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.

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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 (...

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