Both the great Truths and the great Falsehoods of the twentieth century lie hidden in the arcane, widely inaccessible, and seemingly mundane domain of the radiation sciences

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Trial of the Cult of Nuclearists: SCAM NUMBER THIRTY-FOUR

What follows is the continuation, in serial form, of a central chapter from my book A Primer in the Art of Deception: The Cult of Nuclearists, Uranium Weapons and Fraudulent Science.

SCAM NUMBER THIRTY-FOUR: Compromise your position as a respected scientific organization and voice of authority to advance a veiled political agenda and skew the debate over the risks to health of low-dose exposure.

Health physicists are experts in the field of occupational and environmental radiation safety. Over and above any other group of professionals, they should provide unbiased, objective information to the public on the effects to health from radiation exposure. If political intrigue compromises their impartiality, the layman is set adrift without a compass, unable to evaluate in the midst of a radiation emergency what information is trustworthy and potentially lifesaving. The Health Physics Society, the organization that represents the profession, thus did a disservice to the field of health physics and to the public when, in January 1996, its Scientific and Public Issues committee published a position paper entitled “Radiation Risk in Perspective” [1]. The paper addressed the risk to health from exposure to radiation below five to 10 rem. Their position was reaffirmed in 2001 and underwent minor alterations in 2004. The paper is remarkable for the way it exploits uncertainty in matters of science and produces an authoritative, decisive, unconditional position bearing momentous political benefits for the nuclear industry. This was not lost on members of the profession. In the Society’s newsletter of May 1996, one member pointed out that the position sounded “more political than scientific” and another wrote in predicting that the statement would “harm the credibility of the [Society] as a radiation protection organization” [2].

The argument set forth in the position paper starts out with a debunking of the Linear No-Threshold Hypothesis. It reiterates the familiar refrain, that current radiation protection standards and practices have come to rely on the premises of the LNTH only because “insurmountable intrinsic and methodological difficulties exist for determining if the health effects that are demonstrated at high radiation doses are also present at low doses.” The argument then goes on to assert that evidence exists that this model is an oversimplification, that it is not applicable for a number of specific cancers, and that heritable genetic damage has yet to be observed in human studies. Further, the role played in the induction of cancers and genetic mutations by such biological mechanisms as DNA repair, bystander effect, and adaptive response “are not well understood and are not accounted for by the linear, no-threshold model.”

Having established the unreliability of the LNTH, the paper then mentions the limitations of the current knowledge base:

Radiogenic health effects (primarily cancer) have been demonstrated in humans through epidemiological studies only at doses exceeding 5–10 rem delivered at high dose rates. Below this dose, estimation of adverse health effect remains speculative.

Epidemiological studies have not demonstrated adverse health effects in individuals exposed to small doses (less than 10 rem) delivered in a period of many years.

Below 5-10 rem (which includes occupational and environmental exposures), risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are nonexistent” [1].

The political punch line is then delivered as if it is the only reasonable deduction to be made from the above observations:

“In view of the above, the Society has concluded that estimates of risk should be limited to individuals receiving a dose of 5 rem in one year or a lifetime dose of 10 rem in addition to natural background. In making risk estimates, specific organ doses and age-adjusted and gender-adjusted organ risk factors should be used. Below these doses, risk estimates should not be used. Expressions of risk should only be qualitative, that is, a range based on the uncertainties in estimating risk (NCRP 1997) emphasizing the inability to detect any increased health detriment (that is, zero health effects is a probable outcome) [emphasis added]”.

The policy paper concludes by stating the implications of its position on the assessment of risk as it pertains to radiation protection:

“(a) The possibility that health effects might occur at small doses should not be entirely discounted. The Health Physics Society also recognizes the practical advantages of the linear, no-threshold hypothesis to the practice of radiation protection. Nonetheless, risk assessment at low doses should focus on establishing a range of health outcomes in the dose range of interest and acknowledge the possibility of zero health effects. These assessments can be used to inform decision-making with respect to cleanup of sites contaminated with radioactive material, disposition of slightly radioactive material, transport of radioactive material, etc. [emphasis added].

