The Congress of the United States, acting in the best of faith during the immediate post-war years, made an historic error in assigning duties and aims to the newly established U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. Atomic energy represented a poorly-understood, new, potent phenomenon, born during World War II. The possibilities and the hazards appeared staggering.
It seemed logical, in 1946, to organize a civilian Commission assigned to explore and exploit the phenomena of atomic energy for the fullest benefit of the citizens. The Atomic Energy Commission was given this as one of its missions. But the staggering potential hazard was also recognized and a second mission, that of proceeding with the fullest consideration of protection of health and safety of the public, was also assigned to the Atomic Energy Commission.
In this dual mission lay the historic error. No group of people could be expected to do both things at the same time—promote a technology zealously and hastily—and at the same time proceed slowly and cautiously for maximum protection of public health. Go fast but go slowly! This was in essence the directive given the AEC at its inception.
As the Commission explored the peaceful possibilities of the atom, one prospect seemed inordinately attractive: utilization of the enormous energy of uranium fission to produce heat, hence steam, and to use the steam to drive electrical generators. The nuclear reactor derives its energy from nuclear fission, rather than from fossil fuel, to produce steam—provided everything goes exactly as planned.
Unfortunately, at several steps along the way, radioactive substances, produced as waste by-products in nuclear reactors, are released into either air or water. The nuclear reactor itself, and the possibility of harm from an accident there, are only the beginning of the story.
Huge quantities of radioactivity are produced in the course of nuclear electricity generation. Electrical power production is measured in kilowatts (1000 watts equal 1 kilowatt) or megawatts (1000 kilowatts equal 1 megawatt). A large power station of any kind produces approximately 1000 megawatts.
For a nuclear power plant operating to produce 1000 megawatts of electrical power, we can estimate how much uranium will be needed. From this we can calculate precisely how much of the various radioactive fission products will be produced, including such infamous ones as radioactive iodine-131, radioactive strontium-90, strontium-89, radioactive cesium-137 and radioactive krypton-85. These radioactive by-products became familiar to us all during the heated debates over radioactive fallout hazards when bombs were tested in the l950's.
Some of the radioactive by-products of nuclear uranium fission have very short half-lives, others very long. This concept of "half-life" seems difficult. It is not. It's mostly just a convenient way to measure the potential for harm and how long it may last. If a radioactive substance has a half-life of one day, we mean that, in the course of one day, half of that substance will decay or disappear. In the next day, one half of what is left will disappear, in the next day one-half of that will disappear, and so on. So a substance with a half-life of one day will be reduced in radioactivity 1000 times in 10 days. Hardly enough left to do much damage, you might say, within the very short time of 10 days.
But if a substance has a half-life of about 30 years (like cesium-137) its radioactivity is reduced 1000 times only after 300 years!
One ugly feature plagues the operation of nuclear reactors for power generation. As the uranium atoms split, they build up radioactive by-products which eventually "poison" the reactor itself. Only a small amount of the potentially fissionable fuel can be utilized before it must be removed from the reactor and transported by rail or truck to a fuel-cleaning or fuel-reprocessing plant.
Here the uranium or plutonium is dissolved in acid and purified so that it can be prepared to go back to the nuclear reactor. But astronomical amounts of radioactive by-products remain, after this process is complete. Usually a nuclear reactor can function for about two years before fuel-reprocessing becomes essential. This means that every two years all of the radioactive material generated by uranium fission must be removed from the nuclear power plant, transported by rail or truck to the fuel reprocessing plant, and there separated from uranium or plutonium which are recovered for future use. The immense quantities of radioactive by-products must then be transported in some fashion to an ultimate repository.
Plans call for allowing the uranium fuel to remain for a period of months after removal from the reactor so that the short-lived radioactive by-products decay away. This cuts the radioactivity of the spent fuel rods some, but still massive quantities of the extremely hazardous strontium-90 and cesium-137 have decayed hardly at all in this short cooling-off period of several months.
