Dutton’s Nuclear Push Triggers Usual Anti-science Fallout

Written by:
21 March 2024
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In this article, Peter Ridd contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into nuclear energy.


Peter Dutton’s tilt to nuclear power is courageous. He will be opposed by the forces of anti-science, fearmongering and ignorance. The Opposition Leader’s task would be easier if the public knew about the significant doses of radiation they receive from natural sources and how ubiquitous radiation is in our lives.

It also would help if nuclear radiation safety guidelines did not grossly overstate the risk of small doses of radiation.

A natural source of radiation is cosmic rays from outer space. Some of this radiation is incredibly energetic and showers us with elementary particles with exotic names such as pions and kaons.

The most energetic single cosmic particle detected, probably a proton, had an energy equivalent to a cricket ball travelling at almost 100km/h. Particles such as that are rare but every person gets about three chest X-rays’ worth of cosmic rays each year.

Airline pilots, who are less protected by the full thickness of the atmosphere, easily could get 10 times that amount.

But radioactive material in the soil and earth beneath us emits far more radiation – equivalent to a chest X-ray every 10 days for your whole life. This should not be surprising because uranium is a very common element. The average quarter-acre house block has a few kilograms of uranium in the top 1m of soil.

This puts into context concerns about nuclear waste. Anthony Albanese once said: “The light on the hill is not the glow of radiation from a nuclear waste dump.” But he is probably unaware that under the hill on which Parliament House stands in Canberra there is enough natural uranium-235 in the rock to make about 1000 Hiroshima atom bombs. This calculation is based on a one cubic kilometre block of ground under the parliamentary roundabout. I wonder how the Greens feel about that.

People may worry about radioactive groundwater leaking from a hypothetical Parliament House nuclear repository. But groundwater is loaded with radon, radium and other radioactive elements. My research group at James Cook University did considerable work using radioactivity in groundwater and one of my postdoctoral students used my garden water bore to calibrate and test his equipment.

Groundwater in Townsville is loaded with radiation, but the trees and orchids are doing fine and the children turned out all right too. Any “leakage” from a nuclear dump will just join the huge amount of radioactive material in the groundwater.

We live in a world full of radiation. Embrace it. Actually, you are embracing it. Your body generates its own radiation from elements such as potassium-40 that you acquire from foods such as bananas. Annual self-generated radiation is about a third of the maximum dose one could have received from being next to the Three Mile Island nuclear “disaster”. So, two Greens senators plus Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen are equivalent to a nuclear catastrophe – every year.

The other factor working against Dutton is the hopeless nuclear safety levels that were set according to the principle of “as low as reasonably possible” rather than being related to the true risk of exposure. It dramatically exaggerates the apparent risks, and most of the calculations of long-term deaths from accidents such as Chernobyl and Fukushima are far higher than reality.

These risk calculations use the linear no-threshold hypothesis, which assumes a tiny dose of radiation gives a risk in direct proportion to a fatal dose. But this is known to be wrong; small doses are effectively risk-free.

If we used the LNT hypothesis in medicine, most pharmaceutical drugs would be banned. For example, it would calculate that taking two tablets of a common non-prescription medication would give a 6 per cent chance of dying because 30 tablets, taken at once, are lethal. The LNT hypothesis also leads to the conclusion that giving a half-litre of blood to the Red Cross must kill about 25 per cent of donors because losing 2 litres is lethal. By this calculation the Red Cross has killed more people than Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler combined, and is still doing it.

This failure of some science institutions to give the public an accurate indication of nuclear radiation risks is one of the first major examples of untrustworthiness of our science institutions and dates back to the 1950s. Recent years have added many more “scientific” failures such as record amounts of coral on the Great Barrier Reef contradicting 60 years of predictions of its demise.

We also could add the many false statements about the effectiveness of Covid-19 vaccines to stop transmission of the disease.

But the institutions insist they must be believed without question. CSIRO chief executive Douglas Hilton took umbrage at Dutton questioning the veracity of the CSIRO’s recent GenCost report that argues nuclear power is too expensive.

Hilton said: “Maintaining trust (in science) also requires our political leaders to resist the temptation to disparage science.” He is correct, but if the “science” in his costing report is wrong then it is not science and should be disparaged, like the LNT radiation hypothesis.

Dutton already is finding that science institutions, such as the CSIRO, are acting ideologically, not scientifically. In the end, however, fear trumps science for much of the population.

For Dutton the fear factor cuts both ways. While his critics can use the irrational fear of radiation – a tried and trusted strategy – he can counter that with the slightly less irrational fear of a gently warming climate. If people really believe in “global boiling”, the odd meltdown does not rate. As I contemplate the desecration of pristine bush to make way for wind farms here in north Queensland, I would take a nuclear power station instead any day.

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