The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

November 15, 2018

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Nuclear Power and the Energy Crisis
P. E. Hodgson - 10/22/08

When nuclear radiation was first discovered, it was welcomed with enthusiasm, and to some extent this was justified. In the form of X-rays it improved medical diagnosis and treatment, and bottles of health-giving mineral waters were advertised as radioactive. It was only much later, when pictures were released of the radiation damage to the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that the public image of nuclear radiation switched to one of fear.

Undoubtedly this reaction has gone too far. Nuclear radiation is indeed dangerous in large amounts, but so are fire and electricity. Properly used, nuclear radiation has numerous beneficial applications in medicine, agriculture, and industry. Like so many of God’s gifts, it can be used for good or evil.

Nuclear radiation is not new; it did not first enter the world with the experiments of Henri Becquerel or Madame Curie. It has been on the earth since the very beginning. Many rocks and minerals, such as the pitchblende refined by Madame Curie to produce the first samples of radium, are naturally radioactive and emit radiation all the time. The nuclei formed by such radioactivity include radon, a gas that seeps up through the soil and enters our homes. The natural radioactivity of the earth varies greatly from one place to another, depending on the concentration of rocks containing uranium. In addition, the earth is bathed in the cosmic radiations from outer space, and they are passing through our bodies all the time. Cosmic rays are attenuated as they pass through the atmosphere and so they are more intense at the top of a mountain than at sea level. There are radioactive materials in our own bodies, such as a rare isotope of potassium. Thus the human species has evolved through millions of years immersed in nuclear radiation. This natural radioactivity is important for estimating the hazards of nuclear radiation in general, since if the additional source emits radiation at a level far below that of the natural radiation it is unlikely to be injurious to health.

In addition to this natural radiation, we are exposed to radiation from medical diagnosis using X-rays, medical treatment, atomic bomb tests, and the nuclear industry. Estimates of the radiation exposure in the United Kingdom due to all these sources (in millirem per year) are 186 mrem for natural radiations, including 50 mrem for radon, and 53 mrem for man-made irradiation, nearly all due to medical treatment and diagnosis. That for medical purposes is quite high, but in the long term what is important is the average exposure over a long time weighted by the age distribution of those exposed. This is because the effects of radiation at levels typical of medical uses do not appear for many years so that the irradiation of young people before the end of their reproductive age is more serious than that given to older people. Since the larger part of the medical irradiation is received during the treatment of cancers, which more often afflict older than younger people, the dangers to health due to medical irradiation are not so great as might appear.

Nearly half the radiation exposure due to the natural background is attributable to radon. This is a radioactive gas formed by the radioactive decay of uranium. In regions where the soil contains uranium the radon seeps upwards into the atmosphere or into our homes where it collects unless the house is well-ventilated. Radon decays with the emission of alpha-particles and when breathed in can irradiate the inside of the lung, causing lung cancer. According to the National Radiation Protection Board a radon gas concentration level of 200 Becquerels/m3, equivalent to an effective dose of 10 mSv per year, is the level at which action should be taken to reduce the level. This involves creating a cavity under the floors and pumping out the radon at a cost of up to £1000. Many local authorities are now recommending that such action be taken.

Before doing this, however, it is necessary to establish the relation between the level of exposure and the probability of lung cancer. Many studies worldwide, in Canada, China, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and the USA have failed to establish any positive correlation and, indeed, in three of these studies, there was an inverse relationship. Other studies [2] find that the increased risk of lung cancer due to a lifetime dose of 100 Becquerels/m3 is about 0.1 percent and twenty-five times greater for smokers. The data used in this study were consistent with a linear dose relationship but do not exclude different behavior at very low exposures. The validity of this assumption is discussed in more detail below. It thus seems that, particularly for non-smokers, the level of irradiation due to radon is so low that when compared with other much greater hazards it is difficult to justify such expensive precautions.

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