radiationby James A. Bacon

I belong to a generation that grew up with a fear of nuclear war, fall-out and slow, agonizing death by radiation poisoning. We’d seen the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. We lived through the scare of Three Mile Island and, years later, had our fears reinforced by catastrophes at Chernobyl and Fukushima. Given the fear of radiation, when people talked about the wonders of nuclear power, my reaction was, “Sounds great. Just make it safe.”

As the United States evolves toward a low-carbon future, nuclear energy has two great virtues. First, it emits zero carbon dioxide. Second, nuclear power plants run around the clock; unlike with wind and solar, output does not vary with weather conditions. The drawback is that nuclear units are hideously expensive to build, largely because federal rules have zero tolerance for radiation leaks.

The zero-tolerance philosophy is based upon a scientific premise known as the linear no-threshold model (LNT), which states a linear dose-risk relationship. We know incontrovertibly that large radiation doses are deadly. The LNT model asserts that small doses are damaging as well, though at proportionately lower levels. While that scientific view has prevailed in the regulatory arena — better safe than sorry — it has not been universally accepted.

Proponents of “radiation hormesis” argue that biological organisms evolved in an environment with measurable background radiation. Not only is this low level of radiation not harmful, says the hormesis hypothesis, it is beneficial because it stimulates organisms to engage in cellular repair activities that counter not only the deleterious effects of radiation but cancers unrelated to the radiation exposure. The positive hormesis effect small, however, so its statistical signal has been drowned out by seemingly infinite variations in environmental conditions and by measurement error.

Still, the hormesis hypothesis has been gaining traction in recent years — so much so that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has requested public comment on proposals to change the basis for NRC “Standards for Protection Against Radiation” from the LNT model to the hormesis model. Presumably, the proposed change would declare low levels of radiation emissions to be harmless, which in turn could relax the regulatory requirements surrounding the construction and operation of nuclear reactors.

“Exaggerated radiation fears have been crucial in driving up the safety, waste storage and licensing costs of nuclear power,” declares Holman W. Jenkins Jr. in the Wall Street Journal today. “But change may finally be coming—a paradigm shift in how we think about nuclear risk.”

While sentiment may be shifting, millions of Americans remain less than convinced. Most of the comments I perused in the NRC comments were negative. Many people are convinced that the revised thinking is being driven by a self-serving nuclear power industry.

There is a good chance that the LNT-vs.-hormesis debate will come to Virginia. Dominion has filed for NRC regulatory permission to extend the life of its two Surry nuclear power units, and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to keep alive the option of building a third nuclear unit at its North Anna power station. Environmental groups, most notably the Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club, have campaigned actively against the nuclear option.

Bacon’s bottom line: What’s fascinating about the NRC’s look at hormesis is that it comes from a Democratic administration, which, all other things being equal, one would expect to be far more responsive to environmentalist concerns than a Republican administration. In a conference on nuclear power last month that generated little attention in the media, the White House reiterated its commitment to nuclear as a necessary component of its clean energy policy.

While Dominion’s proposal to invest roughly $1.5 billion to patch up the Surry units so they can operate another 20 years may be economically defensible, it is hard to see any case being made for spending $19 billion to build a third North Anna unit…. unless Dominion is banking on major regulatory changes at the NRC. If the Obama administration embraces hormesis as the basis for its rule making, and if the new standards strip billions of dollars of expense from building new nuclear reactors, Dominion’s commitment to North Anna 3 makes more sense.

Whatever the NRC decides, fear of radiation is so deeply embedded in our popular culture that the LNT-hormesis controversy is sure to play out here in ye Olde Dominion.

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31 responses to “Radiation, Hormesis and Nuclear Power”

  1. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Did Reddy Kilowatt write this? So low dose radiation is safe, just like there’s no scientific evidence that global warming has anything to do with mankind? So when it comes to aging nukes, let’m rip! There’s no danger anyway!

    As for the Obama proposing looking at what you say, it’s not so “fascinating.” After all, Obama’s people want to open up East Coast offshore areas to drilling for oil and gas, despite the strong opposition of some significant economic powers in the state, i.e., the Navy, the tourism and seafood industries.

    BTW, I cowrote a lengthy story for The Virginian-Pilot back in 1979 about how the Surry nukes were in such sorry shape that Vepco had the most fines of any utility from the NRC. Ancient history, I know, and not “relevant.”

