Nuclear Non-Proliferation...of Nuclear Fear

            A special task force is about to report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission about whether America’s 104 nuclear reactors could handle the challenges that led to partial meltdowns at the Fukushima complex in Japan; the near total loss of back-up power, or problems controlling the highly radioactive nuclear waste stored underwater at each plant. The task force will almost surely identify areas that need improvement. The NRC and the industry will say this is good…a part of ongoing efforts to make low risks even lower. Anti-nuclear advocates, quite possibly including Dr. Michiko Kaku, who blogs his fear of nuclear power elsewhere on this sitewill magnify every flaw as an alarming example of why nuclear power is a terrible danger.


             There are plenty of good reasons to oppose nuclear energy;

    -   It’s not cost-competitive

    -   The billions it costs to build just one nuclear plant could build a lot more renewable energy facilities and help make those sources more cost-competitive (though solar and wind have significant limits as sources of base load supply).

    -   More nuclear power plants reduces the need for conservation and efficiency, and the wiser use of the watts we already generate.

But the biggest reason most people oppose nuclear power is fear, and that’s actually the weakest reason of all. In fact, the fear may be a greater risk than the radiation itself.

            More than 100,000 survivors Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been followed for two generations. Of those within 3 kilometers of the explosions who survived not only the high level exposures at the moment of the detonation but weeks of continued exposure through the air and water and food, only about three quarters of one percent of them have died prematurely due to radiation-induced cancer….roughly 800 out of 120,000. The children of women pregnant at the time had many birth defects, but no multi-generational genetic damage has been found. (For much more, see)

            Based on what we’ve learned from the horrific radiation exposures from atomic weapons – much higher exposures than anything a nuclear power plant accident could create – The Union of Concerned Scientists recently calculated that as many as 27,000 people might die of radiation-induced cancer because of the Chernobyl accident, out of the entire global population of 6 billion. Since various populations got varying doses from Chernobyl, and since dose matters (higher dose = greater risk, with no threshold below which even small exposures are safe), the UCS analyzed the risk for sub-populations based on how much radiation they got. The UCS, an anti-nuclear watchdog, didn’t include the last column, the relative risk, the part that puts the risk in perspective. I added that, to provide a fuller context of the overall risk of ionizing radiation. It certainly does cause cancer, but it’s not nearly as dangerous as most people fear.

 

                     Absolute and Relative Cancer Death Risk from Radiation

                                         Released From Chernobyl

                                     (Union of Concerned Scientists)

Population

affected

Number of People

Excess Cancer Death

(ABSOLUTE RISK)

Percent who die out of whole population

(RELATIVE RISK)

Recovery workers

530,000

4,000

8 tenths of one percent (0.8%)

Evacuees

115,000

300

One quarter of one percent (0.26%)

Residents of “more contaminated areas”

25,000

1,000

Four percent (4%)

Residents of “contaminated areas in Belarus, Ukraine and affected areas of Russia

6,400,000

3,000

Less than twentieth of one percent (0.05%)

Other Residents of Belarus, Ukraine, affected parts of Russia

92,000,000

5,000

Five one thousandths of one percent (0.005%)

All other residents of Europe

500,000,000

9,000

Two one thousandths of one percent (0.002%)

Everybody else in the world

5.5 billion

4,000

7 one hundred thousandths of one percent (0.00007%)

(The UCS total is 26,300. They rounded it up to 27,000 in their press release)

 

            Despite these numbers, the word “radiation” rings all sorts of emotional alarm bells, for reasons that have been identified by research into the psychology of risk perception.

    -   We’re more afraid of risks that kill in particularly painful ways, like cancer.

    -   We are more worried by risks we can’t detect with our own senses. 

    -   We are more worried by risks that are imposed on us (as opposed to the potentially carcinogenic radiation we accept when we willingly expose ourselves to X rays or CAT scans or bask in the sun, which causes 8,700 skin cancer deaths in the US each year.

    -   The atomic bombs, and nuclear weapons tests, and Three Mile Island and Chernobyl and now Fukushima, have stigmatized “nuclear radiation” as scary as soon as we hear those words.

   The fear of radiation may in fact be a greater risk than the radiation itself.  The epilogue of every major nuclear accident, including Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, has found that the fear of radiation did far more damage to people’s health -in the form of stress, and alcoholism, and depression - than the radiation. Certainly our fear of nuclear radiation has contributed to energy policies that have ended up favoring electricity generated by coal, which does far more health damage. In the wake of Fukushima, Germany and Italy have abandoned plans for nuclear expansion. Anti-nuclear advocates will certainly try to use the NRC task force report to reinforce that trend…based on a fear that is largely unfounded.

    Few people have heard of the International Atomic Energy Agency, but you may know them as those inspectors who try to keep bad guys from getting nuclear weapons. Non-proliferation, they call it. May I suggest we need another type of nuclear non-proliferation, the non-proliferation of excessive fears that can create real risks all by themselves.

(full disclosure; I have consulted to the IAEA and the nuclear industry on open and honest communications about nuclear power)

Big Think Edge
  • The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
  • Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
  • Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
Keep reading Show less