Climate denial and radiation denial: two sides of the same coin

Contrary to the beliefs held by radiation deniers, every major radiation study support the Linear No-Threshold concept. Graph from Dr. Ian Fairlie.

A study of the effects of radiation on actual UK nuclear workers corresponds well with the expected results in the U.S. BEIR VII study–a much different result would be expected under the radiation deniers’ “hormesis” concept. Graph from Dr. Ian Fairlie.

As the world veers closer to climate catastrophe, the people of the world increasingly understand that action to prevent that catastrophe must be taken. We are seeing that understanding grow even in the U.S., which has lagged most other industrialized countries in popular support for climate action, and even whether climate change is real.

As the most recent example, voters in a poll released last week in states considered to be potential swing states in the 2016 presidential election, consider climate change to be a serious problem by margins ranging from 54% to 68%. By similar margins (55%-66%), they support the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.

That the margins are not even higher–up in the 70-80+% ranges typically seen in Europe and Asia–can largely be attributed to the influence of climate deniers in the U.S. Climate deniers can be categorized pretty much in two groups: a) those (a small absolute number) who may or may not personally believe in climate change but are profiting from the current system of fossil fuels and thus want to keep it and b) those who honestly don’t understand the issue and/or simply oppose whatever Obama/environmentalists/Democrats/whatever support.

Those in category b) are pretty much irrelevant; they are a dwindling number without much political or other power and, whether they understand it or not, the rest of the world recognizes that the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence is against them. Those in category a) are much more dangerous because their goal is to do whatever possible to stymie effective action on climate change. They’re not deniers so much as greedy obstructionists–most are probably smart enough to realize that climate change is real, but for them the size of their wallets now is more important than the fate of their children and the earth itself later.

I write that introduction because the existence of climate deniers is pretty well understood, though their motivations and influence perhaps less so. Although not nearly as well known or understood, radiation deniers operate in the same way as climate deniers, with the same lack of science supporting them, and with the same kinds of motivations.

And, like climate deniers, who become only more vocal as the world moves closer toward absolute rejection of their position, radiation deniers are becoming more vocal in their efforts to reduce radiation protection regulations and to try to convince people that radiation–and by extension nuclear power–is not so dangerous and might even be good for you.

So, as the world increasingly moves away from nuclear power–with even the President of the United States now adopting policy that makes clear it is not a climate solution–the radiation deniers are coming out in force.

Exhibit A is a piece posted today on the website of the  American Council on Science and Health (ACSH), by Dr. Gilbert Ross, who is its science director. ASCH is a far-right group that supports fossil fuels and nuclear power, as well as GMOs and pesticides while arguing against organic food, among other questionable positions, all from a pseudo-scientific basis. While particularly noxious in tone, the article is not far removed from others that have appeared in recent months.

Ross was responding to a series of articles that appeared in conjunction with the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the British medical journal The Lancet–a respected, peer-reviewed publication, on the health effects of Fukushima and nuclear disasters generally.

Ross seems most upset with Lancet’s characterization of Fukushima and Chernobyl as “disasters,” as he states outright there have been no “nuclear disasters.”

He goes on to say, using old and discredited information, that only 31 people died at Chernobyl (even the World Health Organization now puts the number in the thousands; we still stand by the TORCH report we co-released in 2006 that estimates 32,000 to as many as twice that) and no one has died at Fukushima (as we have pointed out, credible scientific evidence suggests one to two thousand people will die as a result of their exposure to Fukushima radiation, and the number would be catastrophically higher had not the wind been blowing the radiation away from land for nearly the entire first week of the accident’s onset, when airborne releases were the highest).

That’s what deniers do: use whatever bad information they can find to sow mistrust of those trying to provide credible information for the benefit of an industry.

The fundamental reason we oppose nuclear power, the fundamental reason just about everyone who opposes nuclear power does so, is that it is dangerous to human and planetary health. It is dangerous because exposure to ionizing radiation is dangerous. That is so well documented it doesn’t need discussion. If nuclear power did not involve radiation, then perhaps people would still oppose specific nuclear projects on economic or some other grounds, but there wouldn’t be much solid rationale for opposing it generally.

But a group of longtime radiation deniers are attempting to undermine that fundamental premise.

