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Flossing and Fissioning: The Importance of Evidence

Robert Hargraves's picture
Chief Marketing Officer ThorCon US

AB Dartmouth College mathematics; PhD Brown University high energy physics. Co-founder ThorCon International. Author "THORIUM: energy cheaper than coal". Chief Information Officer Boston...

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  • Aug 9, 2016


The US government has withdrawn its recommendation for flossing teeth, reports the Associated Press. Why? No evidence of benefit! The US is endorsing evidence-based science. Perhaps the US will also use evidence-based science to address rules for exposure to radiation from medical procedures and nuclear power plants.

Evidence everyone sees is that no member of the public was harmed from radiation from the meltdown of three nuclear power plants in Fukushima nor the one at Three Mile Island. The explosion and fire at Chernobyl did kill 26 firefighters with radiation exposures hundreds of times higher than at Fukushima, and 15 unfortunate children died from thyroid cancer from contaminated food. Though protesters hype about tens or hundreds of thousands of cancer deaths, cancer rates in the area actually went down. Evidence.

Radiation dose is measured as energy absorbed per kilogram of tissue. One Gray = 1 joule/kg = 1 watt-second/kg. A similar unit is Sievert; 1 Gy = 1 Sv for X-rays. In 1934 the NCRP (National Council on Radiation Protection) and ICRP (International Commission on Radiological Protection) recommended radiation limits be 734 mGy per year, because no one had been identifiably injured by lower doses. Evidence.

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists sought to induce widespread fear of all radiation to discourage nuclear war. A new theory was developed called LNTH (linear no threshold hypothesis), which said even small radiation doses has a proportionate risk of cancer and death. LNTH is valid for acute exposures exceeding ~100 mGy. But today epidemiologists still analyze noisy data about low-level exposure and health, assuming LNTH is true and then solving for the parameters of the equations.

LNTH is in conflict with evidence that tissues recover quickly at lower doses. This is evidenced hundreds of times a day with fractionated cancer radiotherapy that divides an otherwise deadly radiation dose into safe daily doses over a few weeks. LNTH is in conflict with evidenced effects of 77 Brazilians in Goiania who broke open a discarded radiotherapy source, played with, and even ate some of the glowing radioactive cesium source; four died from acute radiation syndrome, but no one got cancer. LNTH is in conflict with evidence that show no secondary induced cancers in children treated for cancer with doses up to 5000 mGy.

EPA and NRC now set public radiation exposure limits to 1 mSv/year, even 0.1 mSv/year at Yucca Mountain, based on no evidence. Three petitions have been presented to the NRC, asking that public radiation limits be set to 50 mSv/year, well below any evidenced harmful rates.

The biggest obstacle to the progress of fission power plants is not the specific level of safety limit, but the public fear that even low-dose low-dose-rate radiation is harmful.  Can we apply evidence-based regulation to both flossing and fission?

Evidence at

Photo Credit: G M via Flickr

David Thorpe's picture
David Thorpe on Aug 11, 2016

Your ‘evidence’ is anecdotal. You need to check the reviews of the 90 peer-reviewed studies on this topic. This is a very complex subject. There are 2 main types of radiation effects: immediate cell-killing effects and long-term (many decades later) effects such as cancer, mutations and cardiovascular effects. Essentially the UNSCEAR report you refer to only recognises the former (100 deaths) and chooses to ignore the more important and numerous latter effects. However in the fields of radiation biology and radiation epidemiology there is little doubt that the latter exist. For example, we are still in 2016 measuring the cancer deaths of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. This is why the TORCH-2016 results yield 40,000 eventual deaths in Europe.
See: Late lessons from Chernobyl, early warnings from Fukushima by Paul Dorfman, Aleksandra Fucic and Stephen Thomas at; and The silent spring of Chernobyl and Fukushima at

Robert Hargraves's picture
Robert Hargraves on Aug 12, 2016

David, you are correct in “we are still in 2016 measuring the cancer deaths of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945”. We are following the lives of the atomic bomb survivors and recording their deaths. Cancer is a natural cause of death, so the question to consider is whether the cancer death rates are higher for exposed persons. Cancers turned out to be less frequent than normal among survivors receiving doses of 60 mSv or less. The measured death rates from low level radiation exposure are nil, though LNTH projects higher rates, which is the basis of the TORCH-2016 report.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Aug 12, 2016

David, your ‘sources’ make a valiant attempt to pass off standard anti-nuke gospel as credible academic study. But after covering a range of topics from radiation, to economics, to policy in any country of the world where a nuclear accident has occurred, it’s clear authors are shaping their results to justify their pre-determined agenda. Propaganda, vs. science.

“…its failure to plan for the cascade of unexpected beyond design-base accidents, the regulatory emphasis on risk-based probabilistic assessment has proven very limited. An urgent re-appraisal of this approach, and its real-life application seems overdue.
Whatever one’s view of the risks and benefits of nuclear energy, it is clear that the possibility of catastrophic accidents must be factored into the policy and regulatory decision-making process. In the context of current collective knowledge on nuclear risks, both the regulation of operating nuclear reactors and the design-base for any proposed reactor will need significant re-evaluation.”

Only a grossly-uninformed evangelist could come to such a conclusion when the possibility of catastrophic accidents has been factored into the policy and regulatory decision-making process for decades. And how does one plan for a “cascade of unexpected beyond design-base accidents” if they’re unexpected? Hmm? Seems like one would have to resort to one’s imagination, where the sky is the limit, and campaigns funded by fear can prove immensely lucrative.

Robert Hargraves's picture
Robert Hargraves on Aug 12, 2016

Here’s a brand new article clearing up the misconceptions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki health effects.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Aug 13, 2016

David, as this sketch from the National Academy of Science’s BIER VII report shows, there is no doubt that radiation dose response shows a threshold*, the only question is whether the response is zero below the threshold, or just very low. It is very difficult to design a study which can distinguish the two, but it turns out not to matter to the most important question: whether nuclear energy is safer than fossil fuels. Even with very conservative assumptions about the effects of low level radiation (i.e. LNT), nuclear energy is so much safer than fossil fuel, that using fossil fuel which is diluted 90% with renewables (which is probably not affordable) is still more dangerous to human health and the climate than using nuclear power.

Of course, LNT and the resulting ALARA goals (making radiation exposure “As Low As Reasonable Achievable”) do increase the cost of using nuclear power (imposing a needless burden on the poor), so it is worthwhile stating how wrong LNT actually is.

* The threshold for radiation induced cancer is about the same as the threshold for radiation sickness (about 10 Rem= 100 mSv): if the dose is not large enough to cause nausea or hair loss, then it is also not large enough to cause observable increases in cancer rates. No one ever need fear long-term harm from a radiation exposure that they can’t see/feel and produces no symptoms; there will be no detectable long term result.

Robert Hargraves's picture
Thank Robert for the Post!
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