Friday, May 23, 2008

The Radiation Monster

I've just finished reading "Power to Save the World," which is all about why using uranium to generate power is a really good idea.

The author is a lefty environmentalist and writer who became convinced (after talking with a bunch of nuclear scientists) that nuclear power is cleaner, cheaper, and safer than any of the current alternatives. I think she's right.

Perhaps the most surprising factoid I learned reading the book is that there's no evidence that exposure to small amounts of radiation causes cancer. The evidence that does exist seems to indicate that it doesn't-- below a certain dose, it looks like radiation exposure doesn't hurt us at all.

That makes sense, and the paranoia about radiation fits in with the more general paranoia surrounding very small doses of toxic substances. Like the current paranoia about prescription drugs showing up in our water supply; people just can't seem to grasp the idea that our bodies have evolved the ability to heal themselves and are pretty good at dealing with all sorts of nasty stuff, as long as there's not too much of it.

All of the estimates of "future cancer deaths" from the radiation released from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island assume that, if 100% of people die from a radiation dose of 1000, then 0.1% of people will die if they're exposed to a dose of 1.

That makes about as much sense as saying "if 100% of people die when hit in the head by a 10 pound block of concrete dropped from a height of 15 feet, then 1% will die if hit in the head by a two-ounce rock dropped from a height of 15 feet." Dosage matters. Just ask the good folks at the Dihydrogen Monoxide Research Division.

2 comments:

Joseph said...

Sorry, I just don't trust big government and big business--two of the necessary ingredients for nuclear power--to look after my health and safety. Do you? You seem the sort of person who would not, and yet if you believe in nuclear, you have to completely give up the health and safety of your family to government bureaucracies and the belief that big business will do the right thing. It's no accident that the most centralized government in the West is the most nuclear--France. The decentralized solutions--cellulosic ethanol and solar among them--are being massively funded by VCs right now and are (relatively) decentralized alternatives. Here's hoping that they do provide breakthroughs before your side can push through the nuclear solution.

Gavin Andresen said...

The alternative, right now, to Big Nuclear is Big Coal.

Which is much worse for the environment, much worse for health, and is more loosely regulated.

I think if people weren't so irrationally afraid of nuclear power we'd have small, clean, decentralized private power plants by now, and we'd be a lot better off. But even then there would be a role for regulation, to keep track of the radioactive byproducts (it IS powerful stuff that requires careful handling).

And yes, in an ideal world we'd create a nice level playing field where all the externalities (including pollution and health risks, risks of nasty substances winding up in terrorist's hands, etc) for ALL the various energy technologies, and let the best one win in the marketplace.

I also hope the VC money bears fruit; I would rather see some smart entrepreneur create a Mr. Energy Home Biofuel Reactor-- Just Add Kitchen Scraps!