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Llewellyn King

Llewellyn King

Llewellyn King is the executive producer and host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS. His e-mail address is lking@kingpublishing.com

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Nuclear Power Gets Hope from New Radiation Data

Nuclear Power Gets Hope from New Radiation Data

Can we learn to love radiation? Maybe not, but if we understood it better, we might not be so damned scared of it – a fear that has cost us in many ways, from where reactors are sited to how hospitals handle life-saving nuclear material to the benefits of eradicating deadly bacteria in food.

There's a lot of data on the long-term effects of ionizing radiation, ranging from that which was generated by studying the health of survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings to the environment on the Bikini Atoll, where weapons were tested in the 1950s, to conditions at the Chernobyl meltdown site in Ukraine. The big news is that the data doesn't support the idea that cancer and mutations will follow as night and day after exposure to high doses of radiation.

Now the battle has been joined by a Harvard researcher and lecturer in public health, David R. Ropeik. He doesn't suggest that we rush out and encourage dentists to be even more promiscuous in their use of X-rays than they are already, but he does draw attention to the epidemiological data over the past 68 years and what it says: The linkage between very high radiation exposures and cancer and mutations isn’t there.

Related article: Despite Fukushima, Global Nuclear Power on the Rise

For years, it's been postulated that radiation leads to cancer axiomatically. The data says otherwise.

This glimmer of light, this pinprick, this faint glow could be the beginning of a new day in nuclear, or at least encourage a new look at radiation and its effects. It comes at a time when the American Nuclear Society (ANS), the professional society for nuclear scientists and engineers, is planning a more active public role.

The ANS president this year, Donald P. Hoffman, is a hard-driving nuclear advocate, who, in 1985, created the nuclear services company which he still heads, Excel. He'd like to see the 12,000 members of ANS step forward and provide honest witness in disputes about nuclear, believing that the professionals would be more believed than corporate people.

He'd also like to boost public knowledge of the uses of nuclear outside of generating electricity, especially in medicine, where it is growing. Already, about one third of hospital patients benefit from nuclear through CAT scans and X-rays to the direct application of radiation to cancer cells. This evolving therapy is less debilitating than chemotherapy or large-area radiation.

Hoffman says, “We are seeing nuclear science deployed in new ways,” including non-destructive testing, food irradiation, medicine, space exploration and many more. He believes the uses for nuclear technology are only in their infancy.

Outside of the hospital and the laboratory though, the big impediment to nuclear is the fear of radiation or, as popular phenomenon author Malcolm Gladwell would argue, the “fear of fear.”

In a recent New York Times piece, Ropeik salutes the Environmental Protection Agency for beginning to take a different look at how we should respond to a nuclear accident or even a terrorist “dirty bomb.” For example, because most radiation can be stopped easily, it may be better to go indoors than to begin a frenzied and hazardous evacuation.

As many as 30 years ago, Dr. Mortimer Mendelssohn of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, whose life’s work has been studying the populations around Hiroshima and Nagasaki, told me that the cancers and mutations he expected simply had not occurred. “They’re just not there,” he said.

Related article: California’s Nuclear Headache is Only Just Beginning

At Bikini Atoll, the Pacific test site, marine life goes on. The vegetation has concentrated some long-lived radionuclides, but the marine life is healthy. At Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident site, wildlife is teeming among the radioactive ruins.


Towns within the radiation belt around Fukushima, which are now safe for their populations to return, remain deserted. The Japanese population is in the grip of a national psychosis of fear — not of earthquakes and tsunamis, but of radiation. The earthquake and tsunami that damaged the reactors at Fukushima killed some 18,000 people but radiation killed no one.

The fear of fear is a social construct, as Gladwell and before him, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, pointed out -- a mighty challenge for Hoffman and his ANS.

By. Llewellyn King

Llewellyn King is executive producer and host of “White House Chronicle” on PBS. His e-mail is lking@kingpublishing.com.

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  • lightco2 on November 06 2013 said:
    Please give us the terms or units used for communicating ionizing radiation levels. In order to avoid misinformation,the public needs to be able to recognize these.

    Most know a banana's radiation isn't dangerous but radioactive waste from a nuclear reactor normally is. What factors are used to determine the amount of electromagnetic radiation causing ionization and in what specific terms is this information commonly expressed?
  • AudioTactics on November 07 2013 said:
    This article is pure pro-nuclear propaganda... everyone knows that cancers develop over time so by saying no one died from radiation in Fukushima is misleading disingenuous. According to reports on the ground in Japan, there’s now many more cancer cases than expected from Fukushima and UNSCEAR report has falsified estimations according to Dr. Alex Rosen, Medical Doctor and radiation specialist. In addition, Marc Molitor, a journalist with Belgisher TV in Belgium claims that a certain member within UNSCEAR told him that the report was written to play down the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear accident. Moreover, he also said that the members pretend not to learn the lesson from Chernobyl. Professor Wolfgang Hoffman, a professor of epidemiology at Geifswald University, claims "it is certain that we will have an elevated level of cancer" in Japan. According to Mark Willacy, ABC’s North Asia correspondent "Before the nuclear meltdowns, health authorities estimated thyroid cancer rates among Fukushima’s children at between one and two cases in every million. Since the disaster [...] about 200,000 children tested, there have been 18 confirmed cases of thyroid cancer and 25 more suspected cases – an unexpectedly high rate." There also appears to be a cover up in Japan. As Foreign Correspondent Mark Willacy discovered, Fukushima’s health authorities are acting almost in secret, even refusing our request for a simple age breakdown of the thyroid cancer victims, citing privacy reasons. This refusal to share basic data has aroused the suspicions of thyroid specialist Akira Sugenoya who says "When I look at Fukushima now the number of thyroid cancer cases in kids is quite high. The doctors in Fukushima say that it shouldn’t be emerging this fast, so they say it’s not related to the accident. But that’s very unscientific, and it’s not a reason that we can accept."
  • Robert Olin on November 14 2013 said:
    This is pure propaganda and far worse than Cigarette Science. The truth about Fukushima is out there but you won't find it being told by the corporate media.
  • SA Kiteman on November 24 2013 said:
    AudioTactics quoted a piece about "an unexpectedly high rate" of thyroid cancer. It seems obvious that the quoted individual is not in any way a scientist. The testing of the 200,000 children used unprecedentedly sophisticated and accurate means to find cancer. Since there was no precident, there can be no "expected" level. From other experience with the tyroid where "if you look, you will find" it would not surprise me if a similar examination of NON-Fukushima children would reveal similar or even greater rates.

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