“The US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) presented the linear no-threshold hypothesis (LNT) in 1956, which indicates that the lowest doses of ionizing radiation are hazardous in proportion to the dose. This spurious hypothesis was not based on solid data. NAS put forward the BEIR VII report in 2006 as evidence supporting LNT. The study described in the report used data of the Life Span Study (LSS) of A-bomb survivors. Estimation of exposure doses was based on initial radiation (5%) and neglected residual radiation (10%), leading to underestimation of the doses. Residual radiation mainly consisted of fallout that poured down onto the ground along with black rain. The black-rain-affected areas were wide. Not only A-bomb survivors but also not-in-the-city control subjects (NIC) must have been exposed to residual radiation to a greater or lesser degree. Use of NIC as negative controls constitutes a major failure in analyses of LSS. Another failure of LSS is its neglect of radiation adaptive responses which include low-dose stimulation of DNA damage repair, removal of aberrant cells via stimulated apoptosis, and elimination of cancer cells via stimulated anticancer immunity. LSS never incorporates consideration of this possibility. When LSS data of longevity are examined, a clear J-shaped dose-response, a hallmark of radiation hormesis, is apparent. Both A-bomb survivors and NIC showed longer than average lifespans. Average solid cancer death ratios of both A-bomb survivors and NIC were lower than the average for Japanese people, which is consistent with the occurrence of radiation adaptive responses (the bases for radiation hormesis), essentially invalidating the LNT model. Nevertheless, LNT has served as the basis of radiation regulation policy. If it were not for LNT, tremendous human, social, and economic losses would not have occurred in the aftermath of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant accident. For many reasons, LNT must be revised or abolished, with changes based not on policy but on science.”

“Petitioners (left to right) Mohan Doss, Mark Miller and Carol Marcus have asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to revamp radiation exposure regulations to acknowledge that low-level radiation exposure benefits human health. The broader scientific community rejects the notion, known as ‘hormesis,’ but the International Dose-Response Society for hormesis believers honored the petitioners along with the pro-hormesis group they helped found – Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information – with leadership awards in 2016.” 


“Since World War II, virtually every American business where radiation is present – hospital emergency rooms and cancer wards, uranium mines, nuclear power plants, and others – has operated under rules generally requiring that exposures be kept as low as possible. The rules are based on a widely-accepted scientific dicta that even small amounts of extra radiation can be harmful to human health. Following those rules, though, is costly and often cumbersome, and so the requirement for low-dose radiation protections – known as the ALARA standard for “as low as reasonably achievable” – has long been annoying to a large swath of American industry. Estimates of the costs associated with these protections run into the billions of dollars.

Until the Trump era, opponents of the rules have gotten little traction in trying to upend low-dose radiation protections – such as isolation units, elaborate shielding, specialized air cleaners, and elaborate worker training — in federal regulations. But proposed relaxations have been percolating in recent months, courtesy of a little-known advocacy group called Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information, or SARI. Members of the group, which claims its ideas have been wrongly dismissed and belittled by mainstream scientists, subscribe to a minority theory known as “hormesis.” It defies conventional wisdom by holding that damaging things that are dangerous in high doses might actually be beneficial to human health in small doses.

Despite swimming against the tide in the past, one of the group’s members has just been appointed to head a Radiation Advisory Panel at the Environmental Protection Agency, which helps set federal standards for radiation doses received by the public and by workers. And several of its recommendations to ease radiation protections are presently under active consideration by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. SARI’s members typically have more day-to-day connections to radiation than others, and potentially more influence: They have held jobs connected to radiation protection at the EPA, the Department of Labor, the Energy Department and its sub-agency responsible for building nuclear weapons at nine factories across the country. Practitioners of nuclear medicine, people employed in the nuclear industry, and professors who teach nuclear medicine or industrial hygiene also populate SARI. The NRC’s consideration of the SARI views got started when three members of the group petitioned it in 2015 to abandon its current approach and accept that radiation in low doses is not only benign, but improves health. That was two years after SARI’s founding by industry officials trying to tamp down public concerns about the radiation that spilled from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster.

