Responses to Howard Shaffer’s remarks on radiation

The following comments are in response to Howard Shaffer’s remarks in Vermont Digger, which can be found here:


Howard Shaffer and I have had this discussion before, and Bob Stannard has done a good job of calling him out on his misleading statements about radiation.  Still, for the benefit of readers who have less experience considering these matters, I think it’s important to state in some detail just how preposterous his claim is, beyond my rather snarky (and slightly incorrect as it turns out) comment from a few days ago.  These comments concern the first set of exchanges between Shaffer and Bob.

First, it should be noted that virtually no one believes that the best or only alternative to nuclear power now comes from coal.  What Shaffer suggests about the 1950s may or may not have been true at the time, but it’s clearly false today.  There are many adequate alternatives to nuclear power which do not involve anything like the risks of coal plants.

Second, radiation releases happen on an ongoing basis in the nuclear power industry, from exposure to miners and enrichment works, to planned and accidental releases from reactors, to releases at nuclear waste dumps around the country and the world.  While it’s true that the radiation from these ongoing releases pales in comparison to the damage done by the coal industry, it’s false to suggest that these releases do not exist or that they have no impact.

Third, Shaffer’s merely parroting industry propaganda when he claims that the results of Fukushima were “no immediate deaths due to radiation.”  There HAVE  been a handful of worker deaths as a result of the accident, some from diseases associated with radiation. TEPCO – a remarkably unreliable source – has claimed these deaths were not radiation related, but I haven’t seen any third party validation of that claim.

The real point, however, is in Shaffer’s innocent-sounding use of the word “immediate.”  Readers should not be misled by Shaffer’s glibness.  Massive amounts of radiation were released by the Fukushima accident into the atmosphere and especially into the Pacific Ocean.  From these releases, we can expect major health consequences. Most of these effects would not be expected to be immediate: smokers do not inhale a cigarette and then drop dead of cancer either. (If they did, I suspect there would be far fewer smokers than there are!) Many cancers “incubate” for 20 years and more. The real health effects of TMI should be starting to become visible NOW (30 years later), and those from Fukushima a few decades from now.

Our best understanding of radiation and human health says that any dose of radiation is harmful to humans and that the probability and magnitude of harm increase with exposure. There is, according to this theory, no safe (threshold) dose of radiation. Readers should understand that this theory represents the scientific consensus, repeatedly promulgated by the National Academy of Sciences over a period of decades, and used by most regulatory agencies around the world. Shaffer can, if he wants, dissent from this consensus, but he should do so overtly, and justify his claim.

Since the early 1960s, scientists understood that smoking caused cancer and other diseases, but in a string of court cases, the tobacco industry succeeded in making the claim that no PARTICULAR case of cancer could be PROVEN to be linked to cigarettes.  The same is certainly true of radiation. That’s Bob Stannard’s point above.

In fact, this is the nature of any probabilistic theory such as the ones in question here: we can “prove” a statistical probability, but not absolute causation. The suggestion that this means that the link is uncertain is no more true of radiation than it is of cigarette use.

It’s also worth noting that Shaffer’s suggestion that “the vast majority will only have their lives shortened a few years by cancer after many years” is predicated on the notion that the majority of those exposed were middle aged adults.  In fact, there is no basis for that assumption, since tens of thousands of children and young adults were exposed as well, and there lives will be shortened by many more than “a few” years.

Finally, I should note that slightly contrary to what I indicated above, according to Wikipedia, Marie Curie died “from aplastic anemia contracted from her long-term exposure to radiation.”  She was 66 +, which from my current vantage point, doesn’t look as “old” as Shaffer suggests (though I’m pretty sure he’s older than I am!).

In his latest comment, dated “September 30, 2012 at 4:42 pm,” Howard Shaffer moves from generalized innuendo to a full-blown defense of the hormesis theory of radiation: namely, small doses are actually good for you.

First, let’s get our terms straight.  We’re not talking about “radiation” per se; we’re talking about IONIZING radiation.  The radiation from visible light, the heat from the sun (and other sources), cell phones, smart meters, electromagnetic pulses, etc. are all forms of NON-IONIZING radiation.  The consensus theory cited above (and in Shaffer’s remark – BEIR 7 is a product of the National Academy) concern IONIZING radiation only and have NOTHING to do with non-ionizing forms of radiation.

Second, the “vaccination effect” or hormesis theory has been around for decades, and is pushed by folks like Shaffer because it allows nuclear power proponents to minimize the impacts from nuclear power plant releases, whether ongoing or accidental.  The simplest answer – since I’m not a radiation scientist – is that the medical community clearly

Indeed, the opposite is true as can be seen from newspapers, TV programs, etc on a regular basis. There is a raging controversy among doctors about medical tests involving radiation, precisely because many now believe that the benefits of exposing patients to medical radiation do NOT offset the risks of harm the tests themselves create.  Hence, many doctors now question whether mammography should be recommended for the general population (of women, obviously).  Similarly, concerns about the overuse of CAT scans (which involve many times as much exposure) now mean that far fewer patients, including cancer patients, now receive scans as a matter of course.  That’s not to suggest that radiation no longer has medical applications: clearly, it does.  Rather, it’s to suggest that like other damaging medical concoctions, it’s application is being more and more limited thanks to a growing recognition of the harms caused by overuse.

