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Nuclear Overreaction

Just how dangerous are low doses of radiation?

Mar 12, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 25 • By TOM BETHELL
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Theodore Rockwell, who worked on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge and was hired by Admiral Hyman Rickover to work on the Naval Nuclear Propulsion program in the 1950s, says that locations with high natural background radiation have levels “as much as a hundred times greater than the forbidden areas” around the Fukushima accident site in Japan.

One of these high background radiation places is Misasa Hot Springs in Japan, which advertises itself as containing “a high percentage of health-promoting radium.”

Radium emits radon, and many of the traditional European spas, celebrated since the 19th century for reducing aches and pains, correspond to what are now known to be high-radon sites. Klaus Becker, who was head of applied dosimetry at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and is now retired in Germany, told me that in Bad Gastein in Austria customers pay $550 for ten hours’ inhalation of radon at over 1,000 times the EPA-recommended level.

The irony is that the Austrian government pays for antiradon remediation measures while the public health service pays for treatment (for bursitis, rheumatic and asthmatic conditions) at the radon-rich spas.

For antinuclear activists, meanwhile, Fukushima has been the gift that keeps on giving. Germany— its reactors provide 23 percent of the country’s electricity—will phase out all nuclear power by 2022. The engineering firm Siemens will stop building nuclear plants. Italy’s plan to generate 25 percent of its electricity with nuclear power was rejected in a June referendum. Switzerland’s five nuclear reactors (yielding 40 percent of its electricity), will not be replaced at the end of their life span. Only two of Japan’s 54 reactors, which previously provided 30 percent of its electricity, are still running. Most have been shut down for safety checks, and this winter the country is facing power shortages. 

Plans to start up a newly constructed nuclear reactor on the southern tip of India have been obstructed by antinuke activists, some of whom came from as far away as the United States and Australia. They effectively demonstrated that environmental activism is an indulgence of the wealthier classes. Many people are so confused that they believe an accident at a nuclear power plant could turn it into an atom bomb; antinuke activists do nothing to allay such fears.

The “no threshold” theory is also convenient for antinuclear activists because government regulations do their work for them. The government says that additional radiation will cause additional cancers—end of story. Crusading journalists have no need to delve into details about rems, sieverts, rads, and roentgens. Tokyo residents can detect “hotspots” with store-bought dosimeters, but the radiation levels are low enough to be harmless, or perhaps beneficial.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to shut down the Indian Point nuclear plant 36 miles north of New York, which faces license renewal challenges. As Indian Point supplies 25 percent of the city’s electricity, it might provide a salutary lesson if Cuomo were to prevail.

Meanwhile, in France, where nuclear power provides three-fourths of the country’s electricity, there has been no retreat. President Sarkozy said that “one has no right to play up medieval fears.” Also undeterred is China, which is continuing with plans to build 36 new reactors over the next decade. Vietnam’s plan to build two reactors (with help from the laid-off Japanese reactor companies) also remains on track. 

In view of the ease with which public fears can be aroused, and the huge costs involved in shutting down reactors and replacing them (as is optimistically planned in Germany) with offshore wind farms, those old experiments with irradiated fruit flies should be repeated. This time the exposure should be as low as that found near a damaged reactor.

Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator.

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