    1. Well, Peter, regardless of what you think about hormesis, the NRC is soliciting public comment. Do you have any other theories to explain why Dominion is doggedly sticking with its North Anna 3 project despite a (currently projected) $19 billion price tag?

      1. My experience tells me elected officials favor these large mega-projects. For them it is $$ multi-million campaign donations and possible “revolving-door” job prospects. For the utility, it is guaranteed profit from the rate payers, as well as a large centralized source of power that the utilities control.

        We need our elected officials to tell us how they feel Virginia will meet the EPA Clean Power Plan targets. My guess is North Anna 3 is in some of the proposed plans.

      2. Rowinguy Avatar

        I have some theories, Jim.

        First, DVP has a deeply engrained nuclear culture. They have run their Surry and North Anna units in an exceptional and very profitable manner. As Peter notes, decades ago the Surry units did pile up some sizeable fines, but that was long ago. In short, DVP believes in the value of nuclear power. So, faced with continuing growth in its service territory (not so much now as when they first started developing NA3) and increasingly strenuous air requirements to meet (much more clear cut now than when they started) looking at nuclear as an option makes a good deal of sense.

        Second, under the regulatory scheme they designed and got the General Assembly to enact back in 2007, a nuclear investment would be a whopping profit maker. As originally passed, the law permitted a 200 basis point “bonus” above DVP’s fair rate of return for a nuclear power plant. If the costs of new nuclear under the presumed nuclear renaissance had ever been more viable, they would already have moved forward with it, I believe. Fukushima and fracked gas have knocked the anticipated economics of actual construction askew.

        However, even if they never build the plant, spending on it has served another purpose under the Electric Reregulation Act–it has permitted DVP to “manage” its earnings so that it has never had to reduce its rates under its biennial review process, and thanks to further gifts from the Assembly, has been able to write down earnings by writing off these development costs and thus avoided having to make customer refunds. The SCC ordered $19 million in refunds at the end of November; that figure would have been $65 million greater had the Commission adopted its staff’s recommendation regarding some of the nuclear costs (those necessary to keep North Anna 1 and 2 operating while the site for Unit 3 was being “separated”) rather than adopting DVP’s argument about the write-0ff legislation passed by the 2015 Session of the Assembly.

        Another possible reason for continuing these activities is that it might act as something of a poison pill for any potential takeover activity. A suitor, say Duke Power, could never be exactly sure how far committed DVP was to a multi-billion dollar project that Duke might not want to swallow

        I admit these are all speculations. As they say, “your mileage may vary.”

        1. I would agree our largest in-state power source is nuclear, and furthermore nuclear seems to be favored in our region GA/SC/NC/VA. NC had been quite openly talking about “going nuclear” for the Clean Power Plan. GA/SC/TN have plants under construction.

          Not sure exactly why our region is slanting nuclear, but we apparently do not have much on-shore wind, Virginia and south. That could make southeast region nuclear economics less vulnerable to competition from wind power. Also I presume nuclear (zero CO2) allows keeping more coal plants running by average of CO2 emissions.

  2. LarrytheG Avatar

    looks like things got conflated or confused a little.

    background radiation was not the concern with 3 mile island, Chernobyl or Fukushima.. and not the concern with Nuclear Power in general existing on newly-proposed for most rational and normal folks.

    and making changes to background radiation standards won’t change their thinking and concerns about catastrophic failures one whit.

    but I am curious about how the average person would be able to participate in any intelligent way in a discussion about what would be safe background levels – anyhow.

    wouldn’t it be like someone asking you what the safe level should be for the x-ray machine your doctor or Dentist uses on you?

    I’ll admit – I don’t have a clue -about what is a safe or unsafe level for the doctor office radiation machine. I always put my faith on that Government “certificate” hanging near it!


    so if someone asked me about what would be a safe or unsafe background level or a Nuke plant or nuke waste facility – I’d be just as ignorant!

    but I DO KNOW that if a Nuke Plant itself goes belly up – that the discussion won’t be some esoteric discussion about “safe” levels – … it will be, instead, how far away you need to get – poste haste!

  3. Steve Haner Avatar
    Steve Haner

    The argument over low dose radiation is not new, and there are some fairly strong (and unpopular) arguments that even moderate doses are not all that dangerous. But even if the rules change a bit, I’m not sure how much cheaper that would allow anybody to build a plant. What are you going to do – build a containment structure that is only 99.99 percent effective rather than 100 percent? How?

