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Answering Helen Caldicott

Cherry picking is for farmers

cherries In the OP ED pages of the New York Times, Helen Caldicott, a long-time anti-nuclear campaigner, writes “Unsafe at Any Dose” that physicists are ignoring health effects from ingested or inhaled radioactive materials. She goes on to say that only doctors, like her, are qualified to measure and assess the significance of these impacts.

Badges? We don’t need no stinking badges

In doing so, Caldicott blithely ignores the work of the National Academy of Sciences in its BEIR VII report which includes a panel of world class scientists from a dozen or more different disciplines. The report, which has the long title of “Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation” assumes that the probability of developing cancer is proportional to the dose, but they are clear that it is an assumption.

The BEIR VII panel expertise falls in the following areas. * Epidemiology & public health, medicine * Radiation oncology * Molecular biology * Radiation measurement, radiation physics * Biostatistics, mathematical statistics * Genetic effects of radiation exposures * Biophysics, bionucleonics * Risk assessment & risk management * Chemistry and toxicology.

It looks like there are a lot more than just physicians and physicists at work in this area. Sorry Helen, but your claim to exclusive rights to assess radiation health effects is a misguided effort.

It is also worth noting that the International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP) is composed of scientists from multiple disciplines. The handbook for dose conversion factors for internal exposures by isotope (including radioactive daughters) is ICRP 68 which is available from ICRP.

Fukushima reactors did not blow up

In a second error, Caldicott tells readers of the New York Times that the Fukushima reactors have blown up, more or less. This is not true. While there are estimates of damage to fuel assemblies within the reactor cores for three of them, neither the reactor pressure vessel nor primary containment structures for any of the six reactors at Fukushima have been breached by the combined effects of a 9.0 earthquake and 15 meter high tsunami.

Peer review matters

Third, Caldicott cites a study published by the New York Academy of Sciences as her basis for claiming millions of deaths occurred related to the Chernobyl accident 25 years ago. In fact, no one in New York or at the Academy wrote the report. It is a translation of a single study in Russian which has not had the kind of scientific peer review that would establish its credibility.

Caldicot is cherry picking a convenient source to promote a message of fear, uncertainty, and doubt about nuclear energy. This is propaganda. It is not science.

Other voices

Finally, I’d like to refer readers to two other sources for critiques of Caldicott’s work. Cheryl Rofer, a retired scientist from Los Alamos, has a blog post in which she steps through the entire OP ED with some pithy comments about the potholes in Calddicott’s roadwork.

Also, see George Monbiot’s multiple reviews of Caldicott in which he documents her “misleading” presentations about the threats of radiation.

The New York Times likes to position itself as offering multiple points of view on its OP ED page. However, when it allows its pages to host junk science, it does a disservice to its own cause.

Photo by SayCheeeeeese.

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Jonathan Cole's picture
Jonathan Cole on May 6, 2011

All man-made systems fail; either due to forces of nature or human error. We cannot afford to widely adopt technologies whose failures can lay a whole region to waste and whose dangerous byproducts cannot be managed

We have alternatives to nuclear, coal, etc which present very little risk in the worse case failure mode. Solar is already a nuclear sourced power but the reactor is 93 million miles away, an appropriate distance for at least a measure of safety. We need to use safe nuclear power AKA solar and we need to stop defending the indefensible and get on with accelerating the transition to clean solid state energy conversion technologies..

John Englert's picture
John Englert on May 6, 2011

Why are we allowing people such as Helen Caldicott to set the tone of the discussion?  The real discussion should be on how long are we going to allow billions of people world wide suffer the effects of a lack of access to reliable, low emission sources of energy.  We should be also addressing why so many people do not have clean drinking water, when waste heat from nuclear fission could be used for purification and desalination.  

John Englert's picture
John Englert on May 7, 2011

I wouldn’t exactly call the land impacted by the fallout from fukushima a wasteland. If a person had remained in the contaminated area for a whole year starting on March 16th their dose would still be less than the occupational dose for a rad worker. Now the areas impacted by the eruption of Mt. St. Helena could have been viewed as laid to waste.

The industry is managing the spent fuel. Look up Connecticut Yanked; all the spent fuel and radioactive parts of the core are securely held in dry cask storage.

Solar power sounds good until you look at it in practice. In Germany they have 15,000 MW of installed solar, but only average 10% of that over the year and in winter they’ve gone days with almost no production at all. We haven’t begun to assess the risks of constructing and installing the billions of square meters of solar panels so we can’t say for sure that solar would be less risky to human health or environment than nuclear fission.

Jonathan Cole's picture
Jonathan Cole on May 7, 2011

Well that is a stretch. As far as I am concerned it is a wasteland if the government declares it to be so.

