Once more into the breach

Don-QuixoteI’d been planning on waiting a little longer before returning to the topics of Fukushima and radiation health effects, but a particularly egregiously bad New York Times op-ed piece deserves some attention. So once more into the breach.

Writing in the October 30 New York Times, pediatrician and anti-nuclear activist Helen Caldicott used the nuclear reactor accident in Fukushima as an opportunity to express her concerns about nuclear energy – a calling she has followed since the Three Mile Island reactor accident. Unfortunately, Caldicott included a number of errors in her editorial that are sufficiently serious as to invalidate her conclusions. I’d like to take an opportunity to take a look at these mistakes and to explain the science behind them.

In the first paragraph of her article, Caldicott states that “the mass of scientific and medical literature…amply demonstrates that ionizing radiation is a potent carcinogen and that no dose is low enough not to induce cancer.”

To the contrary, even the most conservative hypothesis (linear no-threshold) holds that low doses of radiation pose very little threat of cancer. Using a slope factor of 5% added risk of cancer fatality per 1 Sv (100 rem) of exposure, the risk of developing cancer from 1 rem of radiation is about 0.05% (5 chances in 10,000). This risk is far lower than the risk of developing cancer as a habitual smoker, from working with a number of solvents (e.g. benzene), working with a number of laboratory chemicals, and so forth. Epidemiologists have noted no increase in cancer rates among people living in areas with high levels of natural background radiation, as well as among the lowest-dose groups of atomic bomb survivors (in fact, people living in the states with the highest levels of natural radiation have lower cancer rates than do those who live in the lowest-dose rate states). Not only that, but age-adjusted cancer rates have dropped steadily (with the exception of smoking-related cancers) over the last century, in spite of dramatic increases in medical radiation exposure. In the words of respected radiation biologist Antone Brooks, these observations show us that “if (low levels of) radiation cause cancer it’s not a heavy hitter.” The bottom line is that, if even the lowest doses of radiation can cause cancer (which has not yet been shown to be either correct or incorrect), radiation is a weak carcinogen – not the “potent carcinogen” that Caldicott would have us believe.

In the second paragraph of her article, Caldicott states that “Large areas of the world are becoming contaminated by long-lived nuclear elements secondary to catastrophic meltdowns: 40% of Europe from Chernobyl, and much of Japan.”

This is a difficult statement to parse because it is such a nebulous statement. If, by “contaminated,” Caldicott means that radionuclides are present that would not otherwise be there, she is wrong – in fact, you can find traces of artificial radionuclides across virtually every square mile of Europe, Asia, and North America as opposed to the 40% she claims. But all that this means is that we can detect trace levels of these nuclides in the soil – doing the same we can also find traces from the atmospheric nuclear weapons testing in the 1940s through the 1960s. And for that matter, we can find lead contamination over virtually the entire world as well from the days of leaded gasoline. But lead contamination goes much deeper as well – scientists found traces of lead in Greenland glaciers that date back to the Roman Empire. But nobody is getting lead poisoning from the Ancient Romans’ pollution, just as nobody is getting radiation sickness (or cancer) from the minute traces of Cs-137 and Sr-90 that can be found across the Northern Hemisphere. But Caldicott can’t really comment on the fact that artificial nuclides have contaminated the world for nearly 70 years because this would shatter her claim that radioactive contamination from Fukushima and Chernobyl is causing death and destruction in Europe and Japan.

In the third paragraph, Caldicott states that “A New York Academy of Science report from 2009 titled ‘Chernobyl’ estimates that nearly a million have already died from this catastrophe. In Japan, 10 million people reside in highly contaminated locations.”

Caldicott is correct that the NYAS reported over a million deaths from Chernobyl. However, this report itself was highly criticized for being scientifically implausible – the NYAS is a respected organization, but in this case their conclusions are at odds with the reality noted on the ground by the World Health Organization. Specifically, the WHO concluded that in the first 20 years, fewer than 100 people could be shown to have died from radiation sickness and radiation-induced cancers and they further concluded that, even using the worst-case LNT model, fewer than 10,000 would eventually succumb from radiation-induced cancer as a result of this accident. This is not a trivial number – but it is less than 1% of the one million deaths the NYAS claims. And in fact the actual number is likely to be far lower, as physician Michael Repacholi noted in an interview with the BBC. In fact, even the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer acknowledges that “Tobacco smoking will cause several thousand times more cancer in the same population.” Even if contamination from Chernobyl and Fukushima are sufficient to cause eventual health problems, we can do far more good to the public by devoting attention to smoking cessation (or, for that matter, to childhood vaccinations) than by spending hundreds of billions of dollars cleaning up contamination that doesn’t seem to be causing any harm.

