Nuclear Radiation Risks

Radiation, nuclear and safety are much confused due to political propaganda such as the image of a mushroom cloud as opposed that of prosperity from clean, carbon free energy.

Yet nuclear energy is not only vital for reducing carbon emissions, it’s one of our least hazardous electricity sources. 

  • Fossil fuel-related death is far likelier than from a nuclear accident
  • Conflating nuclear weapons with energy programs is misleading
  • Public misperception of risk has led to suffocating regulations
  • Unscientific radiation policy discriminates against nuclear energy

A more accurate understanding of radiation should lead to reduced concerns about such issues.

But first it’s important for more people to understand the benefits of nuclear fission to produce energy, and to gain a more accurate understanding of the overall risks involved.

Super Power

A nuclear reactor is part of a thermal plant, which means it generates electricity through heating water in a similar way that a coal- or gas-fired power station does.

In a fossil fuel plant, heat is released from breaking apart bonds within carbon molecules by reaction with oxygen; that is, through combustion.

The difference with nuclear power is the fuel and manner of energy conversion. Rather than combustion, it works by nuclear fission. This is where huge amounts of kinetic energy are released from splitting ultra-high energy bonds deep in the nucleus of the atom of a heavy element, normally uranium.

Nuclear fission is so energy dense that a kilogram of fuel such as uranium can supply a person’s entire lifetime electricity needs in the UK.1

This amazing density compared with any other means of generating electricity means that nuclear plants produce huge amounts of carbon-free electricity with a tiny environmental footprint in all respects, from mineral extraction and land requirement to waste.2

Most modern reactors are designed to be passively safe. Current and ‘next generation’ designs have little to no chance of a partial reactor meltdown as occurred at Chernobyl, or a system failure as at Fukushima Daiichi.3

One such ‘high temperature’ reactor promises high-grade industrial and domestic heat and hydrogen production in addition to zero carbon electricity.4

Yet these technologies will be of little use unless prevailing public misperceptions of the degree of radiation and other risks are recalibrated.

Fear Foundation

Despite the evidence that nuclear energy is already very safe per kilowatt-hour produced compared to fossil fuels, many people fear it.

For example, it probably isn’t intuitive to hear that the risk of death from burning fossil fuels is hundreds of times more than that from nuclear energy accidents—but it’s true:

So, if it’s not grounded in facts, where is this fear rooted?

One source is that people conflate nuclear weapons with nuclear energy.

Yet, a military nuclear weapons program is independent of a civil nuclear energy program. More countries have a solely civil nuclear program than both weapons and energy.5

Weapons, unlike nuclear energy plants, are designed so a tiny amount of high-purity plutonium or uranium releases a huge amount of energy in an instant.

Nuclear power stations, such as the one being built in the UK at Hinkley Point C, do not produce material that is ready to be used in a nuclear weapon.6

It’s true that the first nuclear reactors were covertly invested in by the UK and other governments in order to produce weapons-grade materials, and the secrecy around those activities probably increased mistrust.

Proliferation is certainly an ongoing concern, but our awesome destructive power is, sadly, by no means limited to nuclear bombs.

Even the fear-evoking term ‘nuclear holocaust’ demonstrates misunderstanding; in reality, far more damage is caused by the explosion than by the radiation.7

Skewed Perceptions

During the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the capture or potential shelling of a nuclear plant, such as at Zaporizhzhia, has caused alarm and plenty of apocalyptic media coverage, partly because both sides blame the other and so are incentivised to play up the threat.

But more sober reporting has shown that the reality about Zaporizhzhia is that even a Chernobyl-style worst-case scenario, which experts deem “highly unlikely” (and was far less harmful than generally perceived – see below), would not threaten neighbouring countries, let alone the entire continent, and instead would only harmfully contaminate an area of up to 20 kilometres.

The fear-mongering would have been less effective if journalists and their audiences understood how inflated radiation risks are.

RADIATION FACTS

  • Radiation is electromagnetic waves, e.g., X, radio, light, gamma, or sub-atomic particles such as alpha (helium nuclea), beta (electrons, or in rarer cases positrons), and neutrons.
  • Radiation that has the potential to be harmful to organisms is called ‘ionising’.8 Harm can come from:
    1. Excessive exposure to ultraviolet light can suppress the immune system, causing, for example, coldsores or even cancer.
    2. Acute radiation syndrome (ARS) results from extremely high doses such as accidental exposure to a medical source mishandled at Goiânia, or the respondents exposed at Chernobyl, or even deliberate  radiation poisoning.
  • Many worry about radiation causing cancer, yet it is lifestyle factors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and obesity that are responsible for the majority of cases.
Data from Cancer Research UK

Radiation as a property of certain materials was discovered in 1898, and by 1915 The Röntgen Society in the UK had adopted a resolution to protect people from over-exposure to X‐rays.

Over time, sensational movies and shows have tended to overplay radiation risks. For example, The Simpsons’ suggestion that exposure could result in hereditary mutations, such as three-eyed fish, is pure fiction.

