Last night I watched the talks given in 2009 by Dr Chris Busby and Dr Jack Valentin on the risks of nuclear radiation.
Chris Busby was arguing that the standard ICRP model of radiation risks was based upon the Hiroshima survivors, all of whom had received pretty much the same dose of radiation throughout their entire bodies. He said that while this may have been reasonable at the time, it wasn’t a valid model for internal radiation, where a radioactive particle got lodged somewhere in a human body, and produced a very high local dose of radiation in the tissues adjacent to it. He went on to say that radioactive fallout particles from nuclear bomb tests had generated some 60 million cancer deaths since 1945, particularly in areas of high rainfall. Which was, he said, a war crime.
I was familiar with this line of thinking, because I’ve explored it a bit in The Fallout Hypothesis and subsequent essays. And clearly Busby was someone who had been thinking along similar lines: that the modern cancer epidemic may be the result of the appearance and distribution of radioactive material in the modern world, So I was very sympathetic to what he was saying. Particularly when Valentin’s response, playing down the risks of radiation , was much less clear and forceful. I began to wonder if the risks of radiation were greater than I imagined.
However, when it emerged that Busby was active in the UK Green party, and had been “chaining himself to nuclear power stations“, I began to wonder whether he was an environmentalist zealot, and that I shouldn’t take him quite so seriously. Added to that he was wearing a brown shirt with a yellow tie, and a black beret on his head (Perhaps I shouldn’t notice these things, but I do).
And this is what I want to discuss – the response we have to people putting forward arguments of one sort or other.
Because my opinion of Busby initially rose sharply as I listened to him (because he was pursuing a line of thought that I had been following), but then plunged when he revealed himself to be a Green (I’m getting thoroughly sick of Greens these days), and fell further when he mentioned that he’d been chaining himself to nuclear power stations (shades of James Hansen and coal-fired power stations).
So nearing the end of it all, the diffident Valentin (dressed in a sober suit, white shirt and tie) was ahead on points, and I’d shifted back to thinking that maybe radiation wasn’t very harmful after all.
But then Busby mentioned “an extremely biased and rather stupid study done by Richard Doll”. And Valentin thought he saw an opportunity:
Valentin: “Let’s not throw too much rotten tomatoes at Sir Richard. Sir Richard, just to let everybody know, was the person who took on the tobacco industry by proving that tobacco causes cancer. He was the person who proved that there is a radiation risk even down to the lowest dose, by looking at radiologists. He was the person who first told Alice Stewart that her early results didn’t prove anything… He is the person who has been awarded by the Swedish Academy of Sciences the gold medal for radiation protection. I think you can’t really say he would be biased by the nuclear industry.
Busby: “I’m afraid I’ve shopped up Sir Richard Doll to the Danish committee for scientific dishonesty in 2004. So I’ve already said that. And I can back it up with all sorts of documentation too. Sir Richard Doll may have been doing some interesting stuff in the 1950s, but later on he became very much an advocate of the nuclear industry…. He never believed that the Sellafield leukaemia cluster was caused by the radiation.”
And with that, my growing opinion of Valentin collapsed, and my opinion of Busby shot back up. What a man, to have shopped Doll for scientific fraud! My only disagreement is that Doll wasn’t doing “interesting stuff” in the 1950s: he was producing nonsense.
Reflecting afterwards how my opinion had been yo-yoing around as I listened, I also thought that, in response to today’s hysteria about tobacco smoke (and carbon dioxide), I generally find myself downplaying the dangers of more or less everything these days.
And this applies also to nuclear radiation, particularly after seeing a couple of documentaries about the flourishing wildlife around still-radioactive Chernobyl, and Galen Winsor who went swimming in radioactive cooling ponds to show how harmless they were.
Currently I think that what’s really dangerous is to get radioactive particles lodged inside your body – inhaled as dust, for example -, and that aside from that it may well be that people can live in much more highly radioactive environments than is currently believed. Radioactive dust inhalation is one way to get lung cancer. And viral infections like HPV are another. But smoking is more or less harmless. Right or wrong, that’s my present view.
Much the same applies to the current Ebola epidemic, which really does seem to only be highly infective in its final stages. I currently think that it’ll only become a global pandemic if the WHO and the CDC screw things up even more than they already have. Which I suppose makes a global pandemic more or less certain.
I think the dangers of anything can be played up, or played down. In the past, as when Madame Curie was fooling around with radium, the dangers were played down. Now the dangers of radioactivity have been played up much higher. And in an era when the dangers of more or less everything, from tobacco and alcohol to sugar and salt (and now even milk) seem to be vastly overplayed to the point of complete hysteria, it’s probably about time that dangers started to be played down.