Naomi Wolf on nuclear

Oh yes, we see all the standard fallacies here.

Although there is a scientific consensus that no exposure is safe, no matter how brief,

No love, there isn\’t a scientific consensus that says that there is no safe level of radioactivity. Forget hormesis for a moment and just concentrate on the obvious fallacy of the statement. We\’re all bombarded with radiation all the time. Everything from cosmic rays through to uranium in the soil to bananas and Brazil nuts. And while we do all fall down dead eventually we\’re not all falling down dead from the radiation from these sources.

One favourite (and unchecked) story about Brazil nuts is that they are sufficiently radioactive that you would not be able to take them out of a nuclear power plant. They are over the limit for allowable radiation to leave the plant.

Oh, and given the amount of radiation that atmospheric tests put into the environment then we should all have fallen down dead by now if there really was no safe level.

We get the other great folly as well. The stories of really bad stuff happening are from the military bomb making plants. Sorry, but no, we cannot use the evidence of people, in the middle of the Cold War, making plutonium triggers as evidence against people producing electricity. That would be like using the evidence of copper sheathed bullets to argue against copper wiring.

And then we get the great one:

Then, Japan was hit by a tsunami, and the cooling systems of the Fukushima nuclear reactor were overwhelmed, giving the world apocalyptic images of toxic floods and floating cars, of whole provinces made uninhabitable.

Well, yes, the tsunami killed lots of people, indeed. And the failure of the nuclear plant has killed no one. So we\’d better abolish tsunamis then, eh?

Finally, what\’s wrong with the whole piece, indeed, the basic mode of thinking behind it, is that it is looking only at absolute risk, taking no account whatsoever or relative risk. If we decide that we actually do want to have electricity then we need to look at which system of producing the electricity we desire kills the fewest of us. And in that nuclear wins hands down. More Americans fall off the roof installing solar panels each year than have ever been kiled by civilian nuclear power in the US.

Oh, and coal fired power stations distribute more radiation around the world than nuclear power plants do as well.

21 comments on “Naomi Wolf on nuclear

  1. To be fair, and this is a minor point, the radiation will increase the mortality rate – people dying from cancers etc, especially amongst the workers who fought the blaze. These will (probably) still be notional deaths, but are nonetheless part of the effect of Fukushima. Note that this isnt the same as the idiots claiming that 14,000 were killed in the US due to Fukushima, but the estimated impact of radiation on long term health.

    And bits of the area around Fukushima (not whole provinces) will probably be unliveable.

  2. Does she really think that water from the cooling systems floated the cars? Or is she as bad a writer as she is a thinker?

  3. Pingback: “More Americans fall off the roof installing solar panels each year than have ever been kiled by civilian nuclear power in the US” « Quotulatiousness

  4. Seeing as how Naomi realises that people can drown in water, by her own stunning logic no amount of water is safe.

  5. AnomalyUK: there was a hydro plant at Fukushima too, which let go in the earthquake and killed some unfortunate souls. So nuclear power wasn’t even the most dangerous power source in Fukushima!

  6. You miss out the biggest killer of all – coalmining. More people have been killed in Chinese coal mines since the Communists seized power than have been killed by nuclear power in the history of the world (yes, I am including Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as Chernobyl).

  7. “I am including Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as Chernobyl”: you are being a bit daft referring to H & N as nuclear “power”. On that basis most of the deaths in WWI can be attributed to coal.

  8. No love, there isn’t a scientific consensus that says that there is no safe level of radioactivity. Forget hormesis for a moment and just concentrate on the obvious fallacy of the statement. We’re all bombarded with radiation all the time. Everything from cosmic rays through to uranium in the soil to bananas and Brazil nuts. And while we do all fall down dead eventually we’re not all falling down dead from the radiation from these sources.

    Look, I stand second to none in my contempt for Ms Woolfe and all her like, no one in their right mind supports nuclear power more than I do, I believe in radiation hormesis, I even support resurrecting Project Orion – and I am perfectly happy with a surface launch.

    But …..

