The Nuclear Question

The Nuclear Question

A reader quotes me and then responds:

JJ Quote: It’s not as dangerous as the scare mongers would have you believe. There has not been one single death in the Western Hemisphere due to nuclear power generation ever. That’s a safety record that no other source of power can claim, not even windmills.

Reader: Not to nit-pick, but there have been deaths due to nuclear power generation, and ironically enough – right here in Idaho. I agree though, still an impressive safety record.

3 January 1961 A reactor explosion (possibly attributable to sabotage, according to one Nuclear Regulatory Commission member) at the National Reactor Testing Station in Idaho Falls, Idaho, killed one navy technician and two army technicians, and released radioactivity “largely confined” (words of John A. McCone, Director of the Atomic Energy Commission) to the reactor building. The three men were killed as they moved fuel rods in a “routine” preparation for the reactor start-up. One technician was blown to the ceiling of the containment dome and impaled on a control rod. His body remained there until it was taken down six days later. The men were so heavily exposed to radiation that their hands had to be buried separately with other radioactive waste, and their bodies were interred in lead coffins.

JJ: This was an experimental nuclear lab and not one for the generation of commercial nuclear power. There were also several other deaths connected with early research in the 40’s, but that had nothing to do with commercial nuclear power.

Then the reader quotes an article from 28 March 1979 “A major accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania. At 4:00 a.m. a series of human and mechanical failures nearly triggered a nuclear disaster. By 8:00 a.m., after cooling water was lost and temperatures soared above 5,000 degrees, the top half of the reactor’s 150-ton core collapsed and melted. Contaminated coolant water escaped into a nearby building, releasing radioactive gasses, leading as many as 200,000 people to flee the region. Despite claims by the nuclear industry that “no one died at Three Mile Island,” a study by Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass, professor of radiation physics at the University of Pittsburgh, showed that the accident led to a minimum of 430 infant deaths.”

JJ: Sternglass is a nuclear activist who does not submit his papers to other nuclear scientists for peer review. Instead he gives them to the press who loves to publish outlandish material, accurate or not.

His faulty reasoning goes like this.

If it takes a thousand units of radiation to kill someone and ten thousand units are released then ten people must have been killed somewhere.

Here are the facts:

The average radiation exposure to the people of thee Mile Island due to the accident was 1.2 millirems. On the other hand, you are exposed to 30 millirems of radiation from cosmic rays every year plus 20 additional millirems from the ground. Then if you live in a house composed of brick, plaster or stone you are exposed to ten additional millirems. You get more exposure to radiation by taking an airplane flight than did the residents near Three Mile Island.

Some studies also indicate that low level radiation may be beneficial to our health. To therefore add up all the individual radiation doses and calculate that a certain number must have died is completely illogical and non scientific. If we did this in other areas we must conclude that we must stay away from mother earth itself.

I still stand by my statement that: “There has not been one single death in the Western Hemisphere due to nuclear power generation ever.”

Perhaps I should add one caveat to clarify my meaning: “There has not been one single death in the Western Hemisphere due to COMMERCIAL nuclear power generation ever.”

Here is some additional information.

One nuclear Scientists said this about Sternglass: “Ernest Sternglass is that rare phenomenon, a radiation specialist* who is opposed to nuclear power. He accordingly gets a good deal of press. It would be tempting to dismiss him by noting that he is in a tiny minority in his own profession, and that for every radiation physicist who opposes nuclear power, there are a hundred who support it.

“Sternglass has been a prolific student of the health effects of nuclear power. He is, in the neat phrase of ‘the late Michael Flanders, “all right for quantity.” The quality is another matter. What is most remarkable about his output is that much of it is simply issued as a press release rather than published in refereed scientific journals, that is, those that screen contributions by sending each submitted manuscript to the author’s professional peers, who judge on the basis of its quality whether it should be printed.

“This system of peer review-standard among scientists and scholars generally-assures a minimum of methodological soundness without giving editors sole control of what is printed. It is a system of professional evaluation to which Sternglass’s work has not, on the whole, been submitted. His authority, accordingly, is founded partially if not wholly on his access to a Xerox machine. As we shall see, this is not a purely theoretical problem, for his work ,has been submitted to the judgment of his peers after “publication,” and their judgment has been devastating.”

Dr Aaron Oakley, a nuclear expert writes this about Three Mile Island: “With regard to the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident, the death-toll currently stands at zero and is not expected to rise dramatically any time soon. There is no evidence of an increase in cancer rates in areas affected by the accident. To put things in perspective, health physicists have calculated that the number of premature deaths due to cancer within a 50-mile radius of the TMI plant to be about one. And this estimate is based on the questionable linear hypothesis! This is in comparison to the approximately 30,000 premature deaths to be expected in the same area over the same time-frame due to non-radiation induced cancer. Indeed, many of the journalists who flew to TMI after the accident would have received a higher dose of radiation – due to their flight – than the TMI residents received from the accident!”

THE SECOND MYTH , which exercises a powerful hold on the public mind, is that a nuclear power plant itself constitutes a kind of bomb-likely, in case of accident, to explode or to release massively fatal doses of radiation. This myth is embodied in collective memory by the accidents at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The power of those two images far exceeds what is warranted by the facts. At Three Mile Island in 1979, the simple truth is that public health was not endangered. Despite a series of mistakes which seriously damaged the reactor, the only outside effect was an inconsequential release of radiation-negligible when compared to natural radiation in the atmosphere. The citizens of the Three Mile Island area would have received more radiation by taking a flight from New York to Miami or standing for a few minutes amid the granite of Grand Central Station. The protective barriers in the reactor’s design worked.

The 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant caused no deaths or injuries and will have no effect on future generations, but the fear instilled in the public by the news media made it appear that a major catastrophe had occurred. Furthermore, to perpetuate the myth of tragedy, the news media sponsors an anniversary dedicated to the “survivors” or Three Mile Island to celebrate what could have happened rather than what did happen.

“If you tell a joke in the forest, but nobody laughs, was it a joke?” Steven Wright

Sept 27, 2003

Copyright by J J Dewey

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