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Energy: Missing From the Nuclear Story

One of my first memories of watching TV during the early 1950s was ads promoting leaded gasoline for reducing engine knock.  Little did I suspect the strange history of that gas. By the beginning of World War I, it became clear that the internal combustion automobile was edging out its rival steam cars and electric cars.  Shortly afterwards, Thomas Midgley began researching how to remove the knocking “ping” sound from gasoline-powered cars.

Midgley devoted no fewer than six years of his life searching for a fuel additive that would have a “no-knock” effect.  He found that corn alcohol would be too expensive.  Benzene would also be effective, but it would be impossible to manufacture enough.  Both oxygen and chlorine increased knock.  Aniline, selenium oxychloride and tellerium worked, but produced an awful smell. Examining one element after another in a periodic table of the time, he finally found a gasoline additive: tetraethyl lead. Since poisonous effects of lead were well known, the product was labeled “ethyl gasoline.”

Multiple states banned sale of ethyl gasoline, prompting a retort from Midgley that car exhaust contained far too little lead to cause concern.  A vice-president of a new gas company proclaimed that leaded motor fuel was a “gift of God” as Midgley told his partner that they could make 3¢ from each gallon of leaded gasoline in the 20% of the market they could corner.  During the next few decades, leaded gasoline caused immeasurable damage to human organ systems as well as causing violent behavior from neurological impairment.

This is the most dramatic story from Richard Rhodes’ (2018) Energy: A Human History.  Much of Energy is a hodgepodge of personality sketches of those having a role in scientific discoveries. Some of the anecdotes are fascinating.  When the power of steam was being harnessed to move people and things, a contest determined that a steam locomotive attached to the object it was pulling was more efficient than the then popular method of having a stationary engine pull freight uphill with a rope.

Other accounts illustrate how technological changes affected workers. James Watt used nitrous oxide to rid natural gas of its smoke and smell so it could be employed for night-time lighting.  Mill owners then lengthened the working day to 14 hours.

The shock of the book comes after the author completes 18 of his 20 chapters. As Rhodes delves into the most recent of technologies, nuclear power, the reader finds Rachel Carson, Ralph Nader, and Helen Caldicott being compared to misanthropes such as Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich and followers of Adolf Hitler. This bizarre connection is based on the writings of one obscure author who predated Carson with a description of destruction caused by the over-reproduction of “undesirable people.”

Rhodes claims that the environmental movement unknowingly brought “anti-humanist” ideology into its visions of a simpler world.  By advocating a society less dependent on complex technology, environmentalists are ostensibly condemning untold millions of impoverished humans to disease and starvation.

The author insists that only nuclear power can save humanity from energy poverty and, thus, rejection of nuclear power is elitist.  What about nuclear radiation poisoning, which is critical to nuclear dangers?  Rhodes presents a case which may well become the next generation of pro-nuclear apologies. Reviewing theories of 1926, he accuses Herman Muller of committing the original sin of radiation theory after his discovery that low doses of radiation caused genetic mutation in fruit flies. Muller developed the critically important “linear no-threshold” (LNT) model which postulates a “linear” relationship between the quantity of radiation received and the likelihood of cell damage, or, that there is no dose of radiation so small that it is without negative effects.

Rhodes’ attempts to discredit Muller have three disturbing characteristics. First, he bases his arguments on character attacks against scientists and environmentalists. Next, he minimizes or ignores large bodies of data.

Third, his arguments lack internal consistency as he repeatedly contradicts information from different parts of the book.  For example, on p. 324 he claims nuclear power is “carbon-free energy” but on p. 332 says nuclear power creates greenhouse gases during “construction, mining, fuel-processing, maintenance, and decommissioning.”

Rhodes borrows his denunciations of Muller from an article by Edward Calabrese, who brags to have unearthed evidence that Muller suppressed research in 1946. During his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Muller did not acknowledge that he had received a paper that Calabrese thinks contradicted the LNT theory.  Calabrese’ charge, repeated by Rhodes, is absurd, both because it is ridiculous to think that a Nobel Prize speech would be changed due to one unreplicated finding and because Muller was later instrumental in ensuring the publication of that paper.

It is currently Calabrese, rather than Muller, who is discredited, largely due to his increasingly weird assertions that acceptance of the LNT theory was due to “falsifying and fabricating the research record.”  Calabrese’s objectivity is also called into question by his funding from the nuclear industry and companies such as ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, and General Electric.

Calabrese’s hostility could also be due to the near-universal rejection of his “hormesis” theory that small levels of radiation benefit human health. In 2006, Calabrese made arguments for hormesis to the international Committee on Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation which rejected them in favor of the LNT model. The LNT model is accepted by a long list of agencies and health organizations.

Many researchers have documented effects of low level radiation (LLR) from the various stages of nuclear power production, background radiation, X-rays and CT scans.  Since Muller’s first experiments on fruit flies, other studies show these insects being susceptible to radiation levels 50 times lower than found then.  As fruit fly research faded away, by the 1970s it was replicated with mice.

Recent research on over 110,000 workers cleaning up after the Chernobyl disaster found significant leukemia increases, even at low doses.  Another study of 300,000 nuclear workers in the US, UK and France also showed leukemia increases with extremely low radiation exposure.  Parallel investigations in the UK, France, Switzerland and Germany demonstrated 30% to 40% increases of childhood leukemia for those living close to nuclear power plants.  An estimated 20% of childhood leukemia in Great Britain is due to background radiation.