They have submitted three petitions for rulemaking (which for the purposes of public comment have been consolidated into one) to the NRC with the specific goal of attaining an official stamp of approval to the concept called “hormesis.”

The idea of “hormesis” has been around about as long as radiation regulations have been around; it stems from the idea that low levels of radiation can both make you feel better (like for those who swear by rather radioactive steambaths in some Hungarian spas I visited a decade ago; um, no thanks…) and actually help the body protect against the effects of high levels of radiation exposure.

The idea of hormesis has been rejected by the scientific community just as long. In fact, as in the case of climate, the overwhelming preponderance of scientific evidence supports what is called the Linear No-Threshold model, which simply states that there is no “safe” level of radiation exposure (meaning that even the lowest radiation doses carry a risk above zero, even though the risk at the lowest levels is low) and that the risk rises with the amount of exposure.

As Dr. Richard Monson of Harvard’s School of Public Health and chair of the scientific community’s most recent review of radiation effects (BEIR VII) put it in 2006, “The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial.”

But scientific evidence doesn’t stop the climate deniers, and it doesn’t stop the radiation deniers either. Their goal is to support their respective industries; evidence and fact doesn’t matter in their pursuit of that goal.

The radiation deniers would be harmless if they were simply ignored as the science shows they should be. But the same is true of climate deniers. And while–fortunately–the radiation deniers don’t appear to have the kind of financial backing and resources to promote their message as the climate deniers through oligarchs like the Koch Brothers, it is just as critical to call them out for what they are and prevent them from ever obtaining that kind of backing and public attention.

Which means it will be important for everyone to comment on the petitions for rulemaking submitted by the radiation deniers. It’s not actually likely the NRC would adopt their recommendations; that would cause an enormous government-wide upheaval over radiation standard setting and would put the agency in direct conflict with the National Academy of Sciences, which sponsors the BEIR process. But it’s crucial for the NRC–and the rest of the government, especially Congressmembers who don’t understand radiation at all–to understand that there are large numbers of people who see through the radiation deniers and their motivations and will act to counter them.

The comment deadline for the petitions is September 8. NIRS will be sending out an alert and making it easy for people to comment before then. But if you want to comment earlier, and in more detail, then Dr. Ian Fairlie (no stranger to readers of these pages; the graph above is from his paper) has produced a paper explaining why hormesis is so wrong, that will be of great help in framing your comments.

Climate denial threatens the entire planet. But so does radiation denial. And, I would argue, the kind of uncritical, unscientific thinking adopted by the denialists also threatens the planet. As our lives become more complex and more intertwined with technology, as scientific changes (both advances and those that set life back) accelerate and hold the potential to change our lives and planet for better or worse, it is crucial that we understand the nature of science and how it can be abused. The deniers aren’t seeking to convince everyone of their unscientific views; they don’t have to. They’re only trying to convince enough people–people who may not have the time or inclination to examine the details of an issue or who may have predispositions that lead them to reject scientific evidence–to give them enough power to change things so that their polluting nuclear and fossil fuel-based industries can continue to operate and spew their deadly wastes and byproducts across our fragile planet.

Radiation deniers and climate deniers are two sides of the same coin. Preventing that coin from entering circulation is essential.

Michael Mariotte

August 10, 2015


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6 thoughts on “Climate denial and radiation denial: two sides of the same coin

  1. Mark Robinowitz

    American Council on “Science” and Health also supported food irradiation, back when that industry was hoping for a thousand irradiators by the year 2000 (which we all stopped, in large part by focusing on the food companies considering it, labeling campaigns were not as successful).

    The climatologist James Hansen is pushing radiation “hormesis” as allegedly real, citing an article by Ann Coulter (!) to justify his position.

    There are many flavors of denial, it’s like Baskin Robbins, with at least 31 flavors.

    Perhaps the most popular aspect of denial is the refusal to recognize we live on a finite planet. Exponential growth was a great thing for the “economy” but it’s reached its practical limits now.

    Peak Denial is just as wrong as Climate Denial or Radiation Denial, and they’re integrated but it is unpopular to connect the dots.

    Denial is a renewable resource.

    1. Peter Sipp

      Way to go Mark !!! The desire to be creative by the ” deniers” is driving them. Not wanting to give up to reality. The “deniers” might as well go and stand in the surf and command the tides to stop.They will have as much success there too


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