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ABC’s ‘20/20’ Tackles Radiation Myths

ABC reporter John Stossel featured radiation in his series “Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity" in the May 12 installment of the news program “20/20.” Stossel refuted the myth that “radiation will kill you” by citing a growing number of researchers asserting that low doses of radiation actually may be beneficial to immune system performance and longevity.

Stossel discussed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. In each case, he said, predictions about death or deformity rates turned out to be grossly inaccurate. Co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace Patrick Moore agreed.

“Not a single person is being killed in the nuclear industry, and people are wanting to ban it. It's pure scare tactics," Moore said.

“So next time someone scares you about radiation,” Stossel concluded, “remember that you are exposed to it all the time without harm, and some people even want more of it.”

UPDATE: There's a discussion going on an ABC message board about Stossel's report. One supporter of nuclear is relying on the facts to take on several anti-nukes about Chernobyl. So stop by and add your thoughts. If you want to read up on the subject first, here are some links:

Background info about radiation in general.
Background info on Chernobyl, including the latest United Nations report on the effects of Chernobyl.
Previous blog post on Chernobyl.

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Anonymous said…
Should we take this to mean that the US nuclear industry accepts the so-called hormesis theory that ionizing radiation below certain levels is good for you? IE, does the US industry reject the "linear, no threshold" hypothesis which is the basis for all regulation of the US nuclear industry? And does this hormesis perspective inform industry's decisions on radiation safety matters?

If not, why is NEI promoting this hypothesis?
Eric McErlain said…
We're not promoting anything here, just passing it along as a news item. And in any case, Stossel's point about how anti-nuclear groups have distorted the facts about Chernobyl -- something we've noted before -- still holds.
Anonymous said…
OK, I retract my use of the word "promote." But I'd still like to get an answer to my original questions.

Does the US industry reject the "linear, no threshold" hypothesis which is the basis for all regulation of the US nuclear industry?

And does this hormesis perspective inform industry's decisions on radiation safety matters?
Eric McErlain said…
If you can hang on a bit, I'll talk to my health physicist to give you a definitive answer on this question.
Ken said…
Asking for an "industry position" is a red herring. My experience in US nuclear industry leads me to believe that most professionals accept the LNT theory as a useful and adequate basis for radiological control programs and to implement the ALARA philosophy in a risk based program. However, I also believe that most professional do not believe that LNT is technically correct and that there is, indeed, a threshold. As a result use of the LNT approach to extrapolate number of fatalities from an event like Chernobyl is very overconservative.

Instinctively, most people know this. That is why no one ever calculates the number of radiation related fatalities from airline travel, medical x-rays or living in Denver, although the LNT allows this to be easily calculated.
Anonymous said…
Thank you Eric, I will check back and look forward to the reply.

"Asking for an "industry position" is a red herring."

Not at all. The NEI represents the US nuclear industry; I'm asking for the NEI's position on the hormesis theory, and whether that hypothesis is used in any way in the industry's radiation safety programs.

"most professional do not believe that LNT is technically correct and that there is, indeed, a threshold."

Then why do BEIR and UNSCEAR consistently reject this notion?
Brian Mays said…
BEIR and UNSCEAR do not exactly "reject this notion." The merely acknowledge that there is not enough evidence to demonstrate it conclusively.

The LNT theory sticks around because there is not enough conclusive evidence to prove that the theory is wrong. This does not mean, however, that there is conclusive evidence -- or any evidence at all, for that matter -- that the LNT theory is correct.

It all boils down to this: nobody credible is arguing that low levels of radiation are more harmful than the LNT theory; therefore, it is the most conservative approach. Thus, it is used to extrapolate theoretical fatalities, even though it's applicability to the real world is completely unknown.
Ken said…
Health effects at low dosages, if they exist, are so small that studies do not conclusively prove or disprove their existence. As I understand the BEIR and UNSCEAR positions, the inability of studies to prove this one way or another lead one to take a conservative position. Again, my understanding is that BEIR and UNSCEAR are primarily concerned with control of radiation exposure in the workplace and extrapolation of these positions to large scale exposure of the public is not appropriate.
Jim Hopf said…

As you stated, LNT theory is conservatively applied as the basis of all US nuclear industry regulations. So the answer is no; no industry decisions are "informed" in any way by hormesis, and nothing other than LNT is used in industry radiation safety programs.

Even though most professionals and experts question LNT, it remains the official basis of govt. regulation. The industry (or NEI) have not, as of yet, taken a formal position against LNT, or made an effort to try and fight it.

Either they think the political fight is impossible to win, or they think that it is not worth it, and that the associated costs are bearable, even if the regulations are ridiculously conservative. Given that nuclear inherently doesn't emit radioactive material (pollution) into the environment, even overly conservative, non-credible policies like LNT do not result in high compliance costs.

As far as BEIR and UNSCEAR are concerned, forgive my cynicism, but I think it's at least partly because they've got a radiation protection industry to protect. A lot of people are making a lot of money (and are enjoying secure jobs) "protecting" the public from nuclear-industry-related radiation that is well within the range of natural background.