    Say the cost went from $19 billion down to $17 billion – that’s still a darn expensive investment and as ratepayers the bill comes to us. The Code of Virginia still authorizes an enhanced rate of return on equity for a nuclear power plant, and an extra 100 basis points on $17 billion dollars – collected annually – makes stockholders very, very happy people indeed. The current allowed ROE is still 10.7 percent, since the SCC declined to adjust in this most recent case, so the allowed ROE on the nuke plant would be 11.7 percent.

    The technology has a strong safety record but I personally remain very curious about alternatives – small modular reactors, for example.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Good question. I do not know the answer, although today’s Wall Street Journal article suggests strongly that the price per Nuke plant built with new designs and technology given these findings would come down substantially. I have heard these cost reduction claims made in other contexts (smaller gravity plants) before but it certainly appears for whatever reason (good or ill) that those cost savings are not found in the $19 billion price tag in Dominions proposed new plant.

    2. LarrytheG Avatar

      Chernobyl: At site of world’s worst nuclear disaster, the animals have returned

      In 1986, after a fire and explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant released radioactive particles into the air, thousands of people left the area, never to return. Now, researchers have found that the Chernobyl site looks less like a disaster zone and more like a nature preserve, teeming with elk, roe deer, red deer, wild boar, and wolves.


  4. My question about nuclear power is what happens when the plant is decommissioned? With half lives lasting for eternity, is the cost of keeping the plant guarded forever included in the original cost-benefit analysis? Wouldn’t any decommissioned plant have to be guarded?

    I don’t ever see that addressed so I might be missing some easy answer but it seems to me that no matter when the Seabrook (or other) plant quit generating juice, it would still have radioactive materials inside it; adjacent to it; and throughout the containment building for eternity. How could “we” (whomever we might be) stop some determined terrorist from allowing that radioactivity out of whatever electronic/concrete/mechanical system we’d devised to keep it in? Do we have to have almost an army there to prevent that possibility?

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      I do not know the full answer as others on this blog might. I do know that the deep underground facility at Yucca Mt. Nevada on which billions (I believe) were spent was to be the final resting place of the spend fuel rods and perhaps also much of the contaminated material of used plants (this last is speculation). The vast Yucca facility was worked on for many years but was never completed, having been thwarted by many people in Nevada (most notable Harry Reid) as well as many environmental groups. Hence the underwater pools now hold the spent fuel rods on the plants’ sites around the country.

      1. I am no nuclear power expert, but I agree with the basic drift here that we have an irrational fear of radiation exposure. Our own Washington Post had a feature article on putting this fear in perspective, shortly after Fukishima, which was an excellent and balance summary of the problem, by David Brown, April 2, 2011 (no, PeterG didn’t write it): https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/nuclear-power-is-safest-way-to-make-electricity-according-to-2007-study/2011/03/22/AFQUbyQC_story.html

        As for Yucca and similar storage facilities, a friend of mine convinced me years ago that fears of what could happen in deep dead storage of nuclear waste were also grossly exaggerated. He said it was well known within the industry that if you want to lock the stuff up forever, simply, cheaply, you merely melt a batch of sand (essentially that makes crude glass), mix in the nuclear waste, take the resulting radioactive glass bricks and stack them deep in an old coal or salt mine. No drums to leak, no risk of polluting air or groundwater, period. These bricks would be far, far below the threshold where the cumulative heat given off by radiation could re-melt them. But, certain politicians have made a living off stoking the fears that “something” could go wrong — usually citing liquid-water-based drums of nuclear waste for their potential horror stories.

        I do think TomH has the right perspective for now on this, which is, compare the cost of a nuclear plant with the alternatives available TODAY, such as distributed solar, and consider how much traction a few billion dollars of publicity and subsidies in favor of THAT solution could get us in terms of new generating capability, versus the same few billion spent towards the capital cost of new or life-extended nuclear — EVEN IF you assume the reform of the regulatory process to eliminate the excessively low radiation thresholds (reform which probably won’t happen in the lifetime of anyone reading this blog). We need solar (both distributed and central-station) in the mix, and (in locations better suited for it than Virginia) wind also. But once we get a decent percentage of our power from those sources built, I still believe there will be a place for a large chunk of baseload generation, and that’s clearly best obtained from nuclear power even under current regulations let alone a carbon tax regime, and if that’s correct, think how much MORE it would save us to allow a more cost-effective nuclear plant design.

