Science does not support rigid anti-nuclear stance

Below, my article, as it appeared in this Thursday’s Irish Times. To date, it has attracted over 180 comments on the site, with a strong pickup on both Facebook and Twitter. Having grown accustomed to having the online discussion of any of my Irish Times articles being hijacked by the usual rump of denier boo-boys, the discussion this time is surprisingly vitriol-free, generally constructive and well worth a read in itself.

To any regular ToS reader who may be under the impression that I’ve converted to techno-optimism, rest assured this is not the case. There is an enormous question mark hanging over the likelihood of a sustained, serious global response to the climate crisis. Such a response would entail massive decarbonisation of all our energy systems on a scale never contemplated other than in a wartime mobilisation. This would have to start now, not in 5, 10 or 20 years’ time, it would likely need to achieve compound annual CO2 output reductions greater than 5%, and this would have to continue for the next 40 years without letting up. 

Can such a miraculous transformation be achieved? That, ultimately, is at least as much about politics as it is engineering or physics. Let’s dream for a moment and imagine that the world’s governments decided to act to save the future. The idea that such an energy revolution could be achieved without including a massive scaling up of nuclear power, especially the newer generation technologies, is pure fantasy.

Environmentalists who are determined to ‘save the planet’ need to work through the frightening facts regarding how our entire electromagnetic civilisation still depends utterly on the burning of hydrocarbons on a massive scale and the uncontrolled release of GHGs, most notably CO2 resulting from this activity. Renewables, for all their many virtues, cannot, repeat, cannot under any rational scenario, be scaled up to replace fossil energy, even allowing for major energy efficiency gains and demand reduction. So, in a nutshell, nuclear is either a major part of the ‘post-carbon’ energy mix, or you can be quite certain that the ‘post-carbon’ era will involve few, if any, humans.

11/6/2013: As a fascinating and entirely unexpected postscript to this article, a letter was published in the Irish Times today, from Mary Finnegan, who is Chairperson, Friends of the Children of Chernobyl (a charity separate to Adi Roche’s Chernobyl Children International). Here’s what she wrote:

“As a Chernobyl worker, I found myself agreeing with John Gibbons (“Science does not support critics of nuclear power”, Opinion, June 5th).

There was an increase in the incidence of thyroid cancer for the first few years, but no evidence of major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 25 years after the event. This is not a popular thing to say, but it’s based on scientific fact.

Our charity was founded in 1993 to aid Belarusian children who were affected by the Chernobyl disaster. However over a period of 20 years we came to the realisation that the illnesses affecting many of the children of Belarus were primarily due to the consequences arising out of poverty, deprivation and the ignorance of basic hygiene standards to maintain a healthy standard of living. Poverty is the big problem in Belarus in 2013: I have seen children with physical and intellectual disabilities (whose parents sometimes are ashamed of them), living in appalling conditions, with mothers in dire straits. They have no home help, no respite, no hoists, and very little assistance from the state.

I am neutral in the nuclear debate. As a nurse in care of the elderly, I see the results of breathing air contaminated by fossil fuel burning. My final point is that all Chernobyl charities should be realistic, and tell it as it is”.


“There is no such thing as a ‘pro-nuclear environmentalist’,” says the US-based lobby group ‘Beyond Nuclear’. “Environmentalists don’t support extractive, non-sustainable industries like nuclear energy, which poisons the environment; releases cancer-causing radioactive elements and creates radioactive waste deadly for thousands of years”.

This was in response to a new documentary film, Pandora’s Promise, which charts the almost Pauline conversion of five well-known environmentalists from bitterly opposing to strongly advocating nuclear power. What’s most likely to get us into trouble, Mark Twain observed, is not what we don’t know, “it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so”.

There are few subjects on which so many people, from politicians to rock stars, NGOs and environmentalists passionately and confidently espouse views that are so completely at variance with observed reality as nuclear energy.

The cultural roots of this antipathy run deep. For instance, the iconic cartoon series, The Simpsons has been mercilessly lampooning nuclear power as corrupt and unsafe for over 20 years.

Still, after the which thousands of people reportedly died horribly, with hundreds of thousands more deaths and birth defects in the last quarter century, small wonder people are terrified. These fears spectacularly re-surfaced in Fukushima in March 2011.

Now, take a moment to re-read the previous paragraph. It sounds like the death knell for nuclear power; and it would be, were it true. Certainly, lobby groups from Greenpeace to Chernobyl Children International (CCI), have worked tirelessly to propagate this apocalyptic appraisal. The scientific evidence has been, to put it mildly, uncooperative.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (Unscear) has extensively reviewed the evidence post-Chernobyl and concluded that total fatalities were around 50. Yes, 50. These were mainly among emergency workers, as well as a handful of fatal childhood thyroid cancers.