It's not even so much whether LNT is true or not (I'm still open on this). What really gets me is how these extremely low dose limits, which are supposedly justified with LNT, are selectively enforced, and are only applied to nuclear power and/or weapons industries. Collective exposures from other sources (natural background, air travel, medical, etc..) that are several orders of magnitude greater are simply, arbitrarily, and completely ignored.

A tiny possiblity that a handfull of people in Nevada tens of thousands of years from now are exposed to over 4 millirem/year? A real problem. The fact that millions of people are routinely exposed to over 1000 mrem/year, right now, in high background areas of the US? Not even worth discussing, let alone doing anything about it.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking. It is absolutely clear that it is all purely political. Nothing scientific about it. Apparantly, the powers that be know that they will never be able to scare the public into paying legions of engineers to protect them from natural radiation sources, even though those sources are actually orders of magnitude higher, and pose orders of magnitude more risk (assuming LNT).
Eric McErlain said…

I think my friends in the nuclear industry have answered your question. In addition, I just ran into Ralph Andersen, our health physicist, and he said the following: Hormesis is an interesting theory and we continue to monitor it, but we need to see more science.
Eric McErlain said…
Also, the closest the industry has ever come to an official statement in this area was a WNA position paper published in March 2005 which NEI helped prepare.
Anonymous said…
Thanks everyone for the very informative updates. I guess we all need to stay tuned for further developments.
Mike said…
We don't need any 'further developments' folks. The jury is in on many fronts. (As a bit of background I worked in Health Physics and was a member of the HPS until I quit in disgust because they are nothing more than regulation compliance professionals doing little to change the costly and counterproductive regulations that fan fear of nuclear power).

Hormesis was demonstrated in the Taiwanese rebar incident.

Due to the accidental recycling of a cobalt-60 source in a steelworks, resulting in contaminated reinforcing steel, some 10,000 Taiwan residents received very high doses of radiation over many years and appear to have become largely immune to cancer as a result. The story of this "serendipitous experiment" (which would never have been allowed if it were planned) has been reported in international fora, and further studies have been recommended.
Over 1982-84, some 1700 apartments were built using reinforcing steel which was contaminated with cobalt-60. From 1992, the contamination was progressively discovered and the last of 1600 residents receiving more than 5 mSv/yr were removed in 2003. The Atomic Energy Commission made very detailed measurements and calculated doses for some 10,000 exposed residents. For the 1100 residents of heavily-contaminated apartments (receiving >15 mSv/yr in 1994), the mean annual dose to individuals in 1983 was estimated to have been 525 mSv/yr and the mean total dose to an individual (1983-2003) was estimated to be 4000 mSv. For the medium contamination group of 900 people (5-15 mSv/yr in 1994) these figures were 60 mSv/yr and 420 mSv respectively. Medical attention was available for all those exposed to more than 1 mSv/yr. Those most heavily exposed received careful medical examination, including chromosomal aberration analyses, but only reduced incidence of ill effects were found.

The Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model of radiation exposure would predict some 70 excess cancer deaths among the 10,000 people due to the chronic exposure over 20 years (on top of 217 normal cancer deaths). Instead, there were only 7 cancer deaths in total. Thus the cancer rate was only 3.24% of the Taiwan norm. The prevalence of hereditary defects in their offspring was also reduced, in this case to 6.5% of normal. The 14 authors of a study reporting these results suggested that it showed that chronic whole-body radiation "is always beneficial to human health, and shows particular promise in the promotion of immunity to cancers and hereditary diseases in relative higher doses in a manner similar to a vaccine." However, they said, acute exposure at similar levels would be expected to cause cancers, and in some cases radiation sickness.
Chen, W.L. et al, 2003, The beneficial health effects of chronic radiation experienced in the incident of Co-60 contaminated apartments in Taiwan.

See paper at

See comments by author at:
Mike said…
More hormesis background from James Muckerheide, who has been talking about this for years.

It’s Time to Tell the Truth About the Health Benefits of Low-Dose Radiation
Recent research suggests that hormesis may not be a good reason to go for looser regulatory standards for radioactive substances.

For example, K.A. Thayer et al have published a study titled "Fundamental Flaws of Hormesis for Public Health Decisions" ( which points out a number of flaws in Calabrese's work on hormesis (Stossel interviewed Calabrese for the May 12 segment).

Theo Colburn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers point out that money for Calabrese's research came, in part, from the US Air Force--at a time when the Air Force has been dealing with accusations of toxic contamination at several of its bases (see, for example, the Environmental Health News' entries on perchlorate and trichloroethylene).

I am not saying that hormesis is bunk or that Calabrese is a charlatan: however, if Stossel had reported his May 12 segment as a journalist would, he would have at least mentioned these issues. That he did not suggests that he is either a mediocre journalist or a good energy industry PR man.

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