        Read the WaPo article cited above if you want to see how ridiculous some claims are about nuclear plant radiation. You’ll get more radiation from sunlight in one afternoon than from an all-day tour of Three Mile Island. The biggest health risk, by far, is from coal mining and coal burning.

        1. I agree with what Acbar is suggesting here. We will have 3400 MW of nuclear baseload capacity until 2032-2040, as Surry and North Anna complete their 20-year license renewal periods. Add the 4300 of new baseload gas-fired plants coming online in 2014, 2016 and 2019 and we have 7700 MW of low-cost baseload generation to meet the 6000-9000 of baseload demand on the Dominion system. This does not include any of the other current coal-fired or other baseload units; nor does it include the new combined cycle plant scheduled for 2022 (the first unit to require gas from the Atlantic Coast Pipeline). I think the 2022 unit could be postponed or avoided entirely with an investment in energy efficiency that would be considerably less than the capital cost of the new plant.

          Optimistic projections say that most of our energy can be provided by solar within 15-20 years because of expected rapid declines in the prices of panels and energy storage technology. Nice thought, but utilities need to be certain that they can meet demand so they stick to old solutions even if they are more expensive.

          Another combined cycle plant is proposed for 2030, but also might not be necessary if load declines and solar proves to follow a cost reduction similar to the past five years.

          If we invest some in energy efficiency and use reasonably priced solar to move back increases in peak demand by 2-5 years, we can gain a much clearer idea of whether the much more expensive options such as more combined cycle plants or another 20-year license renewal for Surry are truly needed.

          This scenario would not require North Anna 3. The cost for a new North Anna 3 unit is so far out of bounds compared to other proven alternatives – it is hard to justify spending close to $1 billion just to preserve the option. You can build entire working power plants for that price that actually deliver power to ratepayers.

        2. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          Thank you Acbar for the very fine Washington Post Article titled “Nuclear Power is Safest Way to Make Electricity According to 2007 Study” found at:


          It’s an excellent antidote to the demagogic crowd.

          The statistics and facts found therein related to coal fired plants are just as informative as the statistics on nuclear, facts and statistics that so many try to hid, ignore and obfuscate. In addition, I wonder how those negative health statistics on coal would hold up with today’s alleged advances with scrubbers and other technologies. If they still hold firm today, than my views regarding coal shift measurably into the negative column.

          I believe the data from the three principal nuclear events – the LONG TERM Effects of Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and WWII atomic bombs – are telling in several different ways – particularly as regards the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the long term health effects of these two events are quite telling.” For example:

          “In general, the hazards of radiation are less than most people think.

          Since 1950, Japanese and American researchers have followed 120,000 residents of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the cities on which the United States dropped atomic bombs in 1945 to end World War II. Three-quarters of the people in the Life Span Study were exposed to the blasts; one-quarter were away at the time. The number of deaths attributable to the bombs is estimated by comparing survival in the two groups.

          Through 2000, 42,304 of the people in the study had died. Of those deaths, 822 were “excess” — probably a result of the radiation.”

          Finally, thank you for pointing out the substantial recent declines in the costs of solar power. I should have made the clear in my earlier post the subject found in comments to Jim Bacon’s article “Do Nukes Have Long term Future in Virginia?”

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    did we actually hear any dollar cost difference for North Anna if regs were relaxed?

    for the sake of argument – if DMV builds North Anna 3 what need would there be for wind/solar after that?

  6. So the people are haggling over the definition of radiation exposure so we can build cheap nuclear power plants? On one hand is the measurable amount of background radiation levels from, say the darkest regions of space. On the other is the minimal reported radiation levels of say, a TEPCO.

    I’m afraid the basic equation is flawed and outdated because of a missing set of modern factors that go like this.

    Privatize the profits, socialize the losses.

    Now, which level of exposure would you choose?