The greatest long-term threat to affected populations post-Chernobyl is not, Unscear found, from any epidemic of cancers or birth defects, but “widespread psychological reactions to the accident, which were due to fear of the radiation, not to the actual radiation doses”. People have been quite literally frightened to death by radiation scare stories.

The CCI website today carries photos of limbless children, which the charity clearly intends to portray as current victims of an ongoing epidemic of deformities. “In the first instance, there was no increase in birth defects, even in the affected regions. None. Zero”, according to cancer specialist Prof. John Crown. “The children whose deformities are highlighted by the charities did not get them as a result of radiation”.

Despite the Unscear report being by far the largest international medical and scientific review of the Chernobyl disaster, I failed to locate a single mention of it on the CCI website. As for Fukushima, a total of zero of the 19,000 or so fatalities from the earthquake and tsunami are accounted for by radiation.

Even accepting that fears of nuclear accidents have been grossly exaggerated, why risk it and instead simply concentrate on renewables and energy conservation? Having run the numbers, environmentalist Michael Shellenberger said in Pandora’s Promise: “I ended up feeling like a sucker. The idea that we’re going to replace oil and natural gas with solar and wind, and nothing else, is a hallucinatory delusion”.

This position has a powerful ally in Dr James Hansen of Nasa who has consistently urged for a radical decarbonisation of global energy supplies as our last shot at averting catastrophic climate change. While strongly supporting renewables, he adds: “it is not feasible in the foreseeable future to phase out coal unless nuclear power is included in the energy mix”.

A Nasa paper published in April pointed out that some 1.8 million lives have already been saved globally in recent decades where nuclear power has replaced fossil fuels. Ironically, fly ash produced by a coal burning plant like Moneypoint in Co. Clare emits around 100 times more radiation than a similar sized nuclear power plant. Globally, some 3,500 people a day, many aged under five, die as a result of breathing air contaminated by fossil fuel burning.

The ongoing gross misrepresentation of the risks and benefits of nuclear energy as a power source has perhaps been the single greatest factor stymying the development of ‘next generation’ technologies, including molten salt and pebble bed reactors that offer more efficient and much safer alternatives.

Prof David McKay of the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change recently endorsed a novel solution for dealing with its problematic 100 tonnes of plutonium and 35,000 tonnes of depleted uranium wastes. Rather than being buried, this waste material could fuel a new generation of “fast breeder” reactors and provide enough zero-carbon energy to power Britain for up to 500 years.

McKay is adamant that such research is complementary, rather than a threat, to renewable technologies.

Pandora’s Promise throws down the gauntlet to set aside our preconceptions and come up with workable solutions on a massive enough scale to address the most dangerous crisis humanity has yet faced.

Famed environmentalist Bill McKibben accepts that nuclear must be part of any serious push towards zero-carbon, but admits being reluctant to say so in public as “it would split this movement”. And that is the nub of the matter.

Environmentalists have done such a thorough job of demonising nuclear energy that many now feel unable to retreat from these positions without serious loss of face. The roots of this hostility go back to the Cold War, where the environmental and anti-war movements converged in opposing nuclear weapons.

That battle is largely over, but humanity’s deadliest foe is now CO2. New threats will not be vanquished by repeating old slogans.

John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator. He is on Twitter @think_or_swim

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
This entry was posted in Energy, Global Warming, Nuclear. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to Science does not support rigid anti-nuclear stance

  1. Eric says:

    Well said John. It brings to mind your memorable venture into the lion’s den at Carnsore last year!

  2. CoilinMacLochlainn says:

    Hi, John, – You mention a large and positive response to your Irish Times article on the paper’s website. And in the same breath you say your views should not be interpreted as techno-positive. But you know, the reason for the large and positive response to your piece may be that people see nuclear energy as a technological magic bullet for the climate crisis. They think there is a techno-fix out there that will get the world out of its current mess, and that this might be it. Every the problem is mentioned someone pipes up that ‘technology will find a solution.’ That is a very dangerous way of thinking but is deeply ingrained in a generation in which technology has delivered incredible innovations in every sphere. But really we are in it up to our necks, we are in deep, deep trouble and people are clutching at this flimsy straw. It will help, but it will not meet the need for a fullscale powering down of western civilisation.

    Just look at the Syrian refugee crisis today and fast forward a number of years to when, without massive deployment of renewable and nuclear energies, complete phase-out of fossil fuel use, and introduction of technologies to filter carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere on a colossal scale, we will have Syrian-type crises everywhere, or at least in the Middle East and North Africa to begin with. The Arab Spring might have had less to do with the stirrings of democracy than with populations beginning to feel the beginning of the end for their livelihoods and their very existence in an increasingly dry world. The anxiety is now beginning to fizzle in Turkey as well.