In the fourth paragraph of her piece, Caldicott notes that “Children are 10 to 20 times more radiosensitive than adults, and fetuses thousands of times more so; women are more sensitive than men.”

To the contrary – the National Academies of Science published a sweeping 2006 report that summarizes the state of the world’s knowledge on the “Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation” in which they conclude that children are between 2-3 times as sensitive to radiation as are adults – more sensitive as adults, but a far cry from Caldicott’s claim.

The reproductive effects of radiation are also well-known – fetal radiation exposures of less than 5 rem are incapable of causing birth defects according to our best science, and the Centers for Disease Control flatly states that exposure to even higher radiation doses is not a cause for alarm under most circumstances. This conclusion, by the way, is based on studies of hundreds of thousands of women who were exposed to radiation from medical procedures as well as during the atomic bombings in Japan – it is based on a tremendous amount of hard evidence.

This claim of Caldicott’s, by the way, is particularly egregious and has the potential to do vast harm if it’s taken seriously. Consider – in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident it is estimated that over 100,000 women had abortions unnecessarily because they received poor medical advice from physicians who, like Caldicott, simply didn’t understand the science behind fetal radiation exposure. There are estimates that as many as a quarter million such abortions took place in the Soviet Union, although these numbers can’t be confirmed.

But even in this country we see this level of misinformation causing problems today – during my stint as a radiation safety officer I was asked to calculate nearly 100 fetal radiation dose estimates – primarily in pregnant women who received x-rays following serious traffic accidents – and many of the women were seriously considering therapeutic abortions on the advice of their physicians. When I performed the dose calculations there was not a single woman whose baby received enough radiation to cause problems. And it doesn’t stop there – we also had parents who refused CT scans for their children, preferring exploratory surgery and its attendant risks to the perceived risks from x-ray procedures. The bottom line is that this sort of thinking – that children and developing babies are exquisitely sensitive to radiation – can cause parents to choose needless abortions and places children at risk; by espousing these views, Caldicott is transgressing the Hippocratic oath she took to “first do no harm” and she should be taken to task for doing so.

Finally, in the last paragraph of her tirade, Caldicott claims that “Radiation of the reproductive organs induces genetic mutations in the sperm and eggs, increasing the incidence of genetic diseases like diabetes, cystic fibrosis, hemochromatosis, and thousands of others over future generations. Recessive mutations take up to 20 generations to be expressed.”

All that I can say to this is that Caldicott decided to go out with a bang. The fact is that there is not a single case in the medical or scientific literature in which birth defects or genetic disease is linked to pre-conception radiation exposure. This is not my conclusion – it’s the conclusion of Dr. Robert Brent, who knows more about this topic than anyone else in the world. Eggs and sperm might be damaged, but Dr. Brent notes that there is a “biological filter” that prevents cells that are damaged from going on to form a baby. Another line of reasoning supports Brent’s claim – areas with high levels of natural radiation also have no increase in birth defects compared to areas with lower levels of natural radiation. Caldicott’s claim that low levels of radiation exposure cause long-term genetic damage are simply not supported by the scientific or medical literature or by any observations that have been made.

Caldicott’s claim that radiation is also responsible for a host of genetic diseases is similarly dubious. The world’s premier radiation science organizations (the International Council on Radiation Protection, the United Nations Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements) all agree that, if radiation contributes to multi-factorial disease then the effect is very weak indeed – possibly too weak to be distinguished from natural sources of these diseases. Specifically, UNSCEAR calculated that – if pre-conception radiation exposure can cause these problems – exposing the population of each generation to 1 rem of radiation each might lead to an additional 100 cases of dominant genetic disease per million births per generation and 15 cases of recessive genetic disease (ICRP calculated similar, but lower rates). This is far lower than the background incidence of genetic disease in the population as a whole. Oh – UNSCEAR also determined that “multifactorial diseases are predicted to be far less responsive to induced mutations than Mendelian disease, so the expected increase in disease frequencies are very small” – a statement with which the ICRP is in agreement. In other words, Caldicott’s claim runs contrary to the best work of the most-respected scientific organizations that specialize in radiation health effects.

With respect to the length of time required for genetic effects – if any – to manifest themselves, I honestly don’t know where Caldicott pulled the number of 20 generations from. This is a number I haven’t seen anywhere in the scientific literature, nowhere in any of the genetics classes I took in grad school, and nothing I ever calculated or saw calculated. As near as I can tell, she is either repeating something she heard somewhere or she made the number up to impress the reader.


