December 4, 1997
Los Angeles Times
I am writing in response to the Commentary piece on the dangers of nuclear power published in your November 30 edition by Helen Caldicott, a highly political activist who has never published a paper in a scientific journal on health effects of radiation and is not a member of any of the major scientific societies that deal with that subject.
Her principal issue is the potential harm from the radioactive wastes of nuclear power that will be converted into a rock-like material and buried in the natural habitat of rocks, deep underground. She fails to recognize that the ground is, and always has been, full of radioactive materials from natural sources, and the wastes from nuclear power will never increase the amount by more than a minute fraction of one percent. She also fails to note that most electricity is now generated by burning coal which releases waste (called ashes) into the top layers of the ground, and these wastes include cancer-causing chemicals like cadmium, arsenic, beryllium, etc. which will last forever, not decaying away naturally as do the nuclear power wastes of which 99% are gone after a few hundred years. Using the same risk analysis procedures, results indicate that the number of cancers caused by the coal burning wastes is thousands of times larger than the number caused by nuclear power wastes from generating the same amount of electricity. Another of the wastes from coal burning, known as air pollution, causes even more total deaths, all of them now rather than spread out over millions of years. The wastes from oil burning are only a few times less harmful than the wastes from coal burning.
The Caldicott claim that nuclear power does not greatly reduce the releases of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) that contribute to global warming is absolutely preposterous as any scientist, or even a high school chemistry student, readily recognizes. It is not supported, as she implies, by the Friends of the Earth (FOE) study she cites, and is belied by the fact that France, which derives 70% of its electricity from nuclear power, has far lower per capita carbon dioxide releases than any other industrialized nation. She quotes the FOE study as implying that the fossil fuels used to provide the materials for nuclear power plants are a significant contributor to global warming, but she fails to note that other studies attribute far less fossil fuel usage to nuclear power, and that solar energy, the darling of FOE, uses more than ten times as much of these materials (steel aluminum, cement, glass) as nuclear power for generating the same amount of electricity.
In summary, the Caldicott piece is nothing more than a political diatribe against nuclear power, with no attempt to put problems in proper perspective or to properly inform your readership.
Note: Bernard L. Cohen is Professor-Emeritus of Physics and of Environmental and Occupational Health at University of Pittsburgh, author of several books about nuclear power and of about 275 research articles in scientific journals, recipient of the Health Physics Society Distinguished Scientific Achievement award and of four other national awards from American Physical Society (APS) and American Nuclear Society (ANS). He is a former Chairman of the APS Division of Nuclear Physics and of the ANS Division of Environmental Sciences.
Bernard L. Cohen
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15260