(b) Dose (the sum of individual doses in a defined exposed population expressed as person-rem) has been a useful index for quantifying dose in large populations and in comparing the magnitude of exposures from different radiation sources. However, collective dose may aggregate information excessively, for example, a large dose to a small number of people is not equivalent to a small dose to many people, even if the collective doses are the same. Thus, for populations in which almost all individuals are estimated to receive a lifetime dose of less than 10 rem above background, collective dose is a highly speculative and uncertain measure of risk and should not be used for the purpose of estimating population health risks”.

For the uninitiated, the following interpretation is provided: The Health Physics Society decrees that science has yet to produce unequivocal epidemiological evidence on the effects to health of low-dose exposure. It will ignore the fact that this is perhaps symptomatic of the limits of epidemiology or of the way epidemiology has so far been applied to studying the problem. Further, the Society will ignore the fact that evidence of low-dose effects has not been produced because science currently lacks other means besides epidemiological ones for measuring the biological consequences to populations from releases of radiation into the environment. Rather, we are going to declare that low-dose effects are unobservable, which we take to mean inconsequential or nonexistent. Consequently, consistency demands that we abandon all models that provide a quantitative estimate of what might be happening to the health of populations from low-dose exposure. The profession of health physics advocates that it is illegitimate to posit that because “x” amount of radiation is released amidst a population, that “y” amount of health detriment will result within the dose limits mentioned. Estimating the likelihood of an individual developing cancer or the number of cancers expected throughout the population is an invalid and fruitless exercise. Policy makers need only be advised of the range of possible health outcomes in the dose range of interest. What can this possibly mean other than zero health effects? (Recalling Exhibit B and the dubious mainstream practice of averaging energy over masses of tissue, the reader might notice how the official party line is reaffirmed by the Health Physics Society, that risk estimates are only bona fide if they are based on organ doses. This position effectively discredits all epidemiological studies, as exemplified by the studies of Gould and Goldman, that demonstrate a cancer risk from low-dose exposure but which do not have available organ dose estimates. This is a very tricky and sophisticated ruse, repeatedly pulled out and dusted off to prevent useful types of information from gaining “scientific” credibility. This point will be elucidated further in the next chapter, The Chicanery of the US Radiation Accident Registry.)

The political motivations of those who crafted the Health Physics Society policy statement are all too transparent. They manifest their political bias by ignoring convincing evidence that demonstrate health detriment following low-dose exposure. By fiat, the Health Physics Society has usurped the scientific method. It has decreed that uncertainty in low-dose effects warrants the abandonment of all tools that enable us to come to terms with the possible public health impact of our deeds. Risk factors for low-dose exposure are invalid. Risk estimates are impermissible. Population effects are not to be predicted. Such conclusions free us from constraint and give us permission to fly blind. In one fell swoop, the Health Physics Society has decreed that we need not fret over how many people are being sickened by depleted uranium weaponry, that many sites contaminated by radioactivity need not be cleaned up, that caution may be abandoned in the disposal of low-level radioactive waste. Emissions from nuclear installations and commercial nuclear power plants are without hazard. We can resume nuclear testing without concern. These are outdated issues. Decision-makers can be freed of such petty concerns because we haven’t figured out how to measure the effects and a possibility exists that there aren’t any at all. The regulatory handcuffs can be taken off the nuclear industry. And think of the money we’ll save. Dismissing the Linear No-Threshold Hypothesis gives absolution to the Cult of Nuclearists.

Although his critics will abhor it, the words of John Gofman will prove to be the conscience of this whole nasty business:

“It is true, of course, that radiation-induced cancers in a population from very low doses will rarely if ever be detectable epidemiologically, because of the signal-to-noise ratio. But it does not follow (from the lack of direct observation) that the cancers are therefore unreal, hypothetical, speculative, theoretical, nonexistent, or imaginary. No rational person will deny that one of the most commonplace (and important) functions of science is to let people know what is really happening when direct observation is impossible [emphasis added]” [3].


[1] Health Physics Society. Radiation Risk in Perspective. August, 2004.

[2] Fairlie I., Resnikoff M. No Dose Too Low. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. 1997; 53:7.

[3] Gofman J.W. Radiation-Induced Cancer from Low-Dose Exposure: An Independent Analysis. San Francisco: Committee for Nuclear Responsibility; 1990.