These radioactive substances, with half-lives of 27 and 33 years respectively, must be kept isolated from the environment for periods like several hundred years if damage to human beings and other living things is to be avoided. It is difficult for the layman to understand or conceive of the enormous quantities of hazardous radioactive by-products like strontium-90 and cesium-137 that are involved. We will explain.
A 1000 megawatt reactor, operating for two years (the fuel-changing cycle time) produces as much of these long-persisting radioactive poisons as about 2000 atom bombs of the Hiroshima size. This sounds incredible, but is thoroughly documented, as a known fact of physics. Ten such reactors—and the AEC plans for some 500 by the turn of the century—operating for two years have as much radioactivity of long persistence in them as the combined total of such fission-product radioactivities in all the bomb tests of the United States and the Soviet Union combined for the entire period of atmospheric testing up through 1962.
During the bomb tests, that amount of radioactivity spread fallout around the globe, aroused the concern of more than 11,000 biological scientists, and was finally a major factor leading to the 1963 treaty to ban atmospheric tests of such weapons. Yet the AEC is now proposing to build reactors containing inventories many times this total amount of radioactivity on the edge of all our most populous metropolitan centers! Trucks, roaming our crowded highways, will carry radioactive cargoes to reprocessing plants, and eventually to a final burial spot.
Those events which must go absolutely perfectly at every step along the complicated route just described are these:
We shall return, later, to the issue of a major accident at the reactor itself, and we shall see that no one has the vaguest notion of the risk of an accident there. And we are planning for hundreds of such reactors! Human perfection is required at all these many steps in the entire cycle of events—and required constantly for hundreds of years. No government has ever undertaken such massive responsibility in the history of mankind.
When one considers the fantastic requirements—perfect safety, perfect engineering, perfect reliability, perfect loyalty—for every aspect of such a massive nationwide program to avert disaster, one wonders how the American people can be deceived into accepting such a solution to our power-shortage problems. Obviously, they have no way of knowing any better. They are constantly assured by spokesmen of the AEC and the power companies that nuclear energy is "clean" and "safe."
All that these spokesmen can conceivably mean by the word "clean" is that the radioactive poisons can't be seen or smelled. In many ways it is unfortunate that one can't see or smell radioactivity. If one could, the real hazards of this irreversible environmental poison might be better appreciated by the public.
Instead of considering the multitude of steps that must be carried out perfectly every day, every year, in every reactor they plan to build, in every reprocessing plant, in every truck or railway car carrying radioactive waste and every final burial spot for wastes, AEC officials focus on the very tip of the iceberg by talking only about what radioactivity the reactor itself releases under normal operation.
Precisely how do the AEC spokesmen reassure us that we won't receive disastrous radiation as a result of the operation of nuclear power plants?
At first, they emphatically denied that 170 millirads would produce any significant harm to human beings. They denied and ridiculed the estimates that such exposure of the entire U.S. population could finally produce 32,000 extra cancer and leukemia deaths plus 150,000 to 1,500,000 extra genetic deaths per year. They provided no counter-evidence of their own. They just denied the numbers.
"Scare-laden," the AEC spokesmen proclaimed.
"Alarmist," the AEC spokesman intoned.
"Hyperbolic claims," the AEC spokesmen pronounced.
They offered no counter-evidence. Instead, a steadily increasing number of very prominent biological scientists, not associated with the AEC, announced that the predictions above were by no means exaggerated. Professor Linus Pauling, winner of two Nobel prizes, published his estimate that, if everyone in the country were to be exposed to the allowable amount of radiation, we might expect 96,000 extra cancer-plus-leukemia cases rather than the 32,000 extra cases estimated by us.
Professor Pauling is correct when he states that we estimated 32,000 to be the minimum number of extra cancers and leukemias. Professor Pauling's number, 96,000, does indeed have a high probability of being closer to the true, stupendous cost in human misery and death from exposure to the limits which the Federal Radiation Council has set and which the AEC regards as acceptable.