  7. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: ” The drawback is that nuclear units are hideously expensive to build, largely because federal rules have zero tolerance for radiation leaks.”

    not sure I saw any kind of financial analysis to support this statement.

    also – here we say “zero tolerance for radiation leaks” then downthread we say “Proponents of “radiation hormesis” argue that biological organisms evolved in an environment with measurable background radiation. Not only is this low level of radiation not harmful, says the hormesis hypothesis, it is beneficial because it stimulates organisms to engage in cellular repair activities that counter not only the deleterious effects of radiation but cancers unrelated to the radiation exposure.”

    are leaks the same issue as “background” radiation?

    one would hope that the safeguards built into a plant to prevent leaks is not what is being proposed to be weakened on the premise that we have too strict regulations on the design to deal with background radiation.

    I live 10 miles as the crow flies from North Anna. I certainly would be informed by an informed discussion of background radiation standards and their costs but I also would not want that issue to be mixed up with the idea that the background radiation is the same issue as safeguards against leaks.

    As with so many things now days – the premise seem to start with the idea that regulation is bad – over zealous, and makes things more expensive than they ought to be but then in the actual discussion – the actual discussion about such regulation gets reduced to simplistic concepts – that seem to question the science being used or as in the case of the CPP – willfully ignoring the actual ROI provided by the EPA that shows dollar benefits to pollution reduction – not costs.

    so we start off on the wrong foot all together when we conflate background radiation standards with design standards for protection against leaks.

    I just don’t think the risk of leaks and how you deal with them are the same thing as background radiation and how you deal with them.

  8. Steve Haner’s comment is right on the money. The design factors for nuclear plants are related to catastrophic failures not background radiation. This is a spurious argument used to divert attention from the real issues. There is a reason for tons of rebar and 10+ feet thick concrete walls for the containment structures in nuclear plants. If portions of the core melt and obtain critical mass you can have an uncontrolled nuclear explosion which happened with Chernobyl and Fukushima. Fukushima was many times worse than Chernobyl and is still releasing significant amounts of radiation, to the best of my knowledge. The radiation has spread across the Pacific and throughout the atmosphere. We are in the midst of a long-term health experiment. Countless cancers, birth defects and other maladies could be caused by this (it happened with Chernobyl), but because there is no reporting of this ongoing situation, no monitoring is being done for future health studies. A former colleague, Arnie Gundersen, has a website that tracks the progress (or lack of it) for Fukushima. We came within about 1 foot of additional flooding for two U.S. power plants to experience the same conditions that caused the Fukushima event. If a seismic event were to breach the impoundment for North Anna, the same lack of cooling water would affect those units.

    Nuclear power plants are unlike any other industrial technology that we utilize. While many of our industries are now looking to mimic natural cycles of resource use for long term sustainability of their markets, nuclear power is at the opposite extreme. There is no other industry where the waste products must be isolated from humans (and other living things) for over 100,000 years. Is it hubris or ignorance that gives us the right to assume that we can assure a continuous organized social system to look after such wastes for this length of time?

    After more than 60 years of commercial nuclear power operation we still do not have a satisfactory method of long term waste disposal. The spent fuel is kept at the power plants, exposed to risks of the loss of cooling water, with even less supervision. When nuclear plants are decommissioned, they are abandoned and left in place with highly radioactive reactor vessels, steam generators and other components that will emit radiation for thousands of years. Every utility is required to set aside funds each year of operation of a nuclear plant for its ultimate decommissioning. But if such decommissioning is continually delayed, a period of high inflation would make these funds of little value. Then what?

    But it is not really the safety issues that are ruling out nuclear today. It is the cost. The low level radiation issue won’t affect that. If design levels were compromised to attempt to bring nuclear costs within reason, we would expose ourselves to huge risks. Billions and billions of damage was caused in Japan and the long term health and environmental costs are yet to be paid.

    New nuclear construction is so expensive that even the manufacturers of the units don’t believe they make economic sense. The proposed smaller modular reactors could reduce the cost of the reactor itself, but the containment and exclusion zone requirements still remain. This is one of the reasons why nuclear units are built in at least 800 – 1000 MW sizes which make them poor choices to follow the small incremental load growth that we have today.

    Although the operation of nuclear plants releases no CO2, a great deal is produced by their construction. The manufacture of the huge amounts steel and concrete required for the containment vessels and associated structures create a large amount of CO2. Far more than is associated with a solar panel for instance.