  3. johngibbons says:

    You may well be right. Some people will undoubtedly think nuclear is going to ride into view and somehow, without being accompanied by a raft of extremely difficult choices (energy reduction, de-growth, etc). Neither you nor I know exactly what will facilitate an orderly ‘powering down’ of industrial civilisation – maybe even the very concept is oxymoronic.

    All I can say for 100% certain is that if we take nuclear ‘off the table’, then more and more fossil fuels will be mined and burned, and renewables will remain a side-show as global temperatures smash through +2, +3, +4C. Of course, that will also mean the certain end of said civilisation, and since it it our collective life support system, it also means mass immiseration and death on a scale never before contemplated.

    Nuclear is probably the only conceivable option for massive deployment of ultra-low carbon energy sufficient (maybe) to allow something short of a chaotic globalised infrastructure crash and collapse to be entirely certain. Probable, yes, perhaps even very probable, even with nukes, but absolutely certain otherwise.

    I don’t believe pointing out that there actually is one technology that might, just might, buy us time to solve some of our problems should be necessarily equated to terminal techno-optimism. You’ve read enough of my other material to know that ‘optimistic’ is probably not what they’ll chisel on my headstone!

  4. johngibbons says:

    Thanks Eric, I remember my experience in Carnsore Point vividly. Of all the oddballs I’ve encountered over the last several years, I reckon that Rebecca Harms, the German MEP, probably takes the digestive biscuit.

    I had always rejected the caricature of some greens as being ideologues, pure and simple. But when I found myself in Harms’ way, I realised that there are fruit loops on every side of most every argument. To her, anyone who was, irrespective of their track record, prepared to say anything other than that nuclear energy is ‘bad’ is an enemy, to be ridiculed, demonised, mocked and harried.

    Quite a number of other people at that Carnsore gathering agreed wholeheartedly with Harms. I overheard one of them telling a group of people that “he (Gibbons) must be working for the nuclear industry”. When I challenged her on this vile smear, she mouthed something about being entitled to express her opinion.

    Having debated face-to-face with the Right Honourable Viscount Christopher Monckton as a loopy climate (science) denier and Harms as a loopy (nuclear) science denier, I can honestly say Monckton was a lot more pleasant, personable and, astonishingly, less dogmatic and self-righteous than Deputy Harms.

  5. CoilinMacLochlainn says:

    Well, that is certainly very well put and I agree with you completely.

  6. CoilinMacLochlainn says:

    David Roberts has a very level-headed discussion about the pros and cons of nuclear power at:
    Here are some selected paragraphs:

    • Nuclear’s main problem is economics, which its supporters seem oddly unwilling to discuss, opting instead for one lay psychological diagnosis of their opponents after another. Based on what I’ve read about Pandora’s Promise, opposition to nuclear power is mainly represented by scratchy old ’70s footage of Helen Caldicott. The subject of economics is broached passingly, if at all.

    But the reason I and most people I know are not nuke boosters is just that: Nuke plants are hellishly expensive to finance, build, insure, and decommission. It’s one of the most expensive ways to reduce carbon emissions and it’s not getting any cheaper. If anything, nuclear has exhibited a negative learning curve.

    The response to this from supporters usually amounts to, “Yeah, but you can’t get all the way there on renewables.” This may or not be true. There are credible models of large-scale renewable penetration, but ultimately we won’t know until we try. If we reach a point where nuclear power is cheaper than the next increment of conservation, energy efficiency, demand shifting, renewables, cogeneration, and/or storage, then yay for nukes. But right now there are lots of cheaper options and more on the way. Renewables are plunging in price; nuclear prices are static or rising. You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

    • Bigness is a problem. Right now nukes come in one size, huge, which carries all kinds of risks. The financial commitment is enormous, one reason private investors shy away. The risks of cost overruns (ubiquitous in the industry) or outright abandonment are enormous. The risks of public opposition or changing public policy are enormous, given the span of time it takes to permit and build one. The consequences of failure — attack, meltdown, leaks, whatever — are enormous, which is why private insurers won’t cover them. And the costs and risks of decommissioning are enormous.

    Everything about nukes is enormous. Meanwhile, the coming century will be characterized by greater and greater disruption, uncertainty, and flux, for all kinds of reasons, most notably climate change. In that environment, resilience is at a premium, which means a bias toward nodal architecture: smaller units (of capital, of risk, of power generation), smartly networked together, capable of graceful failure and rebound in the face of stress. Nuclear is ill-suited to a role in that kind of system.
    Supporters inevitably wave their hands at the Nukes of the Future: thorium reactors, small modular reactors, integral fast reactors, and the like. I’ll admit, I’ve never done a deep dive into the merits of these alternatives. To hear supporters tell it, within a few years you’ll have a reactor in your backyard that consumes nuclear waste from past reactors and emits nothing but fresh air, clean water, and the scent of jasmine. There are, of course, lots of folks who think the promise of new reactors is overblown. I couldn’t begin to adjudicate that dispute.