The eminent Nobel Laureate geneticist, Professor Joshua Lederberg, estimated that the annual cost of the health burden from genetically-induced diseases, at the currently legal Federal Radiation allowable doses, would eventually be 10 billion dollars a year, a number quite consistent with our estimate of 150,000 to 1,500,000 extra genetic deaths per year.
Professor Lederberg added that there were uncertainties in his calculation and that the true financial cost of added medical and health care could range between 1 billion dollars and one hundred billion dollars annually. Even if we were callous enough to disregard the toll of human suffering involved in possibly a million and a half more deaths per year, from degenerative diseases like diabetes and circulatory disorders, the 100 billion dollars estimated as the cost of health care for these unfortunates is roughly comparable to the entire national federal budget annually.
Surely a radiation standard that could lead to this unspeakable burden on society deserves careful examination. Is such a burden necessary for the orderly development of nuclear energy? Indeed, one wonders at the irrationality of such a "standard" for any purpose whatever!
Other scientists, too, have provided their estimates of the cancer-leukemia risk and the genetic risk, including eminent men like Professor E. B. Lewis of California Institute of Technology, Dr. Karl Z. Morgan, Director of the Health Physics Laboratory of Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and Dr. R. H. Mole of the British Medical Research Council.
Recently Dr. James D. Watson, another Nobel Laureate in Genetics, stated, "The amount of research now being done on the connection of cancer and radiation is totally inconsistent with proposals for widespread introduction of nuclear power plants into highly populated areas."
Even more alarming than all of these estimates of a high risk of allowable doses of radiation, the great British researcher in the field, Dr. Alice Stewart, came forth with solid evidence that the fetus in utero is especially sensitive—about 50 times as sensitive to cancer or leukemia induction as is the adult.
The precise numerical results for cancers or leukemia predicted for exposure to an amount of radiation proclaimed by Atomic Energy Promoters to be "without effect" differed among the various scientists who provided their estimates. But all the estimates pointed to a grave hazard. Is it really very comforting that we estimate 32,000 extra cancer deaths while Professor Pauling estimates 96,000? The real issue is that the hazard is estimated in the many tens of thousands of unnecessary cancer and leukemia deaths each year rather than near zero or at zero.
Faced with an ever-increasing number of similar estimates of the grave hazard of ionizing radiation, both with respect to cancer plus leukemia and genetic diseases, the Atomic Energy Commission proponents began to realize that their attack on those who estimated the true hazards of radiation was backfiring badly.
So AEC spokesmen began to say, instead, that we—and presumably all these other specialists who have spoken out—just don't understand how the FRC regulations work! Nuclear power plants are not exposing anyone to anything like this amount of radioactivity, they say and therefore, the estimates of the serious hazard of radiation must be wrong.
They appear to have little respect for the intelligence of the American people. What AEC officials are saying, in essence, is that if you are not exposed to allowable amounts of radiation, you won't suffer such devastating effects as cancer, leukemia or genetic diseases. But what are we to make of the AEC's official position that they will permit us all to be exposed to this limit of 170 millirads per year and that they believe no harm can come to us if they do?
AEC officials point out that nuclear electric power generation hasn't yet delivered anywhere near the 170 millirads, as an average, to the population of the United States. So, fortunately, the American people have not, as yet, been exposed to highly dangerous levels of radioactivity. But the AEC fails to point out that nuclear electric power stations haven't generated enough electricity, so far, to be worth discussing. A handful of small nuclear power plants is in operation—the largest approximately one-half the power level of those being planned.
But now the AEC is planning, ultimately, 450-650 large nuclear power plants, plus the necessary reprocessing plants, plus the necessary transportation and burial facilities—roughly a thousand-fold increase in nuclear power generation! And, incredibly, they ask us to believe that with this thousand-fold increase in potential radiation hazard—we are not likely to experience any more exposure to radiation than during these early days when the nuclear industry is in its infancy.
This is like saying that a thousand eight-cylinder cars, packed into a mile of highway, are not likely to produce any more air pollution than one model-T Ford!
Spokesmen for the nuclear power industry assume that all nuclear power plants would operate perfectly according to design specifications which they expected to be infallible. They ignored prior experience, which shows this to be a pipe dream.