    If we removed the labels (which seem to cause emotional reactions) – which is the better choice:

    Option A: 20 units for capital investment + 0.3? units for fuel + X units and 100,000 years for waste disposal, or

    Option B: 1 unit for capital investment + 0 units for fuel + 0.5 units for energy storage minus X units for the added reliability and resilience of a distributed source of generation.

    The main reason for the continued discussion of nuclear seems to be its value as a long-term source of revenues for its parent utility, not so much for its value in a modern 21st century energy system. Because this is a complicated subject, ratepayers keep paying higher bills assuming that the utility and their regulators are looking out for them.

    We need not make Dominion or other utilities the bad guys, but we do need to encourage them to leave the 20th century and collaboratively design an energy system that is in everyone’s interest. In the next few years, large corporations will use solar to supply a larger share of their needs. This will be accomplished whether it is with the cooperation of utilities or independent from them. This could harm the interests of utilities, their shareholders and the remaining ratepayers if it is not done as part of a well reasoned long term plan. The large companies will serve their own interests – what about the rest of us?

  9. LarrytheG Avatar

    re: spurious argument


    that pretty much sums it up.

    all I can say is it’s a good thing the anti-regulation folks are not in charge and thank GOD – the free market is not in charge – either!

    the so-called “free market” would shift the risk and the costs to someone other than those making a profit from the plants.

    nothing could better illustrate the juxtaposition between the anti-govt, anti-regulation, anti-science folks – and common sense and sanity.

  10. “The zero-tolerance philosophy is based upon a scientific premise known as the linear no-threshold model (LNT), which states a linear dose-risk relationship. We know incontrovertibly that large radiation doses are deadly. The LNT model asserts that small doses are damaging as well, though at proportionately lower levels.”

    Back in the days when I was taking Cellular and Molecular Biology classes, this premise was taught based on scientific studies which showed that there was no small dose of radiation at which cellular repair mechanisms were not activated. I have been out of touch with the field for some time, but I would be very surprised if there have been new studies that show this is not still the case.

    It seems that according to the hormesis hypothesis, a low level of radiation “is beneficial because it stimulates organisms to engage in cellular repair activities”. It appears that we might need more slightly leaky nuclear power plants because in our modern day we lack sufficient environmental insults to stimulate our cells to engage in cellular repair activities.

    This runs contrary to every major medical finding of the past several decades. The leading cause of death in the U.S. is cardiovascular disease. It is an inflammatory disease caused by environmental insults in the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink and the stress we endure. All of these factors contribute to the creation of free radicals which irritate and inflame our vascular tissues, which the body tries to repair using cholesterol.

    In the 1930’s Otto Warburg received the Nobel Prize for discovering that cancer cells cannot exist in a highly oxygenated and properly alkaline (7.365 pH) environment. Countless items to which we are regularly exposed produce free radicals which reduce the levels of oxygen in our tissues and cause an acidic environment. No wonder we are constantly advised to imbibe “antioxidants” to counteract the effects of these free radicals.

    Eighty percent of the foods in our grocery isles contain corn or soy which are grown with a chemical that is a known endocrine disruptor. Not only does this interfere with the hormones which moderate our bodily functions, but it also produces free radicals.

    The electromagnetic field surrounding our earth is at a low historic strength allowing much higher levels of gamma rays to penetrate our atmosphere.

    Even the lowest doses of ionizing radiation are known to produce free radicals. We need no extra sources of irritation to stimulate our cellular repair mechanisms. They are overwhelmed already.

    I am surprised and disappointed that the nuclear would bring up such an argument as “hormesis”. It harkens back to the day when the tobacco industry bought the science they needed to protect their market share. I doubt that any serious independent scientist would support this as a reason to reduce the radiation protection of nuclear plants.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    the subject of hormesis and the way it is discussed is more ideological than scientific… in my view:

    from the WSJ article:

    ” Kudos go to Mr. Allison and toxicologist Edward J. Calabrese of UMass Amherst, who’ve fought this battle for decades. Prof. Calabrese’s latest paper, published in October in the journal Environmental Research, traces how a cabal of radiation geneticists associated with the Manhattan Project in the 1950s promoted adoption of the LNT hypothesis to increase the prestige of their discipline.”

    so, according to the author, the whole idea of LNT is apparently the product of a 65 year old scientific conspiracy foisted on a clueless public and NRC by corrupt scientists.