The NRC took the petitions seriously. Its staff created a working group to study the issue, and insiders now say that work is done. According to Scott Burnell, an NRC spokesman, the five members of the commission as a result will take up the issue this spring. Spokesmen and other NRC sources declined to predict the outcome. But if adopted, the proposed change would provide vast savings for radiation-reliant industries, allowing them to install new medical equipment, deploy new types of nuclear reactors, open or enlarge facilities for making key nuclear weapons components, and continue the clean-up of contaminated nuclear sites without undertaking such expensive precautions to limit radiation exposure to workers, patients and the public.

The commission has had a pro-industry Republican majority since May 2018, when three Trump nominees to it were confirmed.  One was Annie Caputo, a former staff member for Republican Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.) that previously worked as a nuclear engineer for the Exelon Corp. a major utility; and the second was David A. Wright, a nuclear industry consultant and retired South Carolina public service commission member. Trump also tapped as the NRC chair Kristine Svinicki, a former Energy Department employee and nuclear engineer well-known for supporting industry as a commission member since 2008. Trump handed her a new five-year term. This year, these three have already undone a draft rule written during the Obama administration – and hated by industry – requiring new protections at nuclear plants against floods and earthquakes like those at Fukushima. The Jan. 24 vote was a straight party-line 3-2 decision.

Undoing the low-dose radiation protections might be more complicated. Of more than 635 comments collected on the SARI-related low-dose radiation petitions before the NRC closed the record on Nov. 15, only about 100 comments favored any regulatory relaxation. “If hormesis is incorrect or only applies under certain circumstances, removing the ‘as low as reasonably achievable’ principle could result in a large number of excess cancers,” Olav Christianson, who manages a nuclear medicine practice in Pittsburgh, wrote in a letter to the NRC opposing the proposed regulatory change. “Until we fully understand the health risks, we should continue to employ the most conservative approach.”

But the three main petitioners for a relaxation of radiation protections aren’t gadflies and they haven’t been passive — far from it. Mark Miller, for instance, is a retired health physicist who spent 23 years at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, one of the three principal nuclear weapons design centers. His duties there included protecting workers from radiation exposure. In March 2017, Miller sent a copy of the SARI appeal to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, “who I was not a fan of,” Miller said, “because of some of his anti-science ideas.” Miller said he thought it was an opportune moment to relax the radiation standards as part of the Trump administration’s broader deregulation push. The following month Pruitt proposed to change EPA regulations to recognize the merits of hormesis.

A second petitioner, Carol Silber Marcus, is a physician specializing in nuclear medicine and a UCLA professor of radiology who once served on the NRC’s Advisory Committee on the Medical Use of Isotopes. Marcus said during a phone interview that she also works as a consultant for lawyers defending clients against radiation overexposure claims and for radiological pharmaceutical companies. Marcus suggested in a Nov. 6, 2016 article that appeared in the journal Dose Response – a specialty publication created by hormesis supporters as a platform to spread their point of view – that radiation protection professionals, like those who belong to SARI, should purposely defy existing regulations. “What if large numbers of licensees went on an ALARA strike?” Marcus wrote. “If large numbers of licensees do this, it would be hard for the NRC to fight it. The NRC would look ridiculous, as it should.” In an April 30, 2018, letter to NRC regulators last year she made clear her disdain for their meddling in nuclear medicine: “We do not need näive dilletantes at the NRC deciding what Nuclear Medicine physicians need to learn.” When she’s teaching physicians in residence at UCLA, “I sneak in some stuff on low-dose radiobiology and explain to them that the government is lying to you,” Marcus said in a phone interview.

Mohan Doss, the third SARI member petitioning the NRC, is a medical physicist and professor at the Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia. Doss contends the benefits of low-level radiation are well established, but he concedes that many scientists disagree. “There’s plenty of evidence that shows cancer risk goes down after people receive exposures to low levels of radiation,” he asserted. He adds that “if radiation exposure standards were relaxed,” it would produce important savings for the nuclear power industry and for medical uses of radiation. Like many of his colleagues in SARI, Doss says that exposure to a small amount of radiation causes a small amount of cellular damage, but asserts this triggers the body’s cells to repair themselves and enhances the immune system, and thus fuels better overall health through heightened resistance to illnesses, including cancer. He says he also rejects the idea that children and fetuses have any special vulnerability to lasting harm from low-level radiation exposures because their defenses are also enhanced with the exposures.