The bottom line is that  Caldicott’s editorial is grounded more on invective than on scientific or medical fact. The Fukushima accident was bad, but it pales in comparison to the natural disaster that set it off. The aftereffects of the accident are bad enough – thousands of families displaced, hundreds of thousands of Japanese who were evacuated from their homes, along with the stress, anxiety, and depression they have been suffering. TEPCO and the Japanese government will have to spend billions of dollars tearing down the plant and billions more cleaning up the contaminated area – in many cases, cleaning up places not because they pose a genuine risk to life and health but because contamination levels exceed an arbitrary level. Things are bad enough, and Caldicott is trying to score cheap points by making claims that have no connection to scientific or medical reality, simply in order to advance her anti-nuclear agenda. Her article does nothing to advance the debate – it only serves to use the tragedy in Japan to inflame the public’s fears.

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14 Responses to “Once more into the breach”

  1. Leslie Corrice November 6, 2013 at 11:25 AM #

    One small nit in an otherwise awesome blog piece…the NYAS posted a disclaimer with the Yablokov book being included in their Journal, which says “The Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences volume “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment,” does not present new, unpublished work, nor is it a work commissioned by the New York Academy of Sciences.” Here’s the link… http://www.nyas.org/AboutUs/MediaRelations/Detail.aspx?cid=16b2d4fe-f5b5-4795-8d38-d59a76d1ef33

  2. Karen Street November 6, 2013 at 11:42 AM #

    One minor issue, in an excellent piece (thanks!): please use the modern units as more Americans are familiar with those after the Japanese accident.

    Now are you communicating with the editor of the NY Times? If some newspapers have stopped accepting letters to the editor denying climate change, the NY Times can certainly stop accepting op-eds from Caldicott.

  3. Dr. Y November 6, 2013 at 11:48 AM #

    Thanks for this update, Leslie – it would seem to let NYAS off the hook on this point, which is somewhat of a relief to me as an NYAS member.

  4. Joris van Dorp November 6, 2013 at 12:52 PM #

    Thanks a lot for this article. I am very grateful to the author for taking the time to debunk the nonsense coming from folks like Caldicott. The price of ‘freedom of speech’ is that there is a lot of deception going on. It must be debunked again and again, but that depends on volunteers like the author stepping forward to do the work. Thanks again!

  5. James Greenidge November 6, 2013 at 1:40 PM #

    If only this one excellent article were featured with equal fairness with anti-nukers in the New York Times and Washington Post and Time, etc. It’s appalling enough to know that most European broadcasters are so rabidly anti-nuclear that they won’t even give their public a fair hearing of Pandora’s Promise (http://atomicinsights.com/european-broadcasters-shun-pandoras-promise-contradicts-prior-investments/ ). Serving the public good, uh? Who is talking issue censureship and environmental hypocrisy now??

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  6. Stephanie Hiller November 7, 2013 at 10:16 AM #

    I am not a scientist. But are you saying that steadily accumulating radioactive materials in the air, the water, and the food supply, are not having a negative impact on our health? that they are not carcinogens? that they are so well tolerated that we can just continue to leak ionizing radiation into these ingestible sources? and that Fukushima somehow justifies the ongoing use of aging nuclear power plants?


    I would appreciate a reply, in plain English. Thank you.

  7. Dr. Y November 7, 2013 at 10:30 AM #

    That’s a really good question, Stephanie. I am NOT saying that radiation has no effect on us – just that we are not nearly as sensitive to the effects of radiation as some would have us believe. Anything in too high a dose is harmful – this goes for vitamins, food, sunlight, and for radiation as well. So the trick isn’t to determine whether or not something is harmful as much as to determine at what level it becomes harmful. And – thus far – the radiation doses to which the Japanese have been exposed from Fukushima have not risen to the level of being harmful to anyone, including children. This statement is made based on radiation readings collected by the Japanese, by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the US government, as well as a few “snapshots” I collected during my time in the contaminated area. I should also point out that the World Health Organization – which has no pro- or anti-nuclear ax to grind – has come to the same conclusion.

    There is no doubt that high enough levels of radiation can cause harm, and I can’t claim otherwise. But outside of the immediate vicinity of the reactor plant (from which people have been evacuated), there is no place in Japan – and certainly not in the US – where radiation dose rates rise to harmful levels. Sort of like saying that being immersed in water that’s 10 feet deep can lead to drowning, but if it’s only toe-deep that’s not a risk. I hope this helps.

