This word alone makes most of us think about all of the terrible diseases which are associated with it. Perhaps a notion of the two nuclear warheads dropped on Japan during World War II also comes to mind. It all makes sense: “nuclear” and “radiation” are both very powerful words and elements of our chemical and biological existence. Radiation can cause severe health issues and chronic problems, as well as deformations and cancerous growth in our bodies. We, as a species, are weak against radiation.
But how susceptible to radiation-related health problems are we?
Apparently, we aren’t as exposed and frail as we think we are. Wade Allison, an emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University who also happens to be an author of books such as Nuclear is for Life: A Cultural Revolution, Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear, and Fundamental Physics for Probing and Imaging, thinks we have it all wrong.
Is Atomic Radiation As Bad As It Seems?
Last year, he visited the climate summit in Paris and proposed one of the best ideas out there for reducing global warming and helping us fight against it. His idea is simple but might seem drastic to some: increase the allowed radiation exposure to the public and nuclear power plant workers by about 1000-fold.
To an untrained eye, this spells certain death, but the reality of the situation isn’t as life altering as one might think.
Radiation Use Can Lower Carbon Emissions
Let’s take a look at France and where it gets electricity from. The country’s GDP per capita was ranked 26th in the world in 2015. At the same time, the per capita carbon emission puts them at about 65th in the world. So how can this country produce so little CO2 while still being able to maintain such a high gross domestic product numbers? The answer is simple; nearly 75% of all of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power.
Unlike the rest of the world, witnessing the horrific effects of nuclear power after the well-known bombs were dropped onto Japan soil didn’t permanently scare France from exploring the positive side of nuclear power. The country refused to kneel down to the doctrine of radiation exposure. While the rest of the world quivered and shook at a mere mention of the word radiation, France moved on.
The Model for Measuring Radiation is Broken
The linear no-threshold model (LNT) has been widely adopted by many countries to measure the “safety” of radiation exposure. This model proposed the idea that damage caused by radiation over a long time period is directly proportional to the dose of said radiation. LNT determines that radiation is always harmful and that the sum of multiple small exposures to radiation will have the same exact effect as the sum of one large exposure.
Soon after it was first introduced, this module created absolute chaos. Countries blamed radiation for various problems in a mass overreaction. During the Chernobyl nuclear power incident in 1986, Sweden ended up destroying nearly 80% of the total reindeer meat on the market, including many other meat types, to prevent their population from increased radiation levels when compared to annual background radiation exposure.
During the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, Japan attributed forcible radiation protection to be responsible for 1,600 premature deaths, including suicides and loss of access to emergency health care, when in reality these exposures posed very little or almost no threat. Essentially, they admitted to saying that these deaths were related to evacuation stress which was caused by unnecessary evacuations.
The United States is also amongst the countries who are guilty of over exaggerated radiation claims. In 2001, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Nils Diaz stated: “Leukemia has been expected to be among the early primary latent health effects seen among those exposed to significant amounts of radiation, yet excess cases of leukemia that can be attributed to Chernobyl have not been detected.”
Another incident which led to reconsidering how we measure radiation and its hazardous effect on the population happened in Taiwan. Between 1982 and 1984, roughly about 180 building, including 1700 apartments, private and public schools, and small offices were built in Taipei City and nearby counties. During the construction of these buildings, recycled steel was used. It was later discovered that the steel was contaminated by cobalt-60, which is a highly radioactive element.
Oddly, years later when the mishap was realized, the residents of the apartment buildings were carefully examined by medical professionals who determined that no harmful effects were caused by the radiation.
The Fight Against LNT Has Begun
Multiple challenges have been submitted against the use of LNT to the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission. One of these challenged was proposed by Nuclear Medicine Professor Carol Marcus from University of California, Los Angeles. Professor Marcus very elegantly stated that the LNT model is scientific “baloney.”
The LNT model hit the fan and papers from across the world started showing evidence of its ineffectiveness. Studies sprung out of nowhere debunking the linear effect that radiation was believed to have on our cells. One of these studies proved that low levels of radiation cause a nonlinear protective mechanism to go into effect. This means that all this harmful radiation can be managed by our bodies as long as the dosage is relatively low.
The Negative Effects of Radiation Stigma
So what is the result of this LNT model adaptation due to our extreme fear of the shadow-lurking monster name radiation?
Well, to be honest, the damage in astronomical. Not only did we spend billions on the regulation of radioactivity and making sure everyone is “safe”, but it also caused much of the globe to stay clear of nuclear power. Coal was determined to be the best way to produce electricity. Our hyper generated, irrational, and invalidated fear of small doses of radiation has caused some of the biggest countries in the world, China and India amongst them, to start burning coal for energy.
The need to feel safe has produced the opposite effect; it put us all in danger. The current rough estimate of coal pollution related deaths is somewhere around 13,000. This is actually lower than it used to be in 2004 when this number was 24,000.
But this isn’t the worst of it. Remember global warming? Guess which power plants produce the highest amounts of CO2 emissions? You guessed it, coal power plants do.
In 2015, coal power plants were responsible for 1,364 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. That’s 71% of total CO2 emissions related to electricity generation, natural gas being the second in line with 21% of total emissions. On average, a coal power plant will produce about 1,000g of CO2 per kWh of electricity. Nuclear power plants are much less polluting, and at most 140g of CO2 is created per kWh of electricity. This means that if all coal power plants had been replaced with nuclear power plants in 2015, the CO2 would have been reduced to only 191 million metric tons versus the whopping 1,364 million metric tons we actually produced.
There is another flip side to nuclear power plants; they can house more than one reactor. On average, a single reactor will produce at a minimum 479MW of power while an average coal plant produces 547MW of power. Out of 60 commercially owned nuclear power plants in the US, 32 have more than one reactor. This means that of those 32 plants, each one has the capability to produce more power than a single coal plant while producing a bit over 7 times lower CO2 emissions.
Furthermore, some plants are capable of producing even more electricity. The Palo Verde power plant in Arizona houses three reactors and has the capacity to produce 3,937MW of electricity. It is a no brainer, nuclear power is more efficient, safer, and less costly to harness.
Don’t Nuclear Power Plants Cost More?
The biggest debate is focused on the cost of running and maintaining the nuclear power plants versus coal power plants. Even if we take the massive amounts of damage that all the extra CO2 can generate and put it aside, the cost of nuclear power per megawatt hour isn’t nearly as drastic as some people might think.
The estimated prices for coal power plants per one MWh of energy is an average $95.10 for a Conventional Coal plant, $115.70 for an Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle plant (technology which reduces emissions by 18% to 30%), and $144.40 for IGCC with CCS plants (captures emissions and injects them into geological formations deep underground). Advanced Nuclear plants are estimated at $95.20 per one MWh of energy. Ten cents is a small price to pay for such a drastic reduction in emissions in our opinion.
To some the choice is obvious…to others, not so much. Nuclear power is a powerful debate topic and many can provide good supporting evidence of the efficiency of alternative energy sources. Luckily, we are slowly emerging from our bubble of hyper-irrational dogma and looking towards the right direction.
Thanks to many contributing factors, the internet and its ability to spread information like wildfire amongst them, the knowledge about nuclear energy and its possibilities is spreading. We are starting to make sound and logical decision regarding how we control radiation, but best of all, we are on a good track to getting rid of that ridiculous LNT model.