    There seems to be a slight logical flaw here. There is a lot of ground between being-not-safe and dropping dead. Suppose that eating a single Brazil nut raised your chances of getting a fatal cancer by 0.00001%. Then it is not safe. You could eat a whole handful and not reasonably expect to die, but it would still raise the risk of dying by that much. People do die from cancer caused by uranium in the soil, or allegedly they do. Mainly because of poorly ventilated cellars. Presumably, in very small numbers, they die from cosmic rays and the like.

    Unless radiation hormesis is true. Which I think it is.

    Being unsafe is not the same as being instantly, or even slowly, fatal. Installing solar panels is unsafe. But people who do it do not all drop dead.

  9. The argument that it isn’t safe therefore we shouldn’t do it is an argument against doing anything – indeed it is an argument against being born (or conceiving a child). What sensible people do when faced with non-nuclear issues is to attempt a judgement call; when I wanted to go snowboarding, I took care to confirm with the equipment rentals staff how best to tie my boots and my instructor how to fix them to the snowboard because I didn’t want a broken ankle. I didn’t say, “oh, I might get a broken ankle so I’m just going to watch.”

    The point is that Wolf doesn’t compare the costs and benefits of nuclear with the other options we have – including the option of energy conservation or not having electricity altogether. And apparently the number of excess cancers, say, resulting from being near a radiation source may very well be statistically insignificant but we must nevertheless run around screaming that the sky is falling in. It is just an irrational, unsubstantiated polemic against one particular means of energy production.

    We are closing power plants in this country (the UK) and we are going to build more gas and coal power stations to cope with energy demand. But that’s apparently OK, because burning gas and coal (and oil) is ‘normal’ and therefore we do not pay any attention to all the risks associated with it. Nuclear remains this sci-fi horror that people associate with The Bomb; it is abnormal and therefore people over-egg the risks – actually, most people can’t even quantify the risks. It is like alcohol being acceptable but cannabis being unacceptable, just because of history – but if it had to ban one of these substances, a rational society would ban the former (of course neither should be banned).

    The Catalog of Risks I linked to interests me because it puts on a few pages risks associated with all kinds of things; from where you live, to how you travel, to what kind of job you do, to what kinds of sports you do… lots of different risks in our everyday lives that we simply do not think about. It helps put things in perspective, which I think the energy ‘debate’ sorely needs. The author, Bernard Cohen, claims for example that “the risk of nuclear power is equal to the risk a regular smoker takes in smoking one extra cigarette every six years” or “an overweight person increasing his weight by 0.6g or of using a small car rather than a mid-size car 1 day every 3 years”. Suppose for the sake of argument this is true (I have no idea if it is)? It would certainly put nuclear power into perspective.

  10. @SMFS: on that basis nothing is ‘safe’ because there is always the small risk of death, somehow. Walk outside and something could happen to you and you die. Stay indoors and the same applies. Life is a risk – it ends eventually for us all, but we don’t know where and when it will end. Hence its all a risk.

  11. I strongly suspect that’s Tim’s factoid about brazil nuts and nuclear power plants is no more than an amusing invention.

    Not all sources of radioactivity are equal. Ingesting or inhaling radioactive materials is not the same as exposure to ambient radiation. Ingested radium (from brazil nuts) is not very worrying because little of it will remain in the body. Ingested radioactive potassium (from bananas) will be dispersed throughout the body and eventually eliminated (the biological half-life is 30 days). Ingested radioactive iodine is worrying because it concentrates in the thyroid. Inhaled plutonium dust is very worrying because it may lodge in the lungs and create a high risk of lung cancer even if the dose per body weight is small.

    Radiation hormesis may occur at very low levels of exposure. It’s almost certain (because we understand the mechanism) that any single ionizing event can cause cancer, but possible that very low levels of radiation have a compensating beneficial effect in stimulating repair pathways (experimental evidence suggests there is an effect, but it’s hard to know whether it’s sufficient to compensate for the risks, especially in humans).

    Whatever the truth of that, it’s foolish to worry about very low levels of ambient exposure. There are many more dangerous things in life.

    “…we should all have fallen down dead by now if there really was no safe level.” This is wrong. If there’s no safe level, a few of us would have fallen down dead by now. And very possibly, a few of us have. There’s no way to identify who.

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