Cognitive bias affects risk perception too. In general, an individual is more likely to accept a risk if they feel in  control of it, rather than having to trust others, or an institution.

Most people don’t understand nuclear technology, and they definitely don’t have any control over it.

Bureaucratic Caution

My experience is different.

When I worked in the British nuclear industry from 2002 to 2005, it became clear that there are no ‘skeletons in the closet’ or cover-ups about the dangers of nuclear energy.9

Instead, compliance with the restrictive labyrinth of health and safety regulations—mainly a result of scaremongering activism and the self-perpetuating interests of the regulatory state—is laborious and costly.

Over and over again we waste time and money proving the “radiological safety” of processes to people who already know full well that they are safe.

That is primarily because anti-nuclear organisations, such as Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), Greenpeace, and Friends of the Earth convinced much of society that the radiation risks are far higher than they actually are.

Cold War propaganda was useful for deterrence, but using triggering phrases such as ‘radioactive fallout’ and ‘holocaust’ evoked scenes of unlikely extreme destruction.

To be so rooted in fear rather than faith is counterproductive to tackling imminent threats associated with climate change.10

Protesting against nuclear new builds means continuing to use more fossil fuels, and so stymies progress towards reducing carbon emissions, as seen in Germany.

The downstream effect of these overblown radiation fears has been a suffocating of nuclear energy projects.

Rewarding Risk

Any proposed major work at a nuclear facility—from commissioning, operation, and decommissioning to waste management—must be documented in a Safety Case.

As part of this, employers must ensure ionising radiation exposure is kept As Low As Reasonably Practicable (ALARP), as per the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.

The magnitude of energy from a radiation source absorbed per kilogram of a medium is defined as the ‘Gray’.11

In addition to having to continually demonstrate ALARP, whether by way of failsafe systems, radiation detection, working practices, and personal protective equipment, the UK’s Ionising Radiation Regulations of 1999 also expect adherence to the annual dose limits of 20 milli Gray (mGy) for employees and 1 mGy for the public.

Well, I live in an area of relatively low background radiation in the UK and our Geiger counter averages a background reading of 1 mGy per annum—that is a very small amount.

Zero Tolerance

Statutory radiation limits built are around the disputed Linear No-Threshold (LNT) dose-response model, which was first posited in 1928.

The unsubstantiated claim of LNT is that zero radiation is the only safe dose, and that a linear relationship exists between dose and cancer rates.

LINEAR NO-THRESHOLD MODEL

  • Hermann Muller who proposed the LNT model was an epidemiologist who experimented on fruit flies with X-rays at very high doses (2000 mGy).
  • Besides using instrumentation that was relatively insensitive by today’s standards, he ignored the fact that our cells are able to tolerate low level radiation and can repair themselves after exposure.12

Because of this model, the UK’s Ionising Radiation Regulations impose—on the nuclear industry alone—that low-dose limit of 20 mGy to workers and 1 mGy to the public.

Even life-cycle ionising radiation exposures to the public from coal power stations are more than double those from nuclear, yet the coal industry isn’t held to the same standards.

People undergoing medical treatment, or carers, are bizarrely exempt from any of these regulations.

Consider:

  • A diagnostic CT scan delivers 10 mGy of X-rays. That one dose is ten times the annual public exposure threshold of 1 mGy that nuclear plants have to comply with.
  • In radiotherapy, nearby tissue absorbs 1 Gray every day for a month, and recovers. So this routine treatment involves radiation exposure 365,000 times greater than regulations allow for the nuclear industry.

Nuclear energy is, in effect, discriminated against by the current regulatory framework.

A Comparison of Monthly Radiation Doses

Red circle: dose to a tumour treated with radiotherapy

Yellow circle: a recoverable dose to healthy tissue near to a treated tumour

Green circle: a dose with 100 percent safety record

Black dot: a safety limit recommended by typical nuclear regulations

(Image Credit: Nuclear is for Life: A Cultural Revolution by Wade Allison, 2015)

Wasteful Narratives

Misplaced radiation concerns have also led to an excessive focus on the issue of nuclear waste disposal.

A radiation dose is inverse-squarely proportional to the distance between radiation source and point of interest.

Shielding and timing are also significant to dose rate, and water is an effective shielding agent, which is why highly radioactive fuel rods from a reactor are carefully cooled in 50-metre deep pools of water, sometimes for more than twenty years.

After this, the spent fuel is sealed into cans to be stored for hundreds of years.

Those concerned about nuclear waste and radiation should be reassured that:

  1. The most radioactive substances decay the fastest.
  2. Many long-lived isotopes are unlikely to migrate or leach far with water. This is seen at Oklo the natural reactor, which fissioned two billion years ago in Gabon, West Africa, and the ‘waste’ is still in place.
  3. The high energy density of nuclear fuel results in a tiny footprint of waste per person per lifetime, and is accounted for under the National Radioactive Waste Inventory.

Disaster Industry

A related major problem factor has been misleading reporting of nuclear accidents.

While these events showed deadly accidents could occur, they also demonstrated they were not that harmful.