    Here we go again.

    this is the “reasoned’ discussion that the advocates want to engage in and no wonder folks like CATO and the GMU Mercatus Center and others tout Mr. Calabrese for his credentials and views.

    others are not so enamored :


    “Attack on Radiation Geneticists Triggers Furor”

    so..hormesis is not only a decades-long conspiracy – but unwarranted regulations for background radiation “as opposed to radiation leaks” is what is REALLY driving up the costs of nuclear power and if we back off the background radiation regs – nuclear power will be much more competitive to other fuels?

    Is it any surprise than no dollar estimates are provided to actually make that economic argument? where are they?

    I’m sorry – this is the way these folks think.. and I just don’t see how you engage in any kind of meaningful analysis when their floor premise is that science itself is rigged. At that point – it basically is about what one chooses to believe not actual evidence. and just imagine how we’d regulate nuclear plants based on what we want to believe.. We’d just put someone like Calabrese in charge of the NRC or heck, just get rid of the NRC and let Calabrese be the industry representative to decide the standards?

    we’d just declare that the risk of radiation leaks is overblown and makes Nukes uneconomic and the way to fix it would be to reduce the costs associated with safeguarding radiation leaks to point where it no longer makes Nukes uneconomic. The problem is then “fixed”. No surprises here – this is the way that industry traditionally deals with risk – the goal is to bring the product to market and make it “affordable”, er – profitable and regulation – the concept of regulation is the enemy of that.

    and please don’t mistake my sentiment as anti-Nuke. I SUPPORT NUKES and I really do think that in the future – we WILL find better and safer designs than the 60-year old ones we have now but the attacks on Science itself and the need for regulation as the starting point for change is… well.. I’m sorry – it’s just plain ignorant.

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd


      Demanding honest science and good regulation is attacking neither good science science or good regulation, but preserving and promoting both. This is an extremely important task, one that is an essential and never ending task because the one constant fact of history is the the great majority of all science and all regulation created by mankind, and its application, has proven over time to be outright wrong or faulty with adverse consequences following in its train unless corrected.

      This is true of most everything in life, including what you read in the history books. So no one here is picking on science or regulation. It is simply stating a fact about how the real world works. And what we all need to do to keep doing the best we can given that reality.

  12. In so much of our discussion about energy alternatives we get caught up in the emotion and counter claims of which option is “less bad”. We now have an opportunity to select options which actually do “good”. Rather than arguing which alternative costs more, we can discuss the options that save the most.

    A recent report “How Energy Efficiency Cuts Costs for a 2-Degree Future” summarizes a study of the world’s largest and fastest growing economies. The study finds that by leveraging energy efficiency and clean-energy sources such as solar and wind, those countries can realize a savings of $2.8 trillion and achieve a net-zero cost to society while reducing carbon emissions.

    The energy efficient pathway costs $2.5 to $2.8 trillion less than the energy intensive Pathway (in 2005 dollars) while achieving the same temperature goal by 2030.

    The results were fundamentally the same across the six regions studied, though there was some variation. The study focused on the U.S., the EU, China, India, Brazil, and Mexico. The additional cost savings from focusing on energy efficiency ranged from 0.1 percent of GDP in Mexico to 0.4 percent of GDP in the EU, but the study found that energy efficiency was the least-cost option everywhere, saving as much as $250 billion per year.

    We can avoid our biases and fears about the costs of nuclear power, what the cost of natural gas will be over the next 30 years, or whose estimate is correct as to when solar will be the lowest cost source of electricity. A 2011 study showed that a mix of energy efficiency and renewable energy will actually save money while supporting a 158% larger U.S. economy and cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. These technologies exist today, have no emissions or fuel costs, and create more jobs than any other alternative. Perhaps we have been arguing about the same alternatives for so long, it is difficult to turn our heads a bit a see the simple solutions that are awaiting our attention. Utility shareholders’ interest can be protected with appropriate regulatory modifications, so there is no reason why we should avoid a lower cost, cleaner energy future.

  13. For the record, we should get one thing right. The statement above — ” If portions of the core melt and obtain critical mass you can have an uncontrolled nuclear explosion which happened with Chernobyl and Fukushima” — is not correct in an important detail. Yes, there were explosions at Chernobyl and Fukishima, but they were not NUCLEAR explosions; there was no critical mass reached.