You clearly know little about solar energy. I have been developing  affordable practical systems and living on solar energy since 1983.  No electric bill, no danger, no noise, no pollution – it is really not comparable to any other energy technology. You may want to look at in order to see what a small footprint an entirely solar world requires.

It does not matter what the allowable dose of radiation for a worker is. Radiation is the output of nuclear decay. If it is external to the body it only has a momentary impact which may or may not produce damage. However when radio nuclides are dispersed in the air, water, land and food chain then it is a real threat if clusters of radio isotopes end up inside your body lodged in some place which is not easily flushed out.

I know that there are a lot people whose chosen profession is nuclear energy and they want to put as good a face on it as possible. But no matter how good the technology, you cannot eliminate human error and natural catastrope from releasing dangerous materials into the biosphere. And I am not talking about radiation. I am talking about radioactive elements in invisible nanoclusters (aerosols) that cannot be seen or detected except with expensive specialized equipment.

We’ve got a choice here. If you think solar cannot fill the bill, you are behind the times. Early efforts in any technology are always hit and miss. But we now have very robust solid state photovoltaic technologies that are already being manufactured at below $1 a nominal watt. Now we are on the brink of an electrical storage technology revolution which will make renewable energy a dispatchable resource.

Nuclear energy should be phased out just like nuclear weapons. Too damned dangerous.

Paul O's picture
Paul O on May 8, 2011


The Clear difference between you and Yurman (a nuclear energy blogger), is that you by your own admission are a part of the Solar Industry, and it is in your interest to see your industry thrive at the expense of other energy providers. 

I am neither in the Energy Industry by any capacity, nor am I a blogger like Dan, so I’ll tell you where I stand. I do want Solar power to thrive. I want it to be cheap, reliable, and dispatchable. But I also want Nuclear Power to thrive. I want it to be SAFE, I want it to be brought into the 2010’s and not stuck on 1950/60’s technology. I also want it cheap.

Unlike you I have no fear of nuclear technology done right, and my biggest annoyance has been at the successful efforts of nuclear’s alarmist detractors in halting the development of Modern, inherently safe 4th Generation Nuclear technology. 

My impression and conclussion is that Solar Power is needed and prefferable to wind, but it alone cannot and will not replace Hydocarbons if we are aiming for a future that has an abundance of energy for our populations. I care nothing for a future crippled by austerity and Rationing. If we are to avoid this kind of future, we need Solar power done right, Wind Power, and Nuclear Power.

I’m not going to cite any web links because I don’t expect to convince you of anything. Be that as it may, I will do what little I can to encourage the developpment of Thorium, and Nuclear fusion/fission Hybrid technology. If you wish to have an open mind you may google those terms.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on May 10, 2011


Opponents of nuclear power often claim that nuclear power is too dangerous, or that we already know how to build non-nuclear electrical system that is safer than one which is mostly or all nuclear.  It turns out that these claims are historically false, and there is no reason to believe this will change in the future.

We are told to fear the vaguely defined “risks” of nuclear power.  We (the world) have already had our “Chernobyl”, and we’ve learned two things:  1) don’t build that type of reactor, and 2) even including that lousy reactor type, nuclear kills fewer people than coal.

The renewable industry promises a third alternative.  In reality, we don’t know how to build an acceptable 100% renewable electric system.  The US DOE has done detailed studies of national power grid modifications for 20% and 30% renewable power.  But 100% is currently a fantasy.  A realistic blend of Renewables + fossil fuel will kill more people than nuclear power.

Neither the DOE nor the American Wind Energy Associate believes that advanced batteries will allow anything close to 100% renewable power.

And the promise of solar PV for $1/Watt is refering to the raw module price, not the installed-price (more cherry picking).  According to the Solar Energy Industries Association (, the average installed price of PV in 4Q2010 was $4.05/W for utility scale and $6.42 for residential.

Given PV’s low capacity factor, this represents a utility scale price per average Watt delivered of quadruple that of wind or geothermal.  The current regulatory/subsidy environment is quite a triumph of solar marketing.


Jonathan Cole's picture
Jonathan Cole on May 23, 2011

Just to set the record straight, I am not a part of the solar industry. I am not in it for the money. I am an educator and an independent researcher. I am also very experienced having lived with solar energy for the better part of three decades, developing and demonstrating systems that allow all modern amenities that are affordable and user-friendly. Interestingly as a young man I was interested in becoming a nuclear scientist so I paid attention to that technology. In my opinion the best way to use nuclear energy would be to widely distribute the fuel in some kind of nuclear batteries, but then there would always be some kind of psychopath wanting to make a dirty bomb. Hard to make a dirty bomb out of silicon.

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