Children are particularly susceptible to radiation damage because their tissue is growing rapidly.  Chronic exposure to radiation is also linked to multiple myeloma, lung cancer, thyroid cancer, skin cancer, and cancer of the breast and stomach.

The many agencies and scientific societies scrutinizing these and vastly more studies are well aware that accepting Rhodes’ belief that LLR causes no harm or Calabrese’s belief that it is good for you could be very bad for humanity and particularly disastrous for children and nuclear industry workers. It could lead to the elimination of regulations that many argue are already too weak and irregularly enforced. One point rarely addressed is that each study tends to focus on a single source of radiation.  Relaxing rules could result in increased poisoning from multiple sources.

This brings up the “Precautionary Principle.”  It says that if there is doubt about the safety of a substance, the burden of proof that it is safe lies with those who advocate it, rather than burdening those who question it with the responsibility to prove its harm.  In other words, “Better safe than sorry.” The phrase “Precautionary Principle” is not even included in the index of Energy, much less discussed. Rhodes’ approach suggests a “Throw-caution-to-the-wind Principle.”

Rhodes glibly dismisses Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima as accidents that need not have happened had people been more careful.  In other words, if humans did not behave as humans, there would be no nuclear disasters.

The author is either ignorant of the Price-Anderson Act of 1957 or deliberately chose to sidestep it.  That legislation was passed to encourage private companies to build nuclear power plants by limiting total liability.  Many currently worry that a plant near them might melt down, causing damage far into the billions, with the company not having to fully compensate its victims.  If Rhodes truly believed his own claims regarding the safety of nuclear plants, he would advocate the repeal of Price-Anderson as unnecessary. “Price-Anderson” also does not appear the book’s index.

Rhodes belittles concerns regarding nuclear waste, proposing to bury it for 1000 years and let our descendants cope with it.  Rational people do not want to encumber their grandchildren with the legacy of leukemia. Again, the author forgets what he wrote in a previous chapter, that the half life of U238 is 4.5 billion years.  Most people who made it through middle school realize that this time periods exceeds 1000 years.

Rhodes seems unaware that some types of radwaste can actually become more radioactive with the passage of time, due to the production of daughter atoms with short half lives.  Radioactivity can initially increase for thousands of years before activity declines – the dangerous interval can persist much longer than the lapse between the building of Egypt’s pyramids and today.

Nor does he seem aware that every nuclear plant must discharge enormous quantities of hot water into an adjacent river or ocean, whose aquatic life is seriously harmed.  Nor does he recognize that earth itself is unstable, subject to earthquakes, floods and other calamities, which is a problematic issue for St. Louis dumps that house some of the original wastes from the Manhattan Project.  That waste, and waste from a conventional dump which is now smoldering, are inching their way towards each other, which is a burning issue for those living nearby.

Many, many people for many different reasons and living in different times (including the future) do and will take issue with the irresponsible claim that nuclear waste is not dangerous.

It never occurs to Rhodes to contrast the potential horror from someone dropping a bomb on a nuclear power plant to bombing a solar panel or wind installation.  Worse, he advocates global proliferation of nuclear power to states vastly less capable of protecting themselves than are the current nuclear powers.  Rhodes seems to forget what he wrote in earlier chapters directly linking the Atoms for Peace program of the Eisenhower era to the expansion of nuclear weapons.  Nor does he remember his earlier discussion of the need to use a form of uranium fuel at that time which would “reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation.”

The difference between Rhodes’ early warning against nuclear proliferation and his ringing endorsement of the same in the last two chapters is just one of the ways he contradicts himself.  More serious is the contrast in tone, style and conceptualization in the two portions of the book.  In the major portion of his work, Rhodes repeatedly describes government agencies’ covering up evidence that threatens corporate profits.  But in the final portions of the book, government agencies are recast as an interlocking conspiracy to block the nuclear industry from completing its humanitarian goal of providing cheap, clean energy to the world’s poor.

More subtle is the way Rhodes hints at energy conservation before ditching the idea in his conclusion.  He describes the way that James Watt improved the steam engine by moving the condensation process in order to save energy.  Later, he seems about to expand the idea of conserving energy when he notes that many “began to question if growth was good.”

This question would challenge the corporate assumption that a quality life comes from possessing an increasing number of objects and propose that energy abundance best be resolved by using energy more efficiently to produce goods (including housing) that endure.  Rhodes never follows this dream and, instead, concludes his book by swallowing the “Happiness = More Stuff” model hook, line and sinker.

Failing to explore the potential of conserving energy, Rhodes accepts that increasing energy can only be provided with nuclear power and follows in the footsteps, not only of Edward Calabrese but also of those he criticizes. Like Thomas Midgley’s portrayal of “fanatical health cranks,” he describes icons of the environmental movement as “extremists.”  Mimicking Calabrese’ characterization of consensus on the LNT radiation theory as “not real but faked,” he describes the “disingenuousness” of antinuclear activists. Rather than pointing to a solution for climate change, his radiation denial mirrors Donald Trump’s climate denial in its derogation of scientific research and its personality attacks.

The great environmental challenge of our time it to understand that the many sources of biodestruction are all interconnected and must be confronted simultaneously, rather than disparaging one danger to focus on another. Addressing species extinction could not move forward by ridiculing concern with toxic pollution.  The extreme threat of climate change will not move closer to resolution by trivializing the menace of nuclear power. Rhodes’ book on energy epitomizes what environmentalists should avoid – it does not chart the path that humanity should tread.

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Don Fitz is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, where this article first appeared. He was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. His articles on politics and the environment have appeared in Monthly ReviewZ Magazine, and Green Social Thought, as well as several online publications.    

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