Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Curious Case of Dr. John W. Gofman

Note: I posted this essay in my other blog, bartoncii last August.

The curious case of Dr. John W. Gofman
Yesterday, the criously named blog "We Support Lee" featured an obituary for Dr. John W. Gofman. The obituary was titled "Dr. John W. Gofman - An Irreverent Obituary." Never let it be said that Ruth, the talented blogger who writes "We Support Lee," is sullied by convention. Gofman has a very small Wikipedia entry, despite some very notable scientific achievements including the discovery of lipoproteins that play a role in heart disease. He made notable contributions to the nuclear industry, including the development of techniques to seperate PU239 from Uranium that had been processed in reactors. Gofman also held a patent on U233, and artificial form of Uranium, produced by breeding Thorium in reactors.

Gofman was not opposed to atomic weapons, but he was addimently opposed to power reactors. Gofman believed that if even a tiny amount of radiation escaped from power reactors, it would increase the number of cancer cases and even deaths in society. These illnesses and deaths were unacceptable from Gofman's point of view.

There are several viewpoints on Gofman's leadership of the anti-nuclear power crusade. I would like to point out some seemingly curious inconsistancies. My father, Dr. Charles J. Barton, Sr. worked as a research scientist at ORNL for 29 years. During that time he was involved in numerous projects, including one called Project Plowshare. In particular he was involved in an investigation of the potential for the stimulation of natural gas production through the detination of an atomic bome in a gas baring strata. My father researched the environmental and human impact or radio isotopes that would be associated with nuclear stimulated gas. The question arose if there were radioisotopes already present in natural gas. Sure enough my father discovered the presence of small amounts of radioactive radon in ordinary natural gas. Although the amount of radon was small, the ordinary household consumer of natural gas was getting far more exposure to radiation from cooking and heating with natural gas, than they would get from living next door to a nuclear reactor.

My father began to look at other sources of radiation in the home. It was discovered, for example, that radon from underlying soil and rocks, tended to accumulate in household basements. Thus living in a house with a basement exposed a person to more radiation than living next door to a reactor. Using the basement on a regular basis exposed household members to even more radiation.

My father informally pointed out other man made sources of radiation in the environment. By far the most significant was coal fired steam plants. Although coal contains only a small persentage of Uranium, the large amout of coal burned at power plants, insure the release of a significant amount of radioactive Uranium and Thorium, as well as other radioactive materials including radon and radium into the environment, along with the steamplants fly ass. It is estimated that enough radioactive U235 was in the ash produced by the typical steam pant, that 3 atomic bombs worth of U235 were proised by combustion in a coal fired steam plant every year. In addition to these radioactive by products or coal fired electrical production, signifant amounts of highly poisonous heavy metals were entering the environment through the steam plants fly ash.

Now there are two curious thing about Gofman's anti nuclear crusade. First he based his commitment upon a theory about the effects of radiation on human health, but his focus was on the relatively most insignificent source of man cause radiation in our society, power reactors. Compared to living in a house with a basement, or cooking and heating with natural gas, reactors brought to surounding neighborhoods much less radiation. In the case of useing coal fired power plants, reactors, greatly deminished environmental exposure to radioisotopes, associated with power production. The second curious thing about Gofman's crusade was that Gofman didn't test his theory with data about illnesses in the neighborhood of nuclear facilities. Working in a nuclear facility is associated with with a longer lifespan, and research investigation has not produced evidence that living close to nuclear plant makes it more likely that people to get sick.

Had Gofman been more rational and consistent, he would have included in his anti-radiation campaign, household use of natural gas, and custom of building houses with basements.

But the greatest paradox is that Gofman's anti-nuclear campaign actually contributed to public exposure to radiation, and radioisotopes. Gofman never opposed the use of coal in relation to radiation dangers, despite the presence of radioactive materials in coal fly ash. Fly ash exposed the public to far more radiation that reactors would. Did Gofman, who was by all acounts a brilliant scientist, not see the wider issues? Or was he so caught up in an irrational and Quixotic opposition to nuclear generation to electrity, that he saw, but did not care?


Geoffrey said...

The information on radioactivity in coal plant fly ash is very interesting and well taken. However, the fact is that nuclear power plants emit, create and use enormous amounts of high, mid and low level radioactive materials in their normal functioning that must not be ignored or washed over. Decades after Gofman's work, especially with experience now being uncovered from the Chernobyl disaster and the extensive contamination now being systematically recorded and documented by CRIIRAD laboratories all over France ( one of the world's dominant nuclear energy producing countries), and the very important studies in the US and Germany at Krummel, I think your father's points need to be reviewed seriously in regards to the radiation effects of nuclear power plants on populations. And that precedes the fact that apart from Chernoby, we have still not seen the worst of possibilities in regards to accidents, disasters and terrorism involving any one of the hundreds of vulnerability points in the nuclear energy system. Much of the truth about radioactive effects and data over the past 60 years related to nuclear energy has been covered up, censored or buried whenever possible. Gofman's predictions regarding the new plutonium economy we are now entering are right on target, and not at all to be underestimated.

Charles Barton said...

Geoffrey, numerous studies that have focused on the health effects of living close to reactors, and high level natural sources of radiation, have failed to uncover evidence of a radiation exposure, health effect link. /german research on the Krummel cancer cluster has failed to uncover evidence of a significant radiation leak, or a definitive link between the reactor and the cancer cases, Studies of populations which are exposed to very high levels of natural radiation fail to demonstrate health effects. There is no strong evidence that medical radiation exposures have undesirable health consequences, although many patients receive much higher radiation levels from medical sources, than people who live just outside power reactors do from those reactors.

Thus Gofman's predictions have fail empirical tests over and over.

I am unaware of third party reviews of the work of CRIIRAD Laboratory, or of publication of their research findings by reputable, peer reviewed scientific journals. Without critical assessment the work of CRIIRAD cannot be assumed to meet scientific standards.


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