The Chernobyl nuclear power plant accident of 1986 happened in a poorly designed and operated reactor.

Tragically, 31 people died from acute radiation syndrome or explosion effects in the following months. This was widely reported as catastrophic, and is still often perceived as such.

Later on, an estimated 15 deaths may have occurred due to radiation-induced thyroid cancer from potential childhood ingestion of radioactive iodine, and this number could eventually total 160 in a worst-case scenario.13

No other isotopes from Chernobyl are expected to cause cancer due to low levels and being unlikely to stay in the body long enough to cause any biological damage.14

Once again, the entertainment industry played its role in warping public perception, as with the recent HBO series. If you look elsewhere, you can see healthy wild animals living in the exclusion zone around the plant.

Displacement Activity

Disproportionate and inaccurate reporting of the dangers from the media creates unnecessary fear, panic—and harm.

The 2011 tsunami killed around 16,000 people but far more media coverage was given to the Fukushima Daiichi plant, whose cooling system failed after back-up generators were inundated.

Fear contributed to relocating people unnecessarily after both Chernobyl and Fukushima, causing thousands more premature deaths than would have otherwise occurred had people been allowed to stay and be exposed to slightly elevated radiation levels.15

Moreover, other industrial accidents are not subjected to anything like as much public scrutiny as nuclear ones.

For example, the worst energy accident of all time was the 1975 collapse of the Banqiao dam in China, which killed as many as 230,000 people—but ‘Banqiao’ is not a popular byword for disaster like ‘Chernobyl’ is.

Radiation Reset

Although stifling restrictions on ionising radiation have been put in place in the UK to try and assuage public concerns, there is still rampant excessive concern about the dangers.

Fuelled by misunderstandings about radiation, assumptions are breezily but incorrectly made regarding causation. Such misperceptions of risk interfere with constructive efforts to tackle climate-altering emissions.

More fundamentally, misapplication of the assumed LNT radiation dose-response model has played a significant role in a process of bureaucratic suffocation.

One effect is that the nuclear industry is the only one that is responsible for its own waste, yet is also penalised by sometimes having to adhere to less-than-background limits in terms of radiological safety.

We therefore need to replace the current limits with evidence-based figures.

Current radiation dose limit regulations in the UK, for example, could, conservatively, be returned to a ‘low-level’ rate of 100 mGy per month, below which we have no evidence that serious harm will result.

In general, two key things initially need to be done by governments, or anyone invested in ensuring a realistic energy transition:

  1. Educate about true radiation risks, especially the young, who will experience the full impacts of climate impact inaction; and,
  2. Introduce a level playing field across all sectors with respect to radiation risks.

Footnotes

1 Assuming 50 gigawatts of electricity for 70 million citizens living to an average age of 76.

2 The relatively low speeds of wind or water compared to the kinetic energy in a nucleus mean the energy densities differ to an order of magnitude of ten billion. Fuel densities: Renewables 0.0003 kWh/kg, fossil fuel 1 kWh/kg, nuclear 20,000,000 kWh/kg.

3 Many companies are investing in a new generation of small modular reactors (often known as SMRs), such as thorium-fuelled or molten salt reactors, which employ variants on the fuel and/or coolant. 

4 Via methods such as electrolysis and the sulphur-iodine process.

5 Conditions laid down in the UK’s Nuclear Safeguards Act 2018 (and previously in the Euratom Treaty) aim to safeguard the proliferation of civil nuclear fuel.

6 To obtain high purity weapons-grade material, a specialised process is re quired to create, then separate and refine the nuclear material to a very high specification.To obtain enriched uranium-235 (or plutonium-239) for weapons involves many more stages of separation and chemical purification than are required for uranium processing for nuclear energy fuel. In the UK, weapons grade material was produced at the Windscale piles facility, now decommissioned.  Reprocessing activities from the decommissioned Magnox fleet will stop this year.

7 For example, the 1945 allied firebombing of Tokyo caused the most death and destruction of any single air raid of World War II, including the American atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

8 Radiation is ‘ionising’ if it has sufficient energy to knock an electron off an atom from the medium through which it passes.

9 I volunteer for the Joan Pye Project – Putting the Case for Nuclear Energy in the UK.

10 Moreover, increased resource competition, as with today’s energy scarcity from a lack of comparable alternatives to out-of-favour fossil fuels, increases the potential for conflict. 

11 ‘Sievert’ and ‘Gray’ are used interchangeably in this article since they are the same.

12  Data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki bomb survivors show that when a radiation dose falls below 100 mGy there’s no statistical evidence that cancers are caused by radiation.

13 That is one percent of 16,000 cases across Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

14 Even ‘liquidators’ who entered areas designated as “contaminated” between 1986 and 1989 were mostly exposed to less than 100mSv, which is not very much for exposed adults. Only iodine-131 was considered due to its potential to bioaccumulate in growing children’s thyroids.

15 The single claimant of the death allegedly due to radiation exposure exists since proof of a causal link was not necessary by law.

Please see a 3 minute YouTube video, describing the history of this, as prepared by the Atomic Advocates UK.

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