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If Vermont Yankee had an Accident Like Fukushima

Meredith Angwin's picture
Carnot Communications

Former project manager at Electric Power Research Institute. Chemist, writer, grandmother, and proponent of nuclear energy.

  • Member since 2018
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  • Oct 11, 2011

On Friday, October 7, I attended a Jones Seminar at the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College. The Jones Seminars are open to the public, but mostly attended by engineering students.

10 Kilotons in Washington D.C.
Dr. Swartz’s area of scientific inquiry is after-the-fact dose measurement, and he started the seminar with a description of an improvised nuclear explosive device going off in Washington D.C.. (Parenthetically, he said it would be easier to buy a bomb than to make one.) At that point in the seminar, since I knew Dr. Swartz is a medical specialist in radiation dose measurement, I wondered why he had titled this talk anything about Vermont Yankee? Vermont Yankee cannot be a bomb, either improvised or purchased.
But as the talk continued, I realized his reasons. He described the casualties of a bomb and the non-casualties of Fukushima in a masterful way. I recommend his talk highly. It is scientific, direct and reassuring.
Helping the Worried Well
Dr. Swartz basically said that in the real events of Fukushima, or the theoretical events at Vermont Yankee, the “worried well” are the major issue. Civilians will not experience exposure at a dose which would measurably increase their chances of getting cancer or limit their life-expectancy. At the same time, they will not believe any official reassurances that “everything is okay.” It would be the duty of the scientific community to explain that people are not in danger of cancer or early death. In other words, it would be the duty of the scientific community to reduce one of the major public health effects of any type of accident: fear and anxiety.

John Englert's picture
John Englert on Oct 12, 2011

Thanks for the post Meredith.  Ignoring the blast and thermal effects, a significant difference between the radiation from a nuclear detonation and a nuclear power accident is the prompt gamma and neutron radiation that comes out as the weapon is detonating.  I recall hearing a few years back about efforts to do radiation dose triage on survivors as they are coming out of the blast zone.  I addition to the bio-markers, some folks have even suggested installing some sort of dosimetry in smart phones; perhaps measuring the activation products in the phones.  

I would like to suggest a new cancer risk equivalent unit: The Charred Grilled Meat Unit (CGMU), which would be the risk of regularly eating meat that is well done.  I just thought of it so I’m not sure what a given additional radiation dose (assuming the LNT) would equal in CGMUs.  The DOE estimated that if someone had remained at home in the contamination area near the Fukushima nuclear power plants for a whole year, that their total dose would be 20 mSv.  It would be interesting to relate the risk of that additional dose to say eating one additional serving of charred meat each week.  If the dose was stated in CGMUs, people would either 1) be less afraid of radiation or 2) eat less meat.  Either way the results could be positive.  

I am curious how someone who specializes in post-radiological disaster dose management would have insight into the availability of weapon’s usable material or a fully assembled nuclear weapon.  

Meredith Angwin's picture
Meredith Angwin on Oct 12, 2011

John. You are right. Also, I don’t like charred meat. I’m a chemist, and to me, the “char”  on meat looks like the “tar” in the bottom of a beaker of heated organic chemicals! A metric for  charred-meat, CGMU, could be the equivalent of Banana Equivalent Dose.  

Dr. Swartz was wrong about several nuclear engineering issues.  He said there was “uncontrolled fission” at Fukushima, but there wasn’t.  There was fuel melting but not criticality, as I understand it. He also made some incorrect statements about control rods. I liked his information about safety and dose, but he was not knowledgable about power plant operations.

John Englert's picture
John Englert on Oct 13, 2011


The LNT has never been proven at low doses (less than 100mSv). We all know that eating a banana doesn’t increase your dose, but it’s a useful tool for relating small amounts of radioactivity. A phrase one of my nuclear engineering professors would say is, “learning is time phased liing.”

John Englert's picture
John Englert on Oct 14, 2011

I’ll have my steak rare and my power nuclear. There are a lot of events that we encounter in our lives that we have no control over, which probably contributes to our poor ability to asses risk. We tend to perceive the familiar activities in life such as riding a bicycle as being low risk because we think we have control. I brought up the charred meat cancer risk, not because I think choosing to eat meat is the same as a nuclear accident, but because using something familiar helps people to understand the unfamiliar.

John Englert's picture
John Englert on Oct 14, 2011


At doses less than 40 times the average yearly background exposure (100 mSv), statistical limitations make it difficult to evaluate cancer risk in humans. A comprehensive review of the biology data led the committee to conclude that the risk would continue in a linear fashion at lower doses without a threshold and that the smallest dose has the potential to cause a small increase in risk to humans. This assumption is termed the “linear no-threshold model”

The first sentence is the most important one. It says they can’t determine what the risk is below 100 mSv (this is discussed in the video). The rest of the paragraph basically says they are sticking with the “assumption” of the LNT because they haven’t seen anything to cause them to change their assumption–this is not the same as scientific proof.

At low doses, there is no data that supports the notion that the probability of cancer from dose X is equal to the sum of probabilities of X/n doses.  And your eating hot coal analogy is just silly.  The body can’t tell the difference between radiation from NORM and that which is emmitted by reactor fission products. 

Bill Hannahan's picture
Bill Hannahan on Oct 15, 2011

Regarding this statement;

“It has been proven that there is a linear, no-threshold dose-response relationship between exposure to ionizing radiation and the development of cancer in humans.”

Miki, please provide references for high quality studies of radiation effects on humans that prove the harmful effects of low level radiation exposure, not extrapolations from high dose data.

One of the most knowledgeable people on low level radiation health effects is Dr Bernard Cohen. I challenge you to review his entire video.

If you still think LNT theory is valid, identify Dr. Cohens mistakes and provide references to document those mistakes.


Meredith Angwin's picture
Thank Meredith for the Post!
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