December 4, 1997
Letters to the Editor
Los Angeles Times
Dear Editor: I was deeply distressed to read the opinion column by Helen Caldicott, Times page M5, Sunday November 30, because it is filled with serious errors and misinformation about imagined risks associated with the operation of modern nuclear power plants. The generation of electricity with nuclear power does NOT involve emissions into the atmosphere of pollutants, “greenhouse” gases, or dangerous levels of radioactive materials. In fact, nuclear power is considerably safer than burning coal. Dr. Caldicott is a pediatrician with no training in radiation safety whose views about radiation risks are inaccurate and misleading. This is an issue of importance to the national Health Physics Society, of which I am President, whose 6,500 members specialize in the field of radiation safety.
Dr. Caldicott’s claim of dire consequences from exposure to radioactive isotopes of strontium, cesium, and plutonium are truly ridiculous since these materials are not actually released from modern nuclear power plants.
Nuclear power in the United States has an outstanding record of radiation safety for workers and the public. No epidemic of radiation-induced cancer or genetic damage has occurred from the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Nor will it! Dr. Caldicott has fabricated these consequences. The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurement has documented that average annual exposures of the public to ionizing radiation are about 84% natural, 11% medical X-rays, 4% nuclear medicine, 5% from miscellaneous sources, with only a negligible one-tenth of one percent from over 100 nuclear power plants. The horrible radiation exposures and effects that Dr. Caldicott describes in her article are fictional nonsense.
Dr. Caldicott is particularly confused about the risks of plutonium, which she describes as if it were a living infectious agent. Actually, plutonium is insoluble, inert, and biologically immobile. In order to pose a significant risk to people, plutonium must deposit within the human body by being breathed into the lungs as tiny particles at high concentrations. This is not easy since plutonium is not released from nuclear power plants!
She writes that “hypothetically, one pound evenly distributed could cause cancer in every person on Earth.” This statement is false. It is like saying that there is enough water in the Great Lakes to drown everybody on earth if evenly distributed. (It only takes one or two gallons of water delivered to the lungs to drown a person.) It is equally silly to visualize one pound of plutonium being distributed into the lungs of everyone on earth. However, if it were, the resulting radiation exposures would be too small to pose any significant harm to anyone. One pound of plutonium-239 divided by 6,000,000,000 people yields a negligible amount per person.
The people of China or the world will not be subjected to dangerous releases of plutonium, cesium, or strontium resulting from the operation of new nuclear power plants. The idea that it takes more energy to build a nuclear power plant than it generates in 18 years is nonsense. Since nuclear fuel is reusable and we have excess quantities of plutonium, there is currently an excess of nuclear fuel in the world with immense energy potential without the release of “greenhouse” gases!
Otto G. Raabe, Ph.D. (Certified Health Physicist)
President, Health Physics Society
Professor Emeritus, University of California, Davis