Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The High Price of Obsolete Science

Misplaced fear of radiation and accidents is impacting our response to climate d

Misplaced fear of radiation and accidents is impacting our response to climate destabilisation.

By Geoff Russell

The anti-nuclear movement co-opted the environment movement on the strength of theories about DNA, radiation and cancer that have long been proven false.

The anti-nuclear movement grew out of the anti-war movement and opposition to atmospheric testing during the late 1950s. In particular, Nobel Prize-winner Linus Pauling calculated what he thought would be the number of cancers and birth defects that would result from the radiation released by atomic bombs detonated in the atmosphere. The maths would have impressed any non-mathematician, but the underlying assumptions about DNA damage and its carcinogenic implications are now known to be false.

In those days, DNA repair was at best a speculative hunch. All the world’s top scientists thought that DNA was incredibly stable and that damage was vanishingly rare and invariably resulted in harmful mutations. The picture that’s emerged over the past 30 years or so couldn’t be more different.

DNA damage accompanies every move you make and every breath you take. It’s unrelenting. It’s now estimated that on average there are something like 10,000 pieces of damage to the DNA in every cell in your body – every single day. However, the near-perfect nature of our multifaceted DNA repair mechanisms make it appear that damage is rare.

Almost all the damage comes from normal cellular processes. A tiny fraction comes from naturally occurring background radiation or from radiation found naturally in food.

How tiny is tiny? An MIT study (http://bit.ly/1t4nx1l) put mice in a radiation field 400 times stronger than normal background levels. The researchers calculated that this would cause an additional 12 pieces of damage per cell per day on top of the 10,000 that would naturally occur. As far as the researchers could tell, this extra damage was repaired.

With a modern knowledge of DNA, things that were once impossible to believe become totally unsurprising. Consider Guarapari, a popular tourist destination in Brazil. Its beaches are rich in radioactive elements and emit radiation at levels that are ten times the maximum rate at the damaged Japanese nuclear reactor at Fukushima. In Guarapari, people play on the beach and cover themselves in the radioactive sand, but neither Guarapari nor any similar area is a cancer hot spot.

In Japan, the government inadvertently killed people after the Fukushima accident by attempting to protect them from radiation rates very much lower than at Guarapari. In the middle of the night they bundled terrified elderly residents from nursing homes and ill people from hospitals onto ill-equipped buses. People died tragic and needless deaths from cold, falls, dehydration or deterioration of their medical conditions. People had their lives disrupted at best and devastated at worst.

But it isn’t just the facts of DNA damage, repair and the Guaraparis of the world that contradict anti-nuclear fear-mongering. We now also know that lifestyle cancer risks dwarf anything associated with radiation exposures from nuclear accidents.

Consider the Chernobyl screw-up, which actually increased radiation levels over large areas of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia. We know that there have been some 6000 cases of thyroid cancer over the past 25 years as a result. This wasn’t from the ongoing contamination but from radioactive iodine in the first days after the accident. There have certainly been predictions of additional cancers, but such predictions are based on models formulated before DNA repair mechanisms were understood in all their glory. They are subject to ongoing debate.

On the other hand, we now know about lifestyle cancer causes and we know with certainty that if the three countries affected had swapped the Chernobyl accident for an Australian lifestyle there would have been something like six million additional cancers during the past 25 years. Ukraine, for example, has an age-standardised cancer rate of 192 per 100,000 per annum compared with 323 in Australia.

Experts might work themselves into a lather about the details, but the big picture is clear. Radiation is but a minnow among the big cancer sharks of obesity, red and processed meat, inactivity, sunshine, alcohol and tobacco.

Even radiation from surviving an atomic bomb blast doesn’t compare with lifestyle causes of cancer. The survivors of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II suffered an average cancer risk increase of just 11%. By comparison, a Japanese population moving to Australia and adopting our lifestyle would experience an increased cancer rate rise of about 50%.

The Japanese have already experienced some of this rise in recent decades. In the early 1970s there used to be about 20,000 cases of bowel cancer annually in Japan. While the Japanese population has grown by about 20%, new bowel cancer cases hit 112,000 in 2012. What’s caused the extra 92,000 bowel cancers per year? The things known to cause bowel cancer, apart from unfortunate genes, are red and processed meat, alcohol (in men), obesity and height. The last factor, height, would surprise you if you hadn’t read this magazine last month about why some dwarves don’t get cancer (AS, November 2014, pp.22–23). Of the known causes of bowel cancer, the one that has changed the most and therefore seems to have driven the bulk of the cancer increase has been the dietary shift to more red and processed meat. This doesn’t only cause bowel cancer but can have a double whammy by making people taller.

The elephant in the room, of course, is how misplaced fear of radiation and accidents is impacting our response to climate destabilisation.

The French nuclear roll-out of the 1970s and 1980s was about five times quicker than the current roll-out of wind and solar power in Germany. Not 5%, or even 50%, but five times faster! And it was no fluke. Belgium did similarly and the Swedes did even better.

Part of the anti-nuclear game plan has been to drag every nuclear reactor project through as many legal battles as possible to inflate construction times and prices. It’s been incredibly successful, and has kneecapped the only competition that fossil fuels have ever had. As a consequence, fossil fuels have flourished.

While the anti-nuclear movement infiltrated the environment movement and kept it obsessively distracted over uranium mines, waste and other relatively trivial issues, coal production quadrupled between 1980 and 2010. This has been a spectacular “own goal” that has seen proudly anti-nuclear Australia generating about 850 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour over recent decades compared with the French output of just 70 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hours for all of the past 25 years.

The environment movement accepts the science on climate change, but their scientific ignorance has allowed them to be seriously misled about nuclear risks. As the world faces the problems of a destabilising climate, the environment movement has been making matters worse for 30 years by opposing the best technology we have on hand to tackle a tough issue. All because of obsolete science.

Geoff Russell is author of GreenJacked (http://tinyurl.com/oz39lr4), which argues that the anti-nuclear movement co-opted the environment movement on the strength of theories about DNA, radiation and cancer that have long since proven false.