Critical views of science in the news

Why I'm becoming a pro-nuke nut, continued


Radiation and Reason book coverLast week's post served up facts from Power to Save the World (Vintage, 2008) by Gwyneth Cravens, whose book forced me to see nuclear energy in a more positive light. At the risk of destroying what little credibility I still possess, I'd like to urge readers to check out two even more provocative analysts of the risks of nuclear energy.

One is the iconoclastic political scientist John Mueller. He is best known for claiming in The Remnants of War (Cornell, 2004) and other writings that war between nation-states is declining and will soon cease once and for all. Mueller's optimism about war's end has fueled my own. In Atomic Obsession (Oxford 2009), Mueller argues that the threat of nuclear attacks by "rogue" states or terrorists has been greatly exaggerated.

Fear of nuclear attacks by terrorists "has inspired protective and policing expenditures that are likely to prove substantially excessive," Mueller wrote. "Actually, it is not at all clear that any terrorist groups really want the weapons or are remotely capable of obtaining them should the desire to do so take hold of them. If they try, there are a host of practical and organizational difficulties that make their likelihood of success vanishingly small."

Nuclear proliferation, similarly, "has been far slower than routinely predicted because, insofar as most leaders of most countries (even rogue ones) have considered acquiring the weapons, they have come to appreciate several defects: the weapons are dangerous, distasteful, costly and likely to rile neighbors." Atomic Obsession has forced me to reconsider my concerns about nuclear proliferation and terrorism, which I feared might become more likely in a world with many more nuclear reactors.

The other scholar challenging my nuclear views is Wade Allison, a nuclear and medical physicist at the University of Oxford and author of Radiation and Reason (Crown Octavo, 2009). I learned about Allison from Mueller; arguing in Atomic Obsession that the harmful effects of radiation have been overstated, Mueller cites Allison's claim that "cells have developed the capacity to repair damage caused by low radiation doses and therefore low-level radiation represents no hazard whatsoever."

Allison's perspective is so controversial that he had difficulty finding a publisher for Radiation and Reason, according to Mueller. In a recent essay in New Scientist, Allison summarized his argument that the risks of radiation have been vastly overstated. Studies of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he asserts, show no harmful short-term or long-term effects from acute radiation doses less than 10,000 millirem. Radiation treatments for cancer kill tumors with doses as high as 4,000,000 millirem over the course of a month; during the treatment, healthy tissues near the tumor absorb doses up to 2,000,000 millirem. These doses do not destroy most of the healthy tissue, according to Allison, because they are spread out over four to six weeks; healthy cells have time to repair any radiation damage between successive exposures.

International standards, Allison notes, recommend limiting artificial radiation exposure to 100 millirem a year above natural background levels (which, as I pointed out last week, exceed 10,000 millirem a year in some regions). Allison urges relaxing these limits by a factor of 1,000. The limit would thus rise to 100,000 a year and (approximately) 10,000 millirem a month. "Changing the limits would bring practical benefits," Allison stated in New Scientist. "Radiation safety is a major contributor to the cost of nuclear power, so any relaxation should lead to big cost reductions. Given that we urgently need to develop carbon-free energy sources, that is hugely beneficial."

Raising limits on radiation exposure by a factor of 1,000 is almost certainly a political nonstarter for the forseeable future. Moreover, I'm still far too ignorant to endorse without qualification the claims of Allison or Mueller (or even Cravens). But I do think that these and similar views should be included in the conversation we're having about how to solve our energy problems. These are desperate times, and we must consider all alternatives available to us—including nuclear energy, which just a few months ago I fervently opposed.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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