These assertions stand scientific consensus on its head. Most experts say to the contrary that even low doses of radiation cause cell damage that years later can promote uncontrolled cell growth and replication, and that children and fetuses are particularly susceptible to harm. That seven-decade-old view was reaffirmed as recently as last April in a study by a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement. The study, overseen by a dozen experts from the government, academia, and industry, and funded by the NRC, considered 29 contemporary scientific studies of the effects of low-dose radiation in reaffirming that even low-level radiation should be avoided to the extent possible. “There is clear evidence of excess risks for many cancer types, such as bladder, breast, colon, stomach and lung,” from exposure to excess radiation, the report said. It acknowledged that at lower doses the relationship is less certain, but noted that several long studies of medical outcomes for tuberculosis patients given x-ray imaging known as fluoroscopy collectively showed “a straight-line relationship between breast tissue [radiation] dose and breast cancer, adding substantial weight to the judgment on the use of the [existing] model for radiation protection.”

It added that “there was no conclusive evidence” to refute the linear, or direct cause and effect, “relationship for many of the risks attributable to low-level ionizing radiation” – essentially endorsing the mainstream insistence on low-dose protections as a prudent, cautionary measure. The NRC members will consider the report as they deliberate about the SARI members’ petition, McIntyre said. The 2018 report didn’t quiet the debate, however, in part because hormesis advocates have found numerous friends in the deregulation-oriented Trump administration. During the six months that followed the radiation protection council’s unambiguous endorsement of the current standards, initiatives to relax human radiation protection standards made some sudden and striking inroads. EPA’s proposal to roll back radiation regulation to save industry from compliance costs was the subject of a hearing last October organized by House Republicans. The hearing featured testimony from longtime hormesis supporter Edward Calabrese, a professor of toxicology at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst, who has long allied himself with industries seeking to ease government regulations. A center he runs has been funded by the tobacco firm R.J. Reynolds, the chemical firm Dow-Corning, the oil firm ExxonMobil, and utility companies.

He’s also the founder of the Dose Response journal that advocates for hormesis, and the sponsor of an annual conference about the theory. Pruitt’s departure under an ethical cloud caused the EPA to put the proposal on a back-burner, but scientists and government personnel who’ve closely monitored the initiative say it’s scheduled to get renewed consideration in 2020. Meanwhile, a bill aimed at the same sort of regulatory rollback passed the House of Representatives in March 2017. Companion legislation was also introduced in the Senate, but the concept will likely face tough sledding now that the House has been taken over by Democrats. Janet McCabe, an environmental lawyer who headed the EPA division responsible for radiation and air pollution protection during the Obama administration, compared hormesis supporters to climate change deniers whose interests are well positioned to benefit from the Trump administration’s industry-oriented deregulation campaign. McCabe said she was not surprised to see “this more fringe view getting an audience with this administration.”

But a closer look at the SARI membership list makes clear that its adherents have held important government jobs, often related to radiation controls, for decades. SARI member Brant Ulsh, for example, is a veteran of the National Institute on Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency, where he prepared dose calculations for nuclear weapons site workers. Since 2012, he’s worked at Cincinnati-based M. H. Chew and Associates, which provides advice to radiation-related industries, including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in northern California, one of the nation’s three nuclear weapon design centers, and a program based at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee that performs radiation dose reconstructions for worker exposure incidents. In January, Ulsh was appointed by Pruitt’s successor as EPA administrator, former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, to chair the agency’s radiation advisory board and help set future national exposure standards. His ideas will reach sympathetic ears at EPA, where since 2005, SARI member John Cardarelli II has been the scientific and technical leader of the agency’s program to detect airborne radiation and assess its consequences. Last summer, Ulsh and Cardarelli coauthored a Dose Response article urging the EPA to adopt a hormesis-based approach. They said the current regulatory standard for radiation exposure unnecessarily complicates cleanup of sites that have been contaminated by past nuclear weapons-related work. “The impact to the United States is real, resulting in enormous cleanup costs that show no demonstrable benefit to society,” they wrote.

