dose (p20):

      Overall, the results suggest a possible excess risk of acute leukemia in the close vicinity of French NPPs in 2002-2007.

      But distance is only a proxy for dose in this case. The primary association that matters is with dose, not distance. And even with distance, the authors used a variety of statistical measures for significance within the datasets. Some measures manifested at the level chosen for significance. Others manifested at a non-significant level. Hence the conclusion of a possibly significant effect. Or possibly non-significant. The authors could equally validly have written the following for their conclusion:

      Overall, the results suggest a possible zero excess risk of acute leukemia in the close vicinity of French NPPs in 2002-2007.

      That would be consistent with their analysis and consistent with the conclusion for the dose based measure. But you never see language used that way in radiation risk studies.

      Reply
    3. John Morgan

      You’ve got me curious now. How did you come by this study? You introduced it here as a study showing higher leukemia rates closer to NPPs. But its conclusion is the opposite.

      In order to draw the interpretation you offer, you’d have to walk past the main “no effect” conclusion, past the measures showing no significant proximity effect, then light on the measures that did show a proximity effect and run with them. I couldn’t do that.

      Did you come across this study through your own research and form this view of its meaning through your own reading of it? Or was the study presented with this unorthodox view of its conclusion by some person or group?

      Can you tell us how you came by this study, and how you came to interpret its meaning as you did?

      Reply
  12. Lady B

    John,

    I think I was pretty clear in my first post that I was just referring to the study I had heard about, and wasn’t particularly across it. So no need to imply that I intentionally distorted its findings, thanks.

    I certainly agree the study is not proof of anything, its a study which suggests that we need to know more really.

    However, I think your fudging it abit to say the “conclusion was opposite”.

    There were two main conclusions, 1 is that there is a statistically significant increase in AL in proximity to nuclear power plants within certain parameters. 2 that using the model relating to gaseous dose, there wasn’t a correlation between estimated gaseous dose and AL.

    I agree that the gaseous dose issue is important, but you can’t simply dismiss the finding as to a correlation between proximity to power plants either just because of it. I don’t agree with you that the study only used distance from plants as a “proxy” for dose, that is just not true. The study looked at both distance and modelled dose. The study was quite clear about this, hence why it suggested that the finding with regards to distance was still important irrespective of gaseous dose finding, because it may suggest other pathways for radiation dose (or other factors unrelated to NPP emissions just not known). I also suspect that it also requires closer analysis of the gas dose model used.

    Firstly, and again as I stated above happy to be corrected, but from what I can understand it wasnt a study of actual dose, and certainly not a study of any dose apart from direct gaseous pathway – it used a model to predict direct gaseous dose. It both assumed both Power Plant discharge rates, and dose rates to affected people (i.e. assuming that the level of radiation in air at a residence correlates to dose rate, which does not consider how often a person is within that actual area etc). It also of course, assumed direct gaseous contact – did not appeal to look at ddose rates from gaseous radiation accumulation in intermediate media and the dose of people to that source through various pathways, or dose caused by other pathways such as liquid discharge.

    Again, I’m just saying what it appears to me was correct. If people can point out if that is right or wrong, happy to listen.

    Reply
    1. Decarbonise SA Post author

      I too have been peripherally aware of this study purporting to have a finding of increased AL. Thanks for bringing it over for examination and discussion.

      I do concur with John that the way this study manages to have done the rounds with the headline finding of increased AL seems to be way more to do with what people want to read into the findings than the findings themselves. For example to quote from the discussion:

      In the authors’ previous multisite incidence studies (29; 30) no association between proximity to NPPs and AL was observed. This was in line with most multisite studies (1; 2; 8; 12), and is also in line with the results of the authors’ incidence analysis over the whole period, 1990-2007.

      So, what we have is a small red flag for one specific period of one study, no red flag for the longer period of the same study, and no red flags for the 6 other studies referenced by the authors in the above passage.

      That is very consistent with my (still growing) understanding of long-term, low level radiation exposure regardless of the source: any conceivable impact is well and truly lost in the noise and hence should not be a strong driver (at all) of decision making in energy.

      Reply
    2. John Morgan

      LadyB, first let me apologize for any suggestion that you intentionally distorted that study. I did not think that you did. The scenario I had in mind was that you had likely come across it on some website or such, bundled with a leading (and false) interpretation. My question “Can you tell us how you came by this study, and how you came to interpret its meaning as you did?” was not intended as a personal accusation (others perhaps are less innocent), and is still open should you care to address it.

      I don’t think I’m fudging the conclusion of this study. It found a possible association with proximity and AL, at around the threshold of statistical significance. If the effect is real, it should strengthen if the analysis is corrected for dose. But when dose information is included in the analysis, the effect didn’t strengthen, it disappeared. This implies the proximity signal was, probably, at the statistical noise floor. If an equivocal effect disappears when more information is added, it was probably spurious. When more information was added, the stated conclusion was “no effect”.

      When I said, “But distance is only a proxy for dose in this case”, I should be clear that that is my own interpretation. The study does not explicitly construct distance as a proxy for dose. But it is implicit, otherwise how does one understand a proximity effect, if not through dose? Action at a distance? Sub-ether resonance? Ghosts? Magic? No, proximity is an informal dose proxy.