    I certainly hope nukes can be made small and clean. And I’m all for finding out. All possible low-carbon techs should be subject to vigorous research and demonstration, paid for in part with public money. If new reactor designs prove as much safer as promised, if their costs start falling, if they perform, I’m absolutely in support of government deployment assistance, just like I am for all low-carbon technologies. It makes no sense for climate hawks to close off future low-carbon options, or to criticize some bleeding-edge technologies for being expensive but not others. (After all, lots of new solar technologies are expensive too.) All low-carbon techs face the same tilted playing field.

    None of that, however, is germane to the argument over current reactors, which remain the dominant technology in the sector. It’s the same with biofuels: You can’t defend corn ethanol by waving your hands at switchgrass.

  7. Chris Murray says:

    I have been persuaded of the validity of the APG case since the 1980’s, and accept John Gibbons bona fides on the matter. I disagree, however, with his position on nuclear power, in particular his position on radiation pollution and the health consequences of Chernobyl and Fukushima, and I strongly dispute and object to his contention that his position is the scientific one.

    Last April, I put together some common arguments of the pro-nuclear movement and basic replies, in an attempt to counter the alarming barrage of ignorant and misleading articles in the media over the past few years on the subject. Impeccable scientific sources are
    available if needed. apologies for any “emotive” language. It was directed at the nuclear industry and George Monbiot, not John Gibbons.

    Yours sincerely,

    Chris Murray.

    “Chernobyl only killed 43 people. UNSCEAR, the most
    authoritative body to investigate the issue, said so.”

    This UNSCEAR report has been one of the most
    quoted and misquoted reports in recent times by the pro-nuclear movement. 43
    may be the number that can be individually proved to have been killed by Chernobyl, so far, but it is completely
    disingenuous to present this as the final total. The report, endlessly cited as
    though it were the absolute final word on everything related to radiation, did
    no epidemiological research itself at all. It completely ignored deaths outside
    the old USSR, and also ignored the universally
    recommended Linear Non Threshold model with its clear implications of tens of
    thousands of cancer deaths. Instead UNSCEAR looked at third party studies,
    dismissing (possibly with some reason) the many studies finding excess deaths,
    instead focusing on a few studies of low statistical power. Most importantly,
    UNSCEAR did not state that the final death toll would definitely be of the
    order of 43. Given the long latency period for many cancers, even this flawed
    report could not go that far and remain scientifically credible. Furthermore,
    buried in the report is the admission that the cancer rate may increase
    slightly. What people want and need to know is the bottom line, a rough idea of
    the final death toll, not some small initial figure highlighted and trumpeted
    to the heavens, with vague muttering buried deep in the report about possible
    eventual increases in the cancer rate, with deliberate non-clarity about final
    numbers. Even a 0.1 % increase in the cancer rate would result in tens of
    thousands of deaths.

    (Note Another UNSCEAR report, completely ignored by John Gibbons, George Monbiot, John Crown, David Robert Grimes et al, admitted to a possible 4,000 death toll in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus alone. CM Sept 2013)

    Almost all national and international
    radiological protection services recommend the use of the linear non-threshold
    (LNT) model* . UNSCEAR estimates a total dose of 600,000 manSievert from Chernobyl. The International Commission on
    Radiological Protection estimates the risk of fatal cancer to be 5% per
    sievert. Putting these figures together you get a possible death toll of
    30,000**. It may be more, it may be less, but that is roughly where even the
    official figures, NB the official figures, point. NNB This is not, as many in
    the nuclear sect would have it, some tenuous bit of voodoo science from a few
    eccentric tree-huggers. It is the radiation establishment opinion, firmly
    grounded in decades of work. It is profoundly shocking that this notion that
    the death toll from Chernobyl’s radiation is, and will continue to be,
    very low, this travesty, this complete inversion of the truth, can continue to
    be perpetuated as though it were the scientific view, and its opponents pilloried
    as an ignorant, emotional, unscientific minority.

    This issue is not inconsequential. If the record
    so far is a possible 30,000 dead after a few decades, from Chernobyl alone, one
    of 400 nuclear poison stations globally, what is the likely toll after
    the industry expands tenfold, a hundredfold, with hundreds, if not thousands of
    stations located in countries that make the old Soviet Union look like a model
    of efficiency and best practice?

    “Natural radiation is all around us, so what’s
    the big deal about more from nuclear poison stations?”