Second, they conceive only a minute possibility of minor or massive accidental releases of radioactivity at the nuclear power station or in the transport of the radioactivity-laden fuel rods, or at the reprocessing plant, or in the preparation of the mammoth quantities of radioactivities for ultimate burial, or in the transport of such enormous quantities of radioactive debris to ultimate burial sites.
Third, they assumed that sabotage at any step along this chain to be unthinkable. Largely because the thought was so chilling, the AEC officials hoped the thought would go away.
Fourth, for some reason they chose to ignore a major pathway for delivering serious doses of radioactivity to man—the processes by which plants and animals in the food chain of man can concentrate radioactive substances in a massive manner.
They say the radioactivity release from reactors now is, and in future will be, only 1 per cent of the official guidelines. We shall discuss this optimistic statement in more detail in the next chapter. The guidelines they refer to here are the Maximum Permissible Concentrations in Air and the Maximum Permissible Concentrations in Water.
In the Code of Federal Regulations, Title 10, pages 134 to 144, is a Table listing the maximum permissible concentrations, of various radioactive substances in air and water, which are permitted to be released to an unrestricted area—that is, any part of the community outside the confines of the nuclear plant itself. (Title 10, CFR, part 20.)
These levels are set so that a whole-body dosage of 0.5 rads per year would result from breathing such air for one year, or drinking about two quarts of such contaminated water per day. But what do such levels really mean in terms of what could occur, and probably will occur if such levels are allowed in an unrestricted area where people live?
Cesium-137 in the air near the power plant will deposit on nearby pastures. This will be grazed by cows and the cesium-137 in their milk will eventually be consumed by children. If we allow the permitted level of cesium-137 concentration in the air for just one day, a child consuming one liter of milk every day will get a whole-body dose of seven rads as a consequence of just one day's exposure.
If the Maximum Permissible Concentration of cesium-137 in the air is maintained for one year, the dose will be 2,555 rad which is 5,110 times higher than the 0.5 rad guideline and 15,000 times more than the 0.17 rad Radiation protection guideline of the Federal Radiation Council—not from the air the child is breathing—but from the milk he is drinking!
Let's look at the concentration in water. The MPC is based upon the calculation that a 150-lb. standard man consuming 2200 grams of water at the MPC per day would receive a dose of 0.5 rad. To begin with, a 75-1b. child drinking this much water would get a dosage twice as high. He would be exceeding the guideline dosage and so would a 100 lb. pregnant woman. Man, woman and child have also been known to eat fish. The concentration of Cs-137 in fish flesh, caught in a river, would be 1000 times higher than the concentration in the water. Thus a man eating l-lb. of fish a week, grown in water at the MPC, would receive a dosage of 15 rad/yr or 30 times the 0.5 rad guideline and 90 times the 0.17 rad guideline. If he were a 75-1b. child, the dosage would be 60 times the 0.5 rad guideline and 180 times the 0.17 rad guideline. In other words, most people would exceed the guidelines if they ate only one pound of fish a year.
The milk and fish represent biological concentration mechanisms. They, by themselves, serve to demonstrate quite conclusively that using air and water MPC values without considering food chains is meaningless. But as another example, let's look at a physical process. If the Cs-137 MPC in air were maintained for one year, the radiation level would be 23 rad per year.
Thus, when the AEC officials state that releases will be only 1 percent of the guideline, we shouldn't be lulled into complacency. The above example for Cs-137 in milk indicates that, for the 0.17 rad guideline, the releases should be 0.007 percent of the MPCa, not 1 percent. If a more reasonable primary standard of 0.017 rad were applied, the allowable release would be only 0.0007 percent of the MPCa more than a hundred thousand fold lower than the current MPC for air.
The AEC officials only look downwind from the plant for people breathing in the air containing the radioactive cesium and they neglect totally that the contaminated milk described above can be shipped hundreds of miles away and deliver large doses to the residents of a major city nowhere near the reactor.
