A Test for Insanity

I propose a simple test to find out whether someone is crazy: ask, “Should nuclear power plants be used to generate electricity?” If the answer is yes—even a qualified yes—then the person you’re talking to or working with or voting for is insane. They need our help, of course, but we need to protect ourselves from their insanity.

As Alexander Cockburn wrote recently in The Nation, Japanese antinuclear activists are at the threshold of a remarkable event. “At the moment, only two out of fifty-four reactors in Japan are operating. There have been no blackouts because of power shortage. If the antinuclear forces manage to stop the restart of the remaining reactors—which has to be locally approved in each prefecture—all reactors will be shut down by May.”

This could have profound implications elsewhere. The nuclear industry inside Japan is fighting back and the nuclear industry worldwide is watching carefully.

Why exactly should we be concerned about the use of nuclear reactors?

I start with the conclusion of the National Academy of Science, an organization known to be friendly to the needs of government and progress (which means the advance of technology, which means the advance of industry). In 2005, after decades of foot dragging, the Academy concluded that there is no known safe dose of ionizing radiation.

To fans of nuclear energy, “no known safe dose” enables them to reassure us that the little itty-bitty doses we’ll receive from Fukushima and are still receiving from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and all currently operating nuclear power plants are nothing to be concerned about. I say that any sane person would know that “no known safe dose” means “Get rid of that stuff.”

I think we’re all familiar with the dramatic health effects of radiation poisoning suffered by people in the immediate vicinity of a reactor accident. On the other hand, I don’t think most people are familiar with the less well known effects of what are called low dose, slow dose exposures to ionizing radiation that’s released by accidents and as a routine part of power plant operation.

Most of what we know is based on research conducted in the aftermath of Chernobyl, exposures that are still with us. The principle conclusion from this research is that exposures to ionizing radiation are bi-modal. That is, the effect of a low dose is not a simple fraction of a high dose. Instead, as the dose of ionizing radiation approaches zero, the effect does not but instead gets proportionately greater.

What are some of these greater than expected effects?

DNA damage (that is, genotoxicity), disruption or outright failure of DNA damage repair mechanisms, oxidative stress, increased physiological stress, suppression of the immune system (that is, greater susceptibility to infection and increased inflammation), hypersensitivity to new exposures to ionizing radiation (such as from diagnostic or therapeutic X-rays), susceptibility to leukemia and related diseases (which are cancers of the lymphatic system, which is part of the immune system), and neurological impairment.

This last one is quite interesting. Researchers observed increased cases of poor attention, memory loss, mental exhaustion, reduced mental ability, and, in 70% of cases, very high levels of anxiety. “Some patients could not even remember their phone numbers, or what they had just read in a newspaper.” The researchers emphasize that these conditions are not the result of stress but of actual damage to the central nervous system.

What sane person would want to put people at risk of such suffering?

I mention the details of low dose, slow dose exposures to ionizing radiation because a recent article in The Environmentalist by Cindy Sage draws a direct parallel between the effects of low dose ionizing radiation and low level exposures to non-ionizing radiation—that is, radiofrequency radiation from wireless technologies such as cell phone and extremely low frequency radiation from sources such as electric power lines.

The first parallel is that both ionizing and non-ionizing radiation are bi-modal: the effects at low exposure are much greater that would be expected from the effects at high exposures. Again, as the dose approaches zero, the effect does not but gets worse.

The second parallel is the actual symptoms suffered: DNA and DNA repair damage, oxidative and physiological stress, suppressed immunity, hypersensitivity to subsequent radiation exposures, and damage to the central nervous system with a variety of debilitating conditions.

And so I ask with respect to both low dose ionizing and non-ionizing radiation: what sane person would want to put themselves and other people, especially children, at risk of such suffering?

In the final episode of a spy thriller I watched recently, the section chief asks a spy, “What’s our status?” He replies, “Bad people are trying to kill us.” I’d say nice people, too, are trying to kill us because they’re insane.