    Unmentioned here for some reason is the fact
    that natural radiation kills people. So it’s like saying that it’s ok to
    deliberately electrocute people since people are killed every year by

    “We get more radiation every year from CT scans
    than from Chernobyl and Fukushima combined.”

    As above, the crucial fact omitted here is that
    the average whole-body 10mSv CT scan involves a one in 2,000 risk of developing
    a fatal cancer. Again, this is the universally accepted medical figure, as
    recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection. Any
    doctor recommending a CT scan should explain this, and how in his view the
    benefits outweigh the risks, and leave the decision to the patient. The cost-benefit
    calculation is somewhat different when yet another nuclear poison plant you
    didn’t want in the first place explodes anywhere within a continent of you, and
    the same scientific people who assured that it could never explode now assure
    you that the radiation levels are “tiny”, “insignificant”, pooh-pooh, nothing
    to worry your little unscientific head about.

    “The risks are “tiny/insignificant””

    The issue is a bit like looking through
    different ends of a telescope. It is perfectly true that a tiny level of
    radiation involves, statistically, only a tiny risk. Anyone who would argue
    otherwise would be looking through the magnifying end of the scope. Conversely,
    the nuclear poison enthusiast have their eye firmly glued to the wrong end of
    the telescope, arguing endlessly that the risks to individuals are
    insignificant, pooh-pooh, putting up internet graphs and diagrams to show how
    small the individual risks are in comparison with other risks, dismissing tiny
    individual risks while ignoring aggregated large societal risks. Put more
    simply, if the risks of a particular exposure are, say, one per million
    (“tiny”, unless you’re the unlucky one), and a hundred million people are
    exposed, then one hundred people die from cancer (not “tiny/insignificant”). If
    you have any kind of genuine commitment to public health, or science, or
    reason, or morality, then you openly acknowledge that, rather than, as the
    nuclear cult does, concentrate endlessly on what its perverted value judgements
    regard as “insignificant” individual risks***. There is also something
    disgusting, completely undemocratic, and morally repugnant about a group of
    “experts” callously plotting away secretly what level of death to impose on the

    “We’ve done studies on areas of high natural
    background radiation and there was no increase in cancer deaths detected. There
    was actually less cancer than expected.”

    More stunningly ignorant pronouncements from an
    allegedly scientifically literate nuclear priesthood, who continually denounce
    the anti-nuclear movement and the public as being ignorant and irrational. Even
    the Institute of Physics, hardly a bunch of hippies, can admit
    that the populations of those areas are too small to yield meaningful

    “Coal/oil/gas/wind power/solar/geothermal/conservation/using
    less energy/doing nothing/whatever you’re having yourself/ kills people too.”

    This is almost too stupid to respond too,
    apart from noting that maybe two wrongs don’t make a right, and that alleged
    concerns by the rejuvenated nuclear poison club about global warming or the
    safety of other power sources are an argument for increasing the safety of
    those sources, or for moving to genuinely safer, more environmentally
    responsible sources, for conservation, for a reduction in consumption and
    energy use. They are not an argument for recommending that globally we spend
    trillions we haven’t got building thousands of nuclear poison plants, many of
    them in impoverished, inefficient, corrupt countries with an eye on getting
    nuclear weapons. It is also worth remembering that nuclear power was originally
    sold to an unsuspecting public on the grounds that it would be too cheap to
    meter, that there would not be any major accidents, and that low level
    radiation was completely safe. All this lesser-of-two-evils comparison garbage
    was invented as a Plan B, when perfectly safe nuclear poison plants began to
    blow up, and as the truth about low level radiation emerged. Again, shocking
    “logic”, especially given the insults directed by these people at the anti-nuclear
    movement and the public.

    “100mSv is the dose needed to develop cancer.”

    Another bald lie. It was the case, that, from
    the A-bomb studies, 100mSv was the dose where cancers were observed, but this
    did not mean that the cancers were not occurring, Get this guys – it’s a linear
    NON-THRESHOLD model, meaning NO safe dose. It does NOT mean 100mSV is
    safe. Further, continued work on the A-bomb studies now shows cancer induction
    down to 50mSv and possibly down to 20mSv.

    “There are no cancer clusters around nuclear
    poison plants.”

    Since even the dogs in the streets now know that
    there are cancer clusters around nuclear poison plants, this “argument” has
    generally shifted to…

    “The levels of radiation emitted by nuclear
    poison plants are too low to account for the (previously non-existent) cancer
    clusters around nuclear poison plants.”

    This would lead to the rather odd conclusion
    that the higher the number of cancers around nuclear poison plants, the less
    radiation must be responsible. That it might, just might, be possible that
    radiation emission levels have been deliberately or accidentally unreported,
    unrecorded, misrecorded, or underestimated; that measurement of the resulting
    radiation dose to the public has been inadequate; that the impact of low level
    radiation, particularly ingested or inhaled radiation, has been underestimated
    etc etc., is all dismissed out of hand.