Don’t take my word for it.  Go to any doctor of your choosing, and ask for to be exposed to any form of medical radiation you’d like on the basis that you want to “vaccinate” yourself against the damage from higher doses of radiation. Judge the results for yourself.  Any doctor taking you up on your invitation would be inviting a malpractice suit.


An additional comment in response to another comment from Mr. Shaffer:


I’m not a health physicist, so I’m willing to be corrected, but I think Howard Shaffer is a bit off in his remarks on the new Berkeley study.  I’m make 2 points on this theme:


First, the Berkeley study, at least according to the write-up I read from the lab — — doesn’t PROVE much of anything.  Rather, it SUGGESTS that by creating fewer but more intense radiation induced foci (RIF), the DNA repairs itself better than the linear hypothesis would have suggested, and the authors “hypothesize” that “multiple repair activity increases the risks of broken DNA strands being incorrectly rejoined and that can lead to cancer.”  Moreover, the study is based on “an immortalized human breast cell line known as MCF10A, which has a much higher background of RIF than fibroblasts,” and the authors are now planning to replicate their results “to determine if our results are repeated beyond just a single cell line and under more realistic physiological conditions….”


As is often the case in the early stages scientific investigation, we’re a pretty long way from “proof.”


2) Shaffer also suggests that the more conventional interpretation – namely the linear, non-threshold hypothesis – suggests that low-dose radiation is cumulative.


I can’t speak for other interpretations of the linear hypothesis, but I’ve NEVER assumed that radiation damage was cumulative.  To the contrary, I’ve always thought that it involved ONE portion of ONE cell being bombarded by some form of radiation and repairing itself badly.  The reason the curve would be linear and proportional to dose is simply that the odds of that happening would be proportional to the number of events: the more bombardments, the greater the odds that the cell DNA will repair itself badly (rather than repairing itself correctly OR dying) in one of them.


My own guess would have been that lower doses actually cause MORE cancers, because the bombardments are less likely to kill cells outright, and more likely to damage them, but this new study certainly suggests that my hypothesis may be wrong.


Finally, Shaffer’s last paragraph makes an entirely different point:


3) I think Mr. Shaffer fails to appreciate the role of an interconnected grid in energy supply. In modern developed countries, electricity demand is met not on a one-to-one basis by any single power plant, but by an interconnected grid into which all power plants operating at any given moment (in a region) are fed.  This allows the grid operator to compensate in the background as it were for all kinds of intermittency, which otherwise would shut power down far more frequently than is the case now.


For example, Vermont Yankee is by far the largest generator in Vermont. If we relied SOLELY on VY for power, users would be blacked out whenever VY goes down for any reason, be it planned repairs or some accident or mischance.  Instead, power is dispatched from other sources when VY is not available and users are none the wiser as to when that happens.  The same thing happens when electrical demand spikes, as it does on a daily basis as well as, at unplanned times.


The importance of this is that wind and solar are CLEARLY intermittent sources which require EITHER batteries or another storage method (in off-grid use) OR require that the grid itself function effectively as a battery.  The point Mr. Shaffer is missing – and he has plenty of company – is that this happens ALL THE TIME on an electric grid.  Indeed, that’s the primary FUNCTION of the grid: namely, to adjust for the constant disequilibrium between electrical supply and electrical demand.


With or without renewables, electrical supply in our complex, developed world is not constant: it varies minute by minute and hour by hour as plants are ramped up and shut down. But similarly, electrical demand is never constant either: demand is almost always higher during the day and early evening, for example, than it is late at night, and it’s considerably higher on the hottest summer days and coldest winter nights than at other times.  Even within these relatively predictable parameters, users make on-the-spot decisions which can cumulatively have major impact: if a number of large machines come on simultaneously and unpredictably, the system would either go down or require FAR larger quantities of reserve power than is currently maintained.


Lowell Mountain and other renewable sources of power are small, intermittent generators, but they are not alone in either characteristic.  The New England grid has many small plants as well as the large nuclear and fossil fuel plants.


ISO-NE, the grid operator in our area, tells us that they are currently prepared to incorporate power from intermittent sources up to 20% of the power supply, and working diligently to increase that number.  Since current numbers, while climbing, are quite a bit lower than that threshold, there’s plenty of time for the grid operators to prepare.

Clairifying the problems of Nuclear Power in the Green Mountain State and beyond