Thus, by neglecting all the important routes by which radioactivity from nuclear power plants, transportation of radioactivity, and from fuel processing plants and ultimate waste storage gets to people, the AEC officials conclude that, in the foreseeable future, no one will be exposed to anywhere near the allowable radiation dosage.
We can easily test whether AEC spokesmen really believe what they say, as they vie with one another to see who can make the rosiest predictions.
"As I have already indicated, it is likely that even by the Gofman hypothesis (that 170 millirads to the entire population will lead to 32,000 extra cancer and leukemia deaths annually) less than one person per year would be in jeopardy due to the presence of reactors compared with a sum total of 300,000 cancers per year from other causes."
Dr. Thompson became even bolder in his following statement.
"Instead of having 32,000 cases per year, we probably have statistically less than one extra case of cancer or leukemia as a result of the presence of those nuclear reactors now in operation, construction or definitely planned."
What, in effect, has Commissioner Thompson committed himself to and can he make good the commitment he so casually makes? He asks us to assume that we are correct in our prediction of 32,000 extra cancer deaths if the average exposure of everyone in the country is 170 millirads per year. He also assures us that future reactor programs will not result in more than one extra cancer death per year. This means he is willing to guarantee that the average dose of radiation to the American people will be 1/32,000 of the currently allowable dose, even after another 500 or so nuclear reactors are spread all over the landscape! He guarantees a dose of about 0.005 millirads.
The AEC commissioners know perfectly well that it is meaningless to discuss only radiation from the nuclear reactor itself. They are here assuring us, in the words of Commissioner Thompson, that the combined radiation dosage, from the reactor, from transporting spent fuel rods, from reprocessing fuel, from radioactive waste preparation and storage of waste for all centuries to come—including any and all accidental releases—will be less than 0.005 millirads per year for the American people.
We would be delighted if the AEC and the electric power industry could make good on this promise, which is made, remember, by the men assigned by the federal government to protect us all from radiation hazards. If the AEC could, indeed, assure the American people that the development of nuclear power plants, in the numbers which they have promised us, can be accomplished without exposing all of us to more than 0.005 millirads of radiation a year, critics of the nuclear power program would certainly withdraw their criticism and expressions of concern and alarm.
But when we challenge this statement, by asking that the official radiation exposure level be reduced to 17 millirads or less, AEC officials call us alarmists and insist that nothing of the kind is necessary. Does it not seem strange that they claim they can develop a widespread nuclear power industry without any possibility of exposing us to more than 0.005 millirads a year, but, when we ask for a reduction in allowable standards to a value 3400 times this high, they say they cannot allow it.
They claim that a little leeway is needed for unexpected incidents. Surely "unexpected incidents" do not require 3400 times as much possible exposure—which they characterize as "a little leeway." We might understand two times or even ten times the guaranteed level, but 3400 times strains our credulity.
Commissioner Thompson said that present reactors do not account for even one cancer death per year, which implies that the present exposure of the entire population is 0.005 millirads or less. Yet the director of the Federal Radiation Council, Dr. Paul Tompkins, stated that it would cost billions of dollars to rebuild reactors now in operation to comply with an allowable dosage of 17 millirads per year. If, indeed, the current exposure is as low as the AEC claims it is (3400 times lower than 17 millirads) we shouldn't need any revision of reactor installations at all and the cost would be zero.
It's obvious that Commissioner Thompson's estimates, which we presume are the official estimates of the AEC, differ from those of Dr. Paul Tompkins by factors of many thousands. How does this happen?
And how can the layman, with no expertise in these matters, have any confidence in what such public statements may mean, when the experts differ so radically?
Dr. Victor Bond of the AEC's Brookhaven Laboratory, makes even rosier predictions than did Commissioner Thompson. Dr. Bond testified at recent hearings before the Public Service Board of the State of Vermont. His written testimony was from a document entitled, "The Public and Radiation from Nuclear Power Plants."