  8. Brant Ulsh November 7, 2013 at 8:08 PM #

    THANK YOU DR. Y! I am surprised that any reputable publication would still provide a venue for Helen Caldicot’s absurd claims. You hit the nail on the head – she and her adherents are using the tragedy in Japan (that is, the thousands of lives lost in the earthquake and tsunami) to advance their paranoid anti-nuclear agenda. They should be ashamed, but they seem to have lost that capacity.

    • Stephanie Hiller November 9, 2013 at 6:34 PM #

      Thanks for your reply — I’m afraid it doesn’t help me very much. I wonder why people demonize Dr. Caldicott. She is one of many scientists warning of what may happen at Reactor #4 as they try to remove the fuel rods. This may be a catastrophe of giant proportions. So far as I am concerned, the real danger all along has been people who are willing to act like it’s perfectly ok to use this source of energy. It’s the ultimate hubris and it’s killing us. Statistics can be manipulated to prove anything, they say, but one statistic is the cancer epidemic. In 1940, one in 20 people got cancer; now one in 2.5! I just read that this epidemic can be attributed to overground bomb testing. As for treatments, they haven’t improved that much. Cancer is a torment!! The only cure is PREVENTION. Start shutting down reactors and cleaning up the planet, and our healthcare costs will drop dramatically!

      • Dr. Y November 9, 2013 at 7:12 PM #

        Stephanie – The reason that people who understand radiation and nuclear energy demonize Caldicott is because so much of what she says is wrong and she says it so loudly. There are only a few possibilities – either she doesn’t understand radiation, or she does understand radiation but chooses to misrepresent the science. In either case she is spreading disinformation in order to advance her personal agenda. It is possible to be anti-nuclear and to use arguments grounded in sound science to advance your cause – it just takes work to learn the topic. I respect anyone who tries to learn the facts before arguing a subject – I do not respect anyone who pretends to a level of knowledge that they clearly lack, or who is deliberately misleading in their arguments. Helen Caldicott is not a scientist and she is not a nuclear expert – she appears to have reached her conclusions long ago and fabricates or misuses snippets of information to try to support these conclusions.

        With respect to the relative safety of nuclear energy, I would suggest comparing the numbers of people killed in coal mining accidents, oil field accidents, and who are made ill (including cancer) from inhaling combustion byproducts that can include mercury and cadmium. Nuclear stacks up fairly well – not perfect, but better than coal and natural gas – as a way to produce large amounts of energy. Consider – in my home state, coal mining companies blast mountaintops into valleys to get at the coal (as an aside, one of my colleagues started life as a coal miner and was happy to escape the mines after narrowly avoiding dying in a mining accident; he is now a highly respected radiation safety consultant). Have you ever visited a former mountain valley that is now filled with rubble and acid mine drainage one of these days – not to mention the mountain lakes blighted by acid rain in the Adirondacks? My MS advisor studied the effects of acid mine drainage and it is not pretty. And the there’s ocean acidification (from carbon dioxide dissolving into seawater) and global warming – also products of fossil fuel combustion. The bottom line is that there is no large-scale form of baseline energy production that is completely free from harm to the environment – nuclear is certainly not worse than coal, oil, and natural gas. Oh – incidentally, uranium is usually associated with fossil fuels due to its geochemistry (do a Google search to find studies by the United States Geologic Survey). It turns out that coal, natural gas, and petroleum also expose the public to radiation; and the public radiation exposure per giga-watt hour of energy production is higher from fossil fuels than from nuclear energy (based on data collected by the EPA).

        Finally, with respect to cancer, the age-adjusted cancer mortality rate is lower now than it was in the pre-nuclear days (I included a link to cancer statistics in the original posting). But if we really want to reduce radiation exposure to the public we should cut way back on medicine, which is responsible for about twice the public radiation exposure as natural sources, and at least ten times as much as nuclear energy. The reason that more people get cancer today is that more people are living into the cancer-prone years due to longer lifespans. Fewer people died of cancer a century ago because the average lifespan was only 40-45 years (based on statistics maintained by the Centers for Disease Control) – not many people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s get cancer – as our population ages we see more diseases of older age, such as cancer and heart disease. Speaking specifically to the impact of nuclear weapons testing, large-scale testing ended in the 1960s. You are correct that it was associated with elevated cancer rates in areas close to and downwind of atmospheric testing sites, but this increase was somewhat geographically limited and is now vanished. The latency period of radiation-induced cancer is 20-30 years – any increases in cancer seen today are certainly not due to testing that occurred a half-century ago.