    “Hormesis. Radiation is good for you.”

    The holy grail of nuclear enthusiasts. Some tiny
    evidence, yet to be confirmed, confined to test tubes, breathlessly exaggerated
    enormously by nuclear fans. Other so-called evidence, also touted endlessly
    over recent decades, from Cobalt in buildings, from nuclear worker studies, and
    from high background areas of radiation, all now discredited. Basically pie in
    the sky rubbish, not taken seriously by anyone bar nuclear quacks.

    “The levels are well within safety/permissible

    Few in the nuclear industry actually use the
    expression “safety levels” anymore – this seems to be largely done by an
    ignorant, supine media – and the nuclear industry covers itself somewhat by
    using the phrase “permissible levels” (What’s the difference between
    “permissible” and “safety”? “Permissible” by who? Set by who? Have you, the
    reader, agreed to these levels for yourself and your children). As stated
    above, no level of radiation is safe, so the idea of a “permissible” level is
    at best disingenuous. Even using official figures, if everyone of the 300
    million population of the US were to receive the “permitted” dose of
    1mSv per year every year, you could eventually expect roughly 15,000 fatal
    cancers to develop per year every year as a result.

    *Linear No Threshold (LNT) model – that the
    relationship between radiation and its effects are linear – ie that if 1000
    units of radiation cause 1000 deaths, then one hundred units will cause one
    hundred deaths, ten units will cause ten deaths etc., and that there is no safe
    dose – no threshold below which radiation is safe)

    ** the true picture is of course more complex,
    since individuals vary in their response to radiation depending on age, health,
    the type of radiation, whether the radiation is external, or ingested, or
    inhaled, the pathways by which exposure occurs, etc. etc., and one cannot be
    anything like exact in these matters. However, LNT does offer some basic
    estimate of the casualty figures. The ICRP admittedly warn sternly that such
    use of LNT after an accident is “inappropriate”. However, they do not have a
    monopoly on the use of LNT, they do not have a monopoly on logic, or reason, or
    common sense, and they do not offer any alternative “appropriate” method for
    even roughly estimating the total casualties in the event of an accident. It is
    somewhat peculiar that just as radiation protection is most needed, after a
    catastrophic nuclear accident, when millions are at risk, that the ICRP claims
    the LNT model cannot be used. It is worth mentioning that national bodies such
    as the RPII and the Institute of Physics have no qualms about using such an

    *** And of course to those who develop cancer as
    a result, and to their families and friends, this is hardly “insignificant”.

  8. Chris Murray says:

    1. APG should read AGW or APGW or climate change or climate catastrophe etc.
    2. John Crown did actually mention the 4,000 cancer fatality figure in a Sunday Independent article during his Senate election campaign, but ignored it in a subsequent article when he was elected.

  9. Chris Murray says:

    Just to provide a little recent scientific backup to my earlier comment on radiation risk deniers and their disgraceful peddling of the notion that Chernobyl only killed about 50 people…..

    KEITH BAVERSTOCK is an establishment scientist with impeccable credentials, leading the Radiation Protection Programme at the World Health Organisation’s Regional Office for Europe from 1991 to 2003. Since 2002 he was the Regional Advisor for Radiation at the WHO’s European Centre for Environment and Health. ( )
    yet, in relation to the Monbiot et al claims on Chernobyl’s death toll, even this cautiously pro-nuclear scientist was honest enough to write (Letter to the Guardian ) that Monbiot “should acknowledge that there has been unwarranted dismissal of potential effects for which there has been no objective investigation. He is also wrong to describe the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation
    (Unscear) as the equivalent of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
    The Unscear document he refers to was prepared by a single lead consultant with
    a handful of supporting individuals and the document was approved by nominees
    of the states which are subscribing members of Unscear – mostly those countries
    with an investment in nuclear power. The document does not represent any consensus across the relevant scientific community…….The truth is we, as the international
    scientific community, don’t know the true impact of the accident on health
    because the funds have not been available to thoroughly investigate it. More
    in-depth reading of the Unscear document will reveal several instances where
    Unscear draws attention to this lack of vital knowledge.”

  10. Chris Murray says:

    Corrected link to Baverstock biography

  11. Chris Murray says:

    I followed John’s link to the UNSCEAR document so approvingly quoted by Monbiot et al. It’s the usual spurious Pontius Pilate stuff, but what is interesting is that if you bother to dig even a little deeper, into the UNSCEAR reports which form the basis for this dreadful, much-hyped one-page summary, you find stuff like this…..