Neither responded to email and phone messages seeking an interview. Daniel O. Hirsch, an activist on radiation issues and former director of the University of California-Santa Cruz’s program on environmental and nuclear policy, said he was startled to learn that that “people who have an agenda of increasing the public’s exposure to radiation are now being placed in significant positions of power.” Those who say “radiation is good for you are placing people in danger,” Hirsch said. Three other listed SARI members have similarly had important radiation protection responsibilities. Frank Crawford is a health physicist in the Labor Department’s Office of Worker Compensation Programs, which decides what role radiation exposure played in nuclear weapon workers’ health problems, and whether they or their heirs should receive compensation. Rex Borders was responsible for cataloging and analyzing radiation releases at nuclear weapons labs and plants around the country, on behalf of the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration until his retirement in March 2017. In a phone interview, he said he has not remained active in SARI since retiring. And Richard Hansen, according to the SARI website, works for the contractor that operates the Nevada National Security Site. Published reports he has written about how the public and the government should respond to attacks involving radioactive materials, such as an improvised “dirty bomb,” identify him as a counterterrorism expert. Crawford, who speaks regularly about historical radiation contamination incidents at meeting halls crammed with cancer-stricken nuclear weapon workers and widows in cities like Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Attempts to reach Hansen and Crawford by phone, email and through their listed employers were unsuccessful.

SARI’s minority scientific view that the exposure to low doses of radiation can promote better health – instead of helping cause cancer – even was also approved for presentation in 2016 to personnel responsible for worker safety at Los Alamos National Laboratory, a government facility famous for creating the first U.S. nuclear explosives as well as for a series of deaths and injuries stemming from radiation-related accidents. The Center for Public Integrity revealed in 2017 that poor safety practices and inadequate staffing there forced a shutdown of America’s only facility for production of plutonium pits for nuclear arms from 2013 to 2017. “Low levels of radiation are not harmful to human life and, in fact, humans require additional exposure to ionizing radiation in order to achieve optimum health via a process known as Radiation Hormesis,” the laboratory’s presentation, entitled “(Mis)Understanding Radiation,” stated. The presentation argued that that “incidence of cancer and other illness is reduced when one is exposed to low levels of radiation.”

It said that unwarranted fear of radiation is unnecessarily holding back nuclear energy development and further medical advancements that rely on radioactive materials. The presentation was published on-line and given in person to the laboratory’s worker safety and security team, according to lab spokesman Kevin Roark. It was written several weeks after the McClatchy newspaper chain published a series documenting how more than 30,000 nuclear weapons workers had died from cancer caused on the job. In a section of the Los Alamos presentation discussing a law established in 2000 to compensate employees of the Department of Energy’s nuclear weapon complex for cancer associated with workplace radiation exposure, the lab authors undiplomatically used this blunt bullet point first: “Everybody dies of something, eventually.”

“I was horrified when I read that,” particularly on the letterhead of a Department of Energy-sponsored laboratory where some of the dead and sickened workers were employed, said Terrie Barrie, an advocate in Colorado who assists weapon workers in their pursuit of health-related benefits. “For the current workers, it has to raise questions about whether they’re taking care of the workers the way they should be.”

by Adam Rogers / 05.13.19

“Until the 19th century, the Pripyat River basin on the border between Ukraine and Belarus was wetland and forest. As usual, humans kind of ruined it. They burned down forest for pastureland and cut down trees for timber—or for fuel to make glass and vodka. By the middle of the 20th century, most of that industry was gone, and human-driven reforestation efforts had remade the Pripyat region anew.

And then, on April 26, 1986, a nuclear power plant called Chernobyl, on the Pripyat River about 70 miles north of Kiev, blew up and caught fire, spewing radiation across the northern hemisphere.