Dr. Bond, too, sees only the tip of the iceberg—the nuclear reactor itself, operating perfectly, with no radiation from mechanical failures, no accidents, no carelessness, no mistaken judgment on the part of employees. He does not once mention the chance for radiation exposure in all the other aspects of nuclear power which we have described: transporting fuel rods, processing fuel rods, transporting wastes, storing wastes.
He estimates that nuclear power plants at present expose the American people to an average of 0.0001 millirads per year. He calculates that, for a forty-fold increase in the nuclear power industry in the future, this exposure might go to 0.004 millirads per year.
Therefore, he reasons that estimates of cancer-leukemia risk or genetic hazard based on the currently allowable 170 millirads are some 42,000 times too high. Such an assumption implies that nuclear power plants for electricity generation can proceed to expand fully as planned, up to the year 2000, with exposure limits 42,000 times lower than those currently allowed!
Such an assumption implies that any radiation exposure from fuel transportation, accidents, sabotage, fuel processing, waste radioactivity processing, waste radioactivity shipping and perpetual guardianship of immense amounts of radioactive waste will be totally negligible in comparison with the 0.004 millirads predicted as the dose expected for the American people from the nuclear power plants alone—the tip of the iceberg.
At the hearings, Dr. Bond was asked by Attorney Bloustein why he opposed lowering the allowable amount of radiation when he claims there is a 42,000-fold difference between what he, Dr. Bond, believes is required and what is now permitted by Federal Statutes. Dr. Bond was unable to answer.
So, in hearings throughout the country, in speeches before many varied groups, and in testimony before Congressional committees, we hear AEC spokesmen and promoters of the nuclear power industry trying to outdo one another in their predictions of how low the radiation exposure of the American people will be for all aspects of nuclear power generation—30,000 to 40,000 times lower than the levels currently allowed.
Yet when highly competent biologists in this field ask that currently allowable doses of radiation be reduced only 10-fold or 100-fold, proponents of nuclear electricity refuse to consider this change, even though it would give them a 300 to 3000-fold margin of safety above what they promise will be the average radiation exposure.
One could be very generous in providing leeway for "unexpected incidents." We could allow the nuclear-power industry to develop with a radiation dose allowance (including all hazards of the industry) of 0.1 millirad for the population. This provides a 25-fold margin of safety over what Dr. Bond says is required. This is very generous leeway. If the nuclear power industry were to accept this level, all the arguments would end and the nuclear industry could proceed unhampered.
Of course, these arrangements would have to be entered into the Code of Federal Regulations. Present promises and good intentions are not. One cannot place promises and good intentions in a Code of Regulations. Yet, in a matter involving irreversible pollution of the human race and the environment, the proper and only place for all agreements in regard to this matter is the Code of Federal Regulations.
One must reluctantly conclude that there is a great deal of confusion and lack of responsibility at very high levels in the entire program. The AEC was presented with evidence that all the standards they had proclaimed as safe were truly unsafe.
The atomic energy proponents vigorously denied that harm in the form of cancer, leukemia and genetic diseases was even possible.
Representative Chet Holifield, chairman of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, told us he had been assured that 100 times as much radiation as the level which is officially allowable would be necessary before the safe level is passed. Chairman Holifield's statement rests on totally discredited evidence. The AEC statement that no effects are observed at their presumed safe levels of radiation means only that no one has ever made any adequate observations.
When it became clear that unproven claims of the AEC and the Federal Radiation Council were being exposed, the second line of defense was used, the so-called "safe" standards must be safe because very sincere men had set the standards. These same men now refuse to look at the massive new evidence which proves their standards to be anything but safe.
When this strategy of denying the evidence was ineffective, promoters of the nuclear energy program took up a new tactic. "We will never allow anyone to be exposed to the allowable dose," they said. But when they were asked for minimal evidence of sincerity in the form of a written regulation in a government code, to guarantee the public that the nuclear power industry will not expose us to the maximum level, they refused absolutely.
It seems that the public can draw only one conclusion—that neither the AEC nor the nuclear power industry believes they can operate at the low doses they promise. So they hope against hope that the public will not require them to make good their claims and will, instead, accept their "promises, promises."