    “Although the numbers of cancers projected to be induced by radiation exposure from the accident are very small relative to the baseline cancer risk, THEY COULD BE SUBSTANTIAL IN ABSOLUTE TERMS” (my emphasis). As I said earlier, even a tiny increase in baseline cancer risk would result in tens of thousands of cancer deaths. How did Monbiot and his pals, all so into rigorous science and fact-checking, miss this?

    UNSCEAR 2008. Annex D. Page 185 Paragraph D274.

  12. johngibbons says:

    Chris, your comments, while interesting, depend on a conspiracy theory to hold water. I need to be part of this conspiracy, as does Monbiot, UNSCEAR and various other folk. Have you looked at the deaths per GW/hours of the various forms of energy, from coal to oil, peat, wind, nuclear, solar, etc? How would you stack up the 2-3 million annual deaths worldwide directly resulting from the combustion of hydrocarbons in energy production and transport versus the Chernobyl deaths, both direct and indirect.

    Chernobyl happened in 1986, ie. 27 years ago. Since then, you can say with confidence that between 50m–80m people worldwide have died prematurely as a direct result of respiratory and cardiac damage arising from burning fossil fuels. Many of these victims are aged under five. Where’s your outrage and indignation about that? Nuclear has its clear downsides, but by and large, it has produced a lot of energy, killed very few people and has contributed very little by way of GHGs that are destroying the atmosphere.

  13. Chris Murray says:

    Hi John.

    Thanks for your reply. I want to say how much I admire and agree with
    most of your writing (and George Monbiot’s), but you have unfortunately both been badly misled on the radiation issue. Since it is such a disaster for the green movement, I hope we can resolve this.

    Conspiracy theories are NOT necessary for my case to hold water. I do
    not believe in the usual conspiracy theories, and I find this response a bit disappointing. I do actually have some idea of what I’m talking about on the subject. Some bias on the part of the Unscear team which wrote the summary report (not the detailed report), together with simple ignorance (which he admitted), shoddy research, cherry-picking and a naïve swallowing of pro-nuke propaganda on the part of George Monbiot, and uncritical acceptance by you of Monbiot (I used to rely on him myself) provide a more reasonable explanation.

    Re your “where’s your outrage?” question, as I said, I have been
    persuaded of the case against endless “growth”/runaway techno-mania, and the case for climate catastrophe, for decades. I gave away all my money to Africa and left a good job to pursue a low-consumption, low-pollution lifestyle in 1985. I have lived since in what most Western people would call poverty, and I will not dance outrage to your particular tune.

    But first things first – the issue of radiation risk – before you go
    moving the goalposts all over the place. I will not discuss other issues
    relating to nuclear power until we first resolve this central issue. If, as I believe, your position on this is completely erroneous, until you correct it I cannot have full confidence in your other figures and arguments.

    So, to cut to the chase. You, David Robert Grimes, John Crown, George
    Monbiot and god knows who else have repeatedly claimed over the past two years that Unscear, in an allegedly super-duper scientific report on Chernobyl, has reported the death toll to be less than 50, mostly first-responders. This has not been some casual aside, but has formed the centre-piece, the core argument of many pro-nuclear articles. The treatment of the anti-nuclear movement in general has been less than polite, accusing it of ignorance and exaggeration, of being irrational and unscientific, of being emotional, self-seeking publicists etc.

    I claim, using, not a crystal ball (as you and Monbiot would probably have
    it), but establishment science’s figures, that the true death toll is more
    likely to be of the order of 30,000, that the Unscear summary report is, while not necessarily incorrect, utterly misleading, especially for the general public and the scientifically challenged. In other words, that those who claim large casualties from Chernobyl are basically right, and that you, who claim very small casualties, are very,very badly wrong. This is not insignificant. There is, I’m sure you will agree, a huge difference between 50 and 30,000. You and Monbiot would hardly be hyping the 50 figure
    otherwise. It is YOU who have made a big deal about this, making it the logical core of your article above.

    So before you go traipsing off with spurious comparisons with fossil fuels (as though opposition to nuclear implied support for fossil fuels, as though wasting trillions on nukes would halt the fossil fuel/“growth” juggernauts and make people more conservation-conscious), and demands that I display the outrage you want – decades-old tactics from the nukers handbook – please deal with this.

    What do you make of Baverstock’s point that the Unscear document in
    question, far from being some kind of Scientific Sermon from the Mount,
    prepared by hundreds of scientists, was “prepared by a single lead consultant with a handful of supporting individuals “ and
    subsequently rubberstamped? What do you make of the Unscear quote (from an underlying report of the summary reports you, Monbiot, John Crown, David Robert Grimes etc. quote so approvingly) I gave you: “Although the numbers of cancers projected to be induced by radiation exposure from the accident are very small relative to the baseline cancer risk, THEY COULD BE SUBSTANTIAL IN ABSOLUTE TERMS” (UNSCEAR 2008. Annex D. Page 185 Paragraph D274
    ) ?