So that was a big change. The Soviets ended up evacuating 300,000 people from nearly 2,000 square miles around the plant. The bulk of that area is now called the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, and the old power plant is now encased in a giant concrete sarcophagus. But what happened to the Exclusion Zone after everyone left is the subject of disagreement in the scientific community.

For decades, research in the area said that plant and animal life had been denuded, and the life that remained was mutated, sick. Newer research says otherwise—that plants have regrown, and animal life is even more diverse than before the accident. The Exclusion Zone hasn’t been rewilded so much as de-humaned, more unmanned in folly than anything Lady Macbeth ever worried about. It’s a living experiment in what the world will be like after humans are gone, having left utter devastation in our wake.

It’d be easy to assume that exposing 3 billion humans to clouds of radioactive strontium, iodine, cesium, and plutonium would be a Thanos-snappingly bad thing. Some 134 emergency responders around the plant got acute radiation sickness, but 530,000 recovery workers got high enough doses to be worrisome. Studies are ongoing as to what that did to their bodies. One effect seems uncontroversial: The more radioactive iodine you get exposed to, the more likely you are to have thyroid cancer and other thyroid problems later in life. Clean-up crew members today have disproportionately more instances of leukemia and other cancers, as well as cataracts.

Luckily, radioactive I-131 doesn’t stick around. “It has such a short half-life that it disappeared quickly—days and weeks after the accident,” says Jim Beasley, an ecologist at the University of Georgia who studies life in the Exclusion Zone. “The animals in Chernobyl today aren’t exposed to that.” (The effects of radiation can get weirder. Earlier this decade, a small cluster of elderly New Yorkers were diagnosed with an ultra-rare cancer of the eye and optic nerve—vitreo­retinal lymphoma. Ten of them turned out to have lived near Chernobyl or along the fallout path after the accident.)

Yes, yes, you are saying, but what about the Exclusion Zone? A mostly conifer forest west of the plant, where radiation levels were the highest, turned red and then died; it’s still called the Red Forest. But elsewhere? Early studies of birds and invertebrates like insects showed population declines, and later work showed the same for large mammals. “If you go to the most contaminated areas, like some sites in the Red Forest, on a spring day, you can barely hear a single bird singing,” says Anders Møller, an ecologist at the University of Paris-Sud who has been studying Chernobyl since 1991. “I’ll bet you that if we went together to the Exclusion Zone, I would be able to tell you the radiation level from the vocal activity of the birds.”

With his frequent collaborator Timothy Mousseau, Møller has long warned of the negative effects of radiation on the ecosystem. The team found, for example, mutation rates two to 10 times greater in barn swallows in the Exclusion Zone than in Italy or elsewhere in Ukraine—and genetic damage in a bunch of other plant and animal species. Signs of radiation damage, like albino patches on birds, are more common near Chernobyl, they say, as are abnormalities in sperm in birds and rodents. (Apparently the longer an animal’s sperm is, typically, the more subject it is to radiation damage. So … watch out, I guess.) Perhaps most disconcerting, Møller and Mousseau inventoried the total populations of invertebrates in and around the Exclusion Zone, and they found that their populations were smaller inside.

The same, they say, goes for birds and mammals, though the changes weren’t consistent for every species. “We see negative impacts of ionizing radiation on free-living organisms. This applies to mammals, insects, spiders, butterflies, you name it,” Møller says. “And a second issue is, are these populations of large mammals composed of healthy individuals? Or individuals that are sick or malformed or in other ways negatively impacted by radiation? That’s not investigated, and that’s the big question mark that hangs over the Exclusion Zone.”

Other researchers using different methods, though, have found quite the opposite. In the 1990s, a preliminary study of rodents showed that radiation had no effect on population. Twenty years later, a team of international researchers counting actual animals from helicopters found no measurable difference in the populations of elk, deer, and wild boar—and a sevenfold increase in wolf population—compared with similar, uncontaminated nature preserves. And all those populations had gone up since the first decade after the accident.

