Jim Green is a career anti-nuclear activist who attacks people who effectively challenge his position. For the most part I choose to ignore this. Today he is published in my local news outlet to whom I have previously provided articles. His article names me as holding an “indefensible” position regarding the health outcomes of the nuclear accident at Chernobyl. On this occasion I choose to respond.
Green, under the banner of Friends of the Earth, maintains cheap, plainly libellous pages related to people discussed in his article including me, Barry Brook and also Flinders University Professor, Haydon Manning. Rather than seeking to meet in the middle for reasoned discussion, Green encourages readers to form negative opinions of reputable, honest and well-qualified commentators.
Green’s determination to make nuclear energy look bad led to him publish an utterly fallacious table of mortality figures for energy sources based on mathematical error and truly butchered methodologies. Along with Geoff Rusell I exposed this. After considerable delay this forced a retraction. Yet his fatally flawed work remains published in the original article and elsewhere; he never saw fit to insist that these errors and fabrications were removed.
In this article published to InDaily, Green presents himself as a reasoned, independent arbiter of the uncertainty relating to the health impacts of radiation; one who is qualified to guide readers throught this issue. Everything about that premise is patently absurd. Green applies tactic after tactic to push possible death tolls higher and higher in the mind of the reader.
Green makes the remarkable claim that epidemiology, while important, is “not much use in estimating the overall Chernobyl death toll”. As “the study of the distribution and determinants of health-related states or events” epidemiology is in fact the primary means of determining health impacts. The problem Green has is that the epidemiology undermines his desired conclusion. So he opens by attempting to knock it out based on nothing but his say-so.
He then promptly moves on to his own, preferred approach: that of collective low-dose radiation. He crafts a paragraph with two big numbers for death: 60,000 and 30,000. Whose numbers are these? Read the paragraph carefully: they are Jim Green’s numbers. Not the IAEA, not the UN, not the WHO: Jim Green.
Green then moves to misrepresent the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. As quoted, UNSCEAR states that the Green-approach leans on “unacceptable uncertainties”. Note that first word: unacceptable. The outputs of this approach are so uncertain they cannot be accepted. UNSCEAR acknowledges the use of the linear, no-threshold approach “for the purposes of radiation protection”. That refers to the completely different situation of planning guidelines and protections, not estimating health impacts after the fact. In case this was not clear, UNSCEAR clarified in this 2012 statement:
The major findings are: Because of the great uncertainties in risk estimates at very low doses, UNSCEAR does not recommend 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. Those organizations performing activities related to the Fukushima accident might benefit from the findings of these reports.
Bottom line: the globally expert committee’s most recent recommendation is: what Jim Green did? Don’t do it, because it is irresponsible and unacceptable.
Then comes the area of credible uncertainty: the possibility, based on modelled impacts, that some additional thousands of fatalities may be attributable based on the most exposed populations. Here, I am quite satisfied to permit the discussion of evidence to proceed. Green claims that my approximate position, that the modelled fatalities remain merely modelling, is indefensible.
I don’t agree. I consider that my position is both arguable and readily defensible. It is not merely held by Green’s stylised “nuclear industry supporters” but reflected by experts like Geraldine Thomas who have worked on the epidemiology. The work of UNSCEAR over the last 30 years has been exhaustive and has uncovered no compelling evidence of other health impacts beyond serious psychological harm, largely attributed to a misplaced fear of physical harm from radiation. On the other hand, earlier reports from the authoritative bodies reference the possibility of harm in the ranges of 4,000 to 9,000 people based on modelled outcomes rather than observed impacts. I don’t find that compelling; others do. Let the discussion of the evidence in this matter proceed. Let it proceed without personal attack. This is largely the position put forward in this recent, excellent article published to The Guardian
The bottom line is that even taking the most conservative possible approaches, as did the ExternE actuarial study by the European Union, nuclear power remains one of our very safest power sources. Provided it is the numbers we are interested in, Green can have his and it would not alter the iron-clad argument for nuclear on a strict safety basis.
But Green seems disinterested in helping people understand the numbers, the science, the epidemiology, the uncertainty, the impacts or the relevance on our decision-making. What he seems interested in is making a suite of commentators look like science-deniers to keep people as frightened as possible of nuclear power. The sick irony is that the biggest residual harm of Chernobyl, about which there is no uncertainty, stems from the psychological trauma wrought by this fear itself. His tool is their pain.
This, for me, is indefensible.
Featured image is creative commons, by Stefan Kasowski.