      And we know roughly what doses were incurred. The highest doses reported were “>0.72 microsievert” – call it 1 uSv (see Table 5). Lets give this some context. Sleeping next to a live human will give you 20 uSv in a year. Your own internally generated radiation (from naturally occurring K40 etc.) is about 400 uSv a year. A mammogram – 2000 uSv. Background radiation in some parts of the world (parts of India, Iran, and Europe) is up to 40,000 uSv a year. [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sievert]

      So it would be beyond astonishing to discover a clear association between AL and proximity, at the prevailing dose levels. And, unsurprisingly, none was found. To see this non-correlation, look at the figures 1a and 1b. While the blue regression line has non-zero slope, its clearly meaningless given the error bars on the data points.

      As Ben says, the headline finding of increased AL seems to be way more to do with what people want to read into the findings than the findings themselves.

      Reply
      1. Decarbonise SA Post author

        “The highest doses reported were “>0.72 microsievert”

        I missed that John. Had I known that I would have just dismissed the study outright. Beyond astonishing is right, it is just quite absurd to be looking for illness links to levels like that. Upon concluding that was the maximum dose, they might as well have retired to the local cafe for wine and cheese.

        Lady B, you are obviously an intelligent and thoughtful professional. Need this study be interrogated any further? The generally accepted evidence is that 100mSv per year is the minimum long term dose at which ANY increased cancer risk is perhaps detectable, even though this figure is still less than natural background in some locations. The dose in question here is 100,000 times smaller.

        Reply
      2. John Morgan

        Thats right Ben. This study basically says no clear effect was observed where none was expected. As was the case with half a dozen previous studies. And yet they conclude the findings call for further investigation. Why? This baffles me. What would it take to conclude there really is no effect? Stick a fork in it guys, its done.

        Reply
  13. Lady B

    Thanks, those comments are useful.

    I should have been clearer, the study did not use proximity as a proxy for type of dose it was modelling (direct gaseous dose), I would guess that strict linear proximity is a poor proxy for direct gaseous dose at a small spatial scale.

    It’s conclusion appears as if it did however effectively use proximity as a proxy for all remaining possible pathways for dose, because it had no methodology or model by which to predict these dose pathways otherwise.

    Therefore my point was, just because there was no correlation between gaseous dose model and proximity does not mean the statistically significant AL rate at proximity to NPPs is ruled out as related to radiation from NPPs, unless of course it can be proven that direct gaseous dose is the only pathway of radiation from NPP activities.

    I don’t know whether your claim that 100mSv is the lowest dose at which there is any detectable risk of cancer.. I also assume that the absence of any higher category of dose means that estimated doses were not up to 100mSv despite the study formally saying that the highest category was anything greater then 0.72 (this seems a safe assumption as it would be surprising for this to be permitted). The point remains, the study didn’t provide any estimated dose levels for other pathways apart from direct gaseous pathway. I really think that is why the proximity correlation stands alone as significant.

    I think I just saw a news article about the study on an ABC news website, I think all it said was there was a statitically significant increase in lukemia cases around NPPs. It is telling that it didn’t mention that the study found no correlation between direct gaseous dose model and lukemia rates.

    Reply
    1. Decarbonise SA Post author

      Lady B, just an update on the 100mSv threshold, I was wrong above to suggest that this was a yearly dose issue.

      The source of this 100mSv concept is the extensive study of survivors of the atomic bombings of Japan. This is by far and away the largest data set in human health impacts. The mortalities of survivors have been divided into ranges of received dose and compared with control populations in Japan. At 100mSv and less, there was zero increase in mortality from radiation induced cancers. In dose ranges above that level, statistically significant difference begins to appear, though even at quite high doses the impact is a great deal less than most risk factors for cancer. I can’t locate a free text link for the reference but it is Preston et al 2009
      http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/3581199?uid=3737536&uid=2129&uid=2&uid=70&uid=4&sid=47698867705487 or you can read about it in Radiation and Reason by Wade Allison, as I just have.

      Note that in the atomic bomb circumstance, the 100mSv dose was delivered all at once. This is the most hazardous circumstance, with the greatest chance of the body’s repair and protection mechanisms being overwhelmed. The study we are talking about here is talking about a dose 100,000 times smaller, delivered I presume little by little by virtue of this being about living near a NPP. Honestly, the harder I look at this, the more it looks like joke science to me.

      There are parts of the world where the annual dose is up above 100mSv with no apparent ill effects to the inhabitants. This illustrates the issue of doses being delivered over time scales where repair mechanisms are effective. On the basis of evidence it should be expected that yearly dose ABOVE 100mSv should be of no consequence to health and longevity. All of this flies in the face of the Linear Non-Threshold model for radiation risk. But the more I read, the more I find that there has actually never been any evidence underpinning this model in the first place.

      The study in question here is talking about a dose

      Reply
  14. Pingback: When Wright is Wrong- Article from Climate Spectator | Decarbonise SA

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