    There it is, in black and white, from Unscear itself – “the numbers of
    cancers………………COULD BE SUBSTANTIAL”. No conspiracy llegations needed. How does this square with continued assertions that all of Unscear in total unison always swears blind that the Chernobyl casualty total is than fifty? What do you make of the Unscear report that claimed 4,000/9,000 deaths in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine alone? Do you stand over that 50 figure or not? If not, what is your new figure?

    All the best,

    Chris the emotional, scientifically-illiterate, irrational tree-hugger.

  14. Chris Murray says:

    Sentence in last para above should read

    “No conspiracy allegations needed. How does this square with continued assertions that all of Unscear in total unison always swears blind that the Chernobyl casualty total is less than fifty?”

  15. Chris Murray says:

    One source for my earlier comment that the risk of fatal cancer is 5% per sievert, and that CT scans entail a one in two thousand risk of causing a fatal cancer:

    A web module produced by Committee 3 of the
    International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP)

    …….The higher dose diagnostic medical procedures (such a CT scan of the abdomen or pelvis) yield an effective dose of about 10 mSv. If there were a large population in which every person had 1 such scan, the theoretical lifetime risk of radiation induced fatal cancer would be about 1 in 2,000 (0.05%).” (Page 5)

  16. Chris Murray says:

    One source for my comment that there is no safe dose of radiation is below. This ICRP report was largely a response to attempts by the nuclear/radiation industries to argue that there was a safe dose. Even the often strongly pro-nuclear ICRP firmly rejected such an approach.

    International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP)

    Committee 1 Task Group Report
    Low-dose Extrapolation of Radiation-Related Cancer Risk
    December 2004

    “Overall, relevant animal tumor data tend to support a linear response with no threshold at low doses. “ p.149
    (No threshold means no level below which harm does not occur)

    “The predominant importance of DNA DSB induction and post-irradiation error-prone NHEJ repair for the induction of aberrations, and the apparently critical role for radiation-induced aberrations in the pathogenesis of cancer in these experimental models, would tend to argue against the proposition of a low dose threshold in the dose-response.” p.151

    “Overall, these animal tumor data tend to support a linear response at low doses and dose rates with no threshold.” p.152

    “Importantly, experiments using multiple low dose rate terminated exposures suggest a limiting linear slope in all cases adding further support for the view that effects at low doses are consistent with a linear no threshold model.” p.153

    “it should be noted that the mechanistic and experimental data discussed in this monograph tend to give weight to a nonthreshold model, as do the solid tumor data in the Japanese atomic bomb study.” p.182

    “Our present information, summarized in NCRP Report 136 (2001) and the present report, offers little support for the existence of a universal low-dose threshold” p. 183

    “the argument that radiation protection standards should be relaxed ‘because it is possible that there may not be any risk at low doses’ is unlikely to be persuasive to persons who are concerned about the possibility that risk associated with very low doses may be unacceptably high” p.184

  17. Chris Murray says:

    My source for the Unscear collective dose of 600,000 manSievert;

  18. johngibbons says:

    OK Chris, some 15 comments later, hope you’ve got that all out of your system now. Please don’t try to post any more as I’ll have to block the thread if you do. Everyone is entitled to have their say and make their points, but enough already!

  19. Colm McGinn says:

    Our present usage all sources of energy, is approx 18TW. In a near future world, allowing for a raising of access to energy on the part of the poorest, call that 30TW. To achieve that (*effectively, including economies) say 1st world reduction (Lovins’ term ‘negawatts’) of 50% mostly from stopping waste. For the major part, in this century, solar PV, and solar heat. Also wind, which is really a version of solar. Also the rest of renewables, contributing maybe 10%. Nuclear is not in the picture, and carbon burning has to stop. Say within 40 years.

    $6 billion per GW, Construction time, 3 – ? years. Existing capacity, 400 GW. Capacity possible after 20 years of construction (super optimistically, mass-produced, 1,000 new stations), 1 Terawatt. – Requirement? 30 TW. Nuclear is a dead end, no matter how many and however intelligent scientists/ commentators see otherwise.

  20. Mary J O'Brien says:

    Hi John,
    We are here inbox wondering when the international court will hold fossil fuel burning countries to account for mass genocide. We are off to Fiji next week and there is a country in crisis.

  21. John Gibbons says:

    Hi MJ, we might be waiting for some time for the wheels of international justice to catch up with the fossil fuel industry, but, perhaps like their tobacco cousins, it’s just a matter of time. Let me know when you’re back in Oirland, we’re long overdue catching up. JG

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