        I agree with you that cancer is a torment – I have lost family members and friends to cancer and have seen other family members and friends fight the disease. I also agree with you that we need to do our best to reduce our impact on the planet, and I also agree that this will help to reduce disease and premature death. But I don’t agree that eliminating nuclear energy is the way to accomplish this – fossil fuels are far more damaging to our planet and are far more deadly. And I certainly don’t agree with you that Helen Caldicott is a voice of reason in this debate.

  9. Mitch B November 9, 2013 at 7:50 AM #

    Dr. Y. you should be writing forewords in the New York Times and CNN, but I’m afraid you make too damn much sense!

  10. Bobbie Paul November 11, 2013 at 1:24 PM #

    Dr. Y, I invite you to come down to Georgia and visit the area surrounding nuclear Plant Vogtle, located directly across the Savannah River from Savannah River Site (aka the bomb plant) – a Superfund Site of enormous proportions.
    You may want to talk to the folks who have lived in the area for 60+ years who had their land taken by the government and also by Georgia Power (Southern Company) and then suffered the demise of their family-oriented rural way of life.
    I also encourage you to take a look at the rise in cancers of the thyroid, stomach, liver, breast, and other unexplained diseases that have decimated the area around Shell Bluff since Voglte reactors #1 and #2 came online in 1987 and 1989.
    Residents’ fear of radioactive exposures and the intimidation of the nuclear/military industrial complex which benefits enormously from new nuclear builds makes open conversation and disclosure almost impossible. Add these fears to the ugly legacy of slavery and the rebirth of slavery (now ruled legal under Citizens United) and you have a real hot mess.
    The nuclear industry has knowingly targeted and sacrificed certain communities and continues to deny the people who live near Plant Vogtle (as well as elsewhere in the state of Georgia) government funded monitoring, testing, evaluation, and education.
    I, for one, do not want to have one of my tax dollars going to expand nuclear missions or nuclear reactors, thereby potentially endangering the lives and well-being of others.

    • Dr. Y November 11, 2013 at 8:31 PM #

      Thanks for you comment, and I have to admit that I can’t speak to most of what you’ve written. What I can comment on is that there are a lot of carcinogens in the environment – especially around a Superfund site – and I’m not sure that we can pick out any one and say that it’s what’s responsible for any specific disease, cancer or otherwise. In this case, I’d hate to attribute all of the cancers and other diseases to radiation. I’m not saying that radiation exposure has nothing to do with what’s happening – just that there’s a lot to consider.

      With respect to visiting the area – although I’ve never been to your part of Georgia, I have spent a lot of time near Department of Energy plants in Ohio and Kentucky as well as collecting and reviewing radiation and radioactivity measurements near those same plants as well as nuclear reactors in Ohio and Pennsylvania (this was in my capacity as a state regulator, not as an employee of either DOE or a nuclear utility). In many places there were radiation readings collected by local citizens as well as by DOE and the State – all of the readings were pretty close and none showed any high doses at all. All of these readings were available for public review – it might be worth seeing if this information is available in your area also.

      With regards to the other points you’ve raised, I have to say that they go beyond anything I can really address.

  11. Ian Turnbull November 12, 2013 at 5:01 AM #

    Dear Dr Y.
    Your post about Helen Caldicott’s article and the comments that follow make for interesting reading. I applaud you for your thoughtful and well-researched and polite response to her selective manipulation of data and general hype and ferment about the dangers of radiation. But at the same time, I am strangely sympathetic to her, to her fear and alarm around our present use of nuclear power.

    I find myself looking at our nuclear work in the context of the “holographic nature of our Universe”. This modern term, coined by quantum theorists, is the same universal principle known in ancient times by the more colloquial expression – “as above, so below”.
    In this model of our Universe, Helen Caldicott is herself radioactive. By which I mean that in her distress, she can not help but discharge negative ions. I would suggest that most people have some sort of experience of being in this space, in the course of our lives.

    If we can recognise and accept that this is a universal effect, then it helps our imagination to look down into the Atomic dimension and realise the similarity of the “energetic processes” going on ‘down in there’. This is the fundamental insight of the ‘holographic paradigm’.
    It is this larger picture and setting that I think deserves our attention. It is not immediately easy and it is not that difficult. The reward is that we establish a universal framework within which we can look at and compare the objective and subjective nature of phenomena like radiation. Then the nuclear processes start to look familiar, and more approachable. The larger picture also suggests that we humans, we Humanity, have the ability to create some kind of remedial process for the distress lodged in the fissioned particles. So much more we need to know.

    I’ve a freshly made web site which seeks to illuminate this holographic theme.

    Thanks and good wishes. Ian Turnbull.

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