    What happened, at least at Fukushima, was: (a) the earthquake knocked down enough transmission lines that the plant’s connection to the grid was broken, and (2) emergency electric generators at the site were flooded by the tsunami, and (3) backup batteries kicked in, but ran down after a few hours, leaving the water pumps without any source of electricity; (3) without circulating water, the nuclear cores overheated sufficiently to boil the water already surrounding the cores, turning it to steam; (4) the fuel rods in the cores were coated with zirconium, a useful metal for that purpose that’s stable so long as it’s kept under water, but which oxidizes in the presence of steam (by reacting with the oxygen in H2O), releasing the leftover H2 as hydrogen gas); (5) the reactor cores filled up with a mix of air and hydrogen gas; and (6) something (a spark, powered by a semi-dead battery?) set off hydrogen gas explosions in each of four of the core containment structures. These were plain old chemical explosions, like we set off in our high school chem labs! In those contained spaces, however, they did enough damage to the pipes and wires and other equipment inside the containment structures that (7), days later, when electricity was restored, the cooling water’s circulation pumps and valves would not work and piping was broken, and that led to (8) water and steam with suspended radioactive debris in it leaking out of these structures into the air and onto the ground through the broken pipes. The immediate vicinity is still too radioactive for workers to stay there long enough to repair things.

    Chernobyl was worse, much worse; the lack of cooling water and poor reactor design allowed a true “meltdown” where the fuel rods rapidly overheated to thousands of degrees and the fuel rods with portions of the core structure melted into one another. This puddle of liquid metals was heavy enough and hot enough to melt its way down into, if not through, the bottom of the containment structure. Meanwhile radioactive plumes of steam and other debris were blasted into the air, poisoning the surrounding countryside. But: was this a NUCLEAR explosion from a critical mass of uranium? Absolutely not; it was steam, and hydrogen gas, and other more mundane things typical of an industrial explosion; unfortunately there was radioactive material mixed in.

    Who cares? Isn’t all escaped radiation equally bad? No, I think there’s a huge difference, here. For one thing, the result in just these two incidents demonstrates a fundamental reactor design feature: the fuel rods are made of a mix of uranium and inert material that, even if the whole fuel rod melts from radioactive heat, it contains so much inert material that it CANNOT reach “critical mass” and explode in a nuclear chain reaction. I’m not diminishing the seriousness of chemical explosions and leaking radioactive water — but they do NOT constitute an “uncontrolled nuclear explosion,” a Hiroshima-like-bomb if you will, doing devastation on a wartime scale. That misunderstanding is a large part of the “scare” factor so unjustifiably surrounding nuclear power!

    Again, I’m not defending ANY preventable release of radioactive materials, but let’s keep the risks and dangers in perspective. The fundamental fact is, thousands die from black lung disease every year! How many die every year from escaped nuclear power plant radiation?

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      Acbar –

      Thank you for your knowledge, balance, and perspective. I fear today these qualities are in very short supply among many of us, despite our endless talk.

  14. The proponents for the Hormesis Theory fail to recognize the fact that the embryo and the fetus are the most sensitive to radiation damage.
    The medical community is very aware that this is true.

    “Exaggerated radiation fears have been crucial in driving up the safety, waste storage and licensing costs of nuclear power,” declares Holman W. Jenkins Jr. in the Wall Street Journal today. “But change may finally be coming—a paradigm shift in how we think about nuclear risk.”

    That statement is completely false.
    The dangers of nuclear waste is very real and the time frame for some of it’s radioisotopes to decay into safer levels is hundreds of thousands of years.

    Nuclear energy is dangerous, dirty and expensive.
    Besides, how many superfund sites, sacrifice zones or terrorists targets do we need?

    STOP the Nuke Con Job!

    1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
      Reed Fawell 3rd

      We have being hearing the propaganda for 65 years. Despite the best safety record on any industry in the United States over the past 65 years.

      1. Talking about propaganda….The nuclear industry has had over 70 years to find a solution to their highly radioactive waste.
        Their solution is to make more and keep telling everyone they will one day figure it out.
        Just look at Hanford and WIPP as 2 prime examples.

        1. Reed Fawell 3rd Avatar
          Reed Fawell 3rd

          More of your chronic long term propaganda that the Environmental cabal has been spewing out for decades what it endangers us all by thwarting Yucca Mountain for decades, and forcing reliance on coal.

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