“Gerd Ludwig (Prypjat, Ukraine, 2005) Dogs searching for food in the exclusion zone.”

Why the difference? Possibly it’s that the animals in question reproduce faster than the radiation can kill them. “If 10 percent of the population was impacted by something—and I’m not saying they are, but if they were—in most situations, that wouldn’t be enough to cause a decline,” says Beasley, an author of that 2015 study. “A very low level of mortality wouldn’t be enough to manifest in a population-level response.”

Or maybe the animals die before something like a mutation or a cancer can kill them. “Most animals die within their first months of life, and those that make it to adulthood, most don’t live more than several years,” Beasley says. “Cancer is often a long-developing sort of thing.” That doesn’t take into account the quality of life or health of an individual in those populations, though—as Møller says. The animals might not be dying of radiation toxicity, but they might have cataracts or tumors. Their lives might not be shorter, but they might suck.

“Stray dogs in downtown Namie”

Methodologies have also changed. Beasley’s group now uses “scent stations” baited with fatty acids that animals like to sniff at. When they do, their presence triggers a camera, giving his team photographic evidence of at least a population’s overall range. They found wolves, raccoon dogs, wild boar, and foxes in population numbers as high as you’d expect in a region with no people trying to kill these things. They’ve also baited stations with dead fish alongside the rivers and canals in the Exclusion Zone, looking to find things like otters and mink. “One of the things I like about cameras is, images don’t lie,” Beasley says.

Since the accident, brown bears have colonized—or perhaps recolonized—the Exclusion Zone. In the late 1990s, European researchers introduced the nearly extinct Przewalski’s horse. Bison are thriving there too. The absence of humans seems to have allowed these populations to grow freely. The Przewalski’s horse nearly went extinct, but in an effort to save the species it was introduced into the area around Chernobyl in 1998 and to other reserves worldwide. Without humans living in the area, the horse population has been increasing.

The question is one of balance, or competing lifelines—no human pressure means a diverse ecosystem thrives, but radiation could tamp down that ecosystem’s ebullience. One of the methodological problems, though, is that no one’s really sure exactly how much radiation is there. Some people think that the radionuclides left on the ground are trapped in the soil; others think that animals traipsing through the forests could carry those particles with them and transport them to new locations.

Even ascertaining the radiation level is a problem. Researchers from the University of Bristol have tried using quadcopter drones to map them; Beasley’s team is deploying GPS collars for animals with built-in dosimeters to try to answer, finally, the actual doses that critters pick up. Those differences have knock-on effects that get to the heart of why this place is so hard to study. In the Red Forest, for example, the conifers that died were replaced by deciduous trees that could tolerate radiation better, but their leaf litter is less acidic, changing the microorganisms that live in it. “You’ve changed the ecosystem,” says Beasley. “It’s not just radiation. There are confounding factors.”

This all matters because the Exclusion Zone is all but unique. There are only a few other places on Earth that used to have humans but no longer do. They become models for a different kind of world, even if—or maybe especially because—two of those places, Chernobyl and Fukushima, are also radioactive. That’s important too. If you believe that nuclear power will be one of the key ways to produce energy without exacerbating Earth’s ongoing climate crisis, it’s important to know just how bad an accident at one of those nuclear power plants could get. Nuclear is a green, or at least green-ish, source of power—it requires cold water (which it then heats up) and creates a certain amount of waste, but that might be tolerable if you’re also willing to put up with the occasional risk of a Chernobyl or a Fukushima until someone reengineers these systems to be safer.

Oh, and that’s not the only reason to be thinking about climate change and Chernobyl. In 2015, two wildfires in the Exclusion Zone re-aerosolized radioactive particles in their smoke and carried them aloft, dosing parts of Europe all over again—at about the level of a medical x-ray. In fact, says Møller, the Exclusion Zone is constantly plagued by fire. And climate change has already increased the likelihood of fires in abandoned urban and peri-urban areas in Europe. Which means one of the lasting legacies of the Exclusion Zone extends far beyond its boundaries: climate change-induced radioactive wildfires.”



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