Joseph Mariathasan reviews Wade Allison’s Nuclear is for Life: A Cultural Revolution

Nuclear is for Life: A Cultural Revolution
Wade Allison, 2015

Nuclear is for life: A Cultural Revolution by Wade Allison may not be a great work of literature but the message the book conveys is so important that it should be required reading for anyone concerned about global warming and energy policy.

The Fukushima Daiichi disaster in March 2011 epitomised the problems that countries face in their attitudes to nuclear energy. The disaster led to all nuclear plants in Japan being shut down and the evacuation of 100,000 people. Germany panicked and shut down nuclear power plants despite the absence of any problems and subsequent German policy became to cease use of nuclear energies. 

Yet despite the considerable escape of radiation, not one single death or even a single health issue has been attributable to the Fukushima leak. This, as Allison argues in his book, calls for an explanation and as an emeritus professor of physics at Oxford University, he is well equipped to give it. His style, however, is to mix current news, historical scientific background, fundamental physics and radiobiology into a pot pourri of information chunks interspersed with many philosophical and personal reminiscences. This can confuse the reader and muddies the strong message that the book is trying to convey.

The key message is that society’s attitudes to acceptable levels of radiation are massively out of kilter with the actual reality of the risks and the behaviour of radiation damage on living things. Attitudes have been conditioned by the creation of nuclear power as a by-product of atomic weapons research and the subsequent bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The revulsion caused by this and the fears of further nuclear conflict arising from the Cold War affected the actions both by eminent scientists and the general public. 

The mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell joined forces with Albert Einstein to publish the Russell-Einstein Manifesto in 1955 aimed at stopping the nuclear arms race. They did not succeed, leading to Nobel prize winners Linus Pauling and Herman Muller deciding to raise the rhetoric further. They did so, Allison argues, by exaggerating the evidence of harm to future generations arising from radiation. In 1962, they wrote a letter to President Kennedy warning him of the dire consequences to humanity at large from the radiation arising from nuclear weapons tests. 

This led first to a positive development in the 1963 Partial Test Ban Treaty, but also to a longer-term negative development – fallacies in the public’s mind and that of the authorities on the effects of radiation on human life. This distorted thinking, argues Allison, pervades the whole discussion on the merits of nuclear power and directly led to distorted reactions by authorities post-Fukushima.

Allison’s argument is that current thinking about the impact of radiation on life is based on a fallacy. This is the idea that radiation damage is a linear function of exposure – if you double the exposure the damage is doubled. Clearly, when exposure is sufficiently great, people and animals die of radiation sickness. But what if the exposure is millions of times smaller, close to background levels of radiation or less? 

The current approach is the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model of the relationship between radiation exposure and damage to health, which says that a low dosage will cause commensurately less, but still some, damage. Allison argues that this fallacy arose through the impact of the views of Herman Muller, a US geneticist with outspoken political views and early interest in eugenics. Muller’s work on the impact of X-rays on fruit flies led to the LNT model. But his lowest dose was 4000 mGy, a dose high enough to have killed firefighters at Chernobyl. Other work has shown that LNT model does not fit low-dose data for fruit flies.

The LNT model leads to the conclusion that if millions of people are exposed to radiation, no matter how low a level, there is an expectation that there will be a certain number of deaths arising directly from the radiation exposure and the number will be a function of the dose. As a result, current approaches to nuclear safety are based on LNT model. This leads to the objective of ensuring radiation is As Low as Reasonably Achievable (ALARA). The adoption of LNT and ALARA as the guiding principles of safety means levels of radiation set within a small fraction of naturally occurring levels. This is unrelated to any risk, but comes from a political wish to say that the effects of radiation have been minimised. Allison argues that this analysis is fundamentally wrong because it misunderstands the impact of radiation on living things. 

Radiation’s impact on life comes in two stages. The first is that it damages the atoms and molecules from which living tissue is made. This damage is linearly proportional to the amount of radiation energy absorbed. The second stage is how that tissue responds to the trail of broken molecules if it is still alive. This is not at all linear. At high levels, it can destroy the ability of a cell to service itself, called cell death. If too many cells are killed, the entire organism may be at risk from acute radiation syndrome (ARS). 

At low levels of radiation damage, most cells with damaged DNA are either repaired correctly by enzymes within hours or are repaired with errors such that they are not viable and fail to be reproduced in the cell cycle. ARS can be fatal within a few weeks. Otherwise, recovery is usually complete once the cell cycle has been re-established. However, a few of those cells that suffer double-strand breaks are incorrectly repaired and survive. These mutations may persist in abnormal chromosomes whose behaviour is kept in check by the immune system. It is predominantly the failure of the immune system that gives rise to cancer. The process is the same whether the error was initiated by radiation or another source of chemical oxidation.

Allison’s view is that the matter of radiation safety has become further and further removed from objective truth since World War II. In 1955, the International Commission for Radiological Protection (ICRP) recommended the LNT model be used all the way to zero dose. There were two reasons for this. The first was the epidemiological evidence of excess cancer malignancies among radiologists and industrial and defence workers; the second was indications of excess leukaemia cases among survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs. 

These assumptions, says Allison, no longer look tenable. The dominant effect among groups of current radiation workers and former workers below 85 years of age is that they have a mortality rate consistently 15-20% lower than other comparable groups. Among 67,794 atom bomb survivors who had been exposed to low doses of radiation, there were 161 leukaemia cases between 1950 and 2000, while data on those not irradiated would suggest 157 cases. The difference of four is not statistically significant.  

It is difficult to argue with Allison’s assertion that the treatment of radiation exposure has become confused as a result of political and historical events overwhelming the scientific evidence. Not only have there been no deaths arising from radiation exposure in the Fukushima disaster, Allison argues that none are ever likely to arise. The public fear over anything to do with radiation levels is so ingrained that a massive educational effort is required to change attitudes.

Why is this book important? If climate change from fossil fuels is the existential threat facing mankind, ignoring the one source of power that can actually supply all mankind’s energy needs out of misplaced fears would be height of folly. Emerging nations with growing populations and energy needs will not be willing to curtail the lifting of their populations out of poverty because of restrictions on access to energy. 

Nuclear power could be the solution. Russia and China are continuing to invest in domestic nuclear power plants and are building them elsewhere. Europe and the US need to engage in an active debate on the implications of Allison’s viewpoint. You may not agree with his analysis that even if there is another accident in a nuclear power plant there would be no human radiation disaster, but that debate needs to be conducted.