Saturday, January 31, 2009

My father's Last Report

Last night I was awakened by the news that my father had lapsed into what was to prove a brief coma, that was to end with his death. I was unable to sleep, and my thoughts turned to my father's final unpublished report to the National Academy of Science.

During my father's (C.J. Barton, Sr.) last 18 months before his retirement much of his time was spent preparing a report for the National Academy of Science. The report encountered many objections from peer reviewers, and main objections focused on research that was being conducted at ORNL and which was reflected by the report. The topic of my father's report was the movement of radioisotopes in the environment, and ORNL research was clearly pointing at some of the human consequences for the energy policy choices of the Ford and Carter Administrations.

By the mid 1970's my father probably knew as much as anyone in the world about radio-isotopes in the environment. Indeed his knowledge of the topic was undoubtedly the reason why he had been chosen to write the report. During the years my father was George Parker's partner in nuclear safety research, Parker specialized in the study of how radioisotopes escaped reactors, while my father focused on what happen to them once they got into the environment. Even after he returned to Molten Salt research in 1964, my father was asked to study the movement of radioisotopes that had been released into the environment during cold war operations of the Oak Ridge facilities. Thus the study of radio isotopes in the environment, either from human sources or later from natural sources was my father's entry into the Health Physics and later the Environmental Studies division, as the Reactor Chemistry Division of ORNL fell apart.

My father, although close to retirement, was very enterprising in promoting the study of radiation from natural sources. It appears that he was one of the pioneer researchers on the problem of natural radon in the home. In addition to Radon from subsurface sources, my father noted that natural gas was a source of radon in the home. Indeed studies of the transport of radon into American homes through natural gas pipe lines does not appear to have progressed much beyond the point my father left it in the mid 1970's. Bob Moore was associated with my father in the natural gas research. In addition Moore was also involved in a better known ORNL research project that investigated radio isotopes in coal ash. My father would have been very interested in that line of research. These lines of ORNL research were perhaps what troubled the National Academy of Science reviewers.

My father defended his report vigorously and eventually the reviewers signed off on it, but the National Academy of Science appears to have never published it. At the very least my father was never told of its publication and it is not listed among my fathers professional papers listed on the Energy Bridge. Thus the report disappeared and I suspect was suppressed. Why you might ask?

The reason might be found in a couple of my father's post retirement papers which I believe reflected some of the thinking that went into his National Academy of Science report. What was on my father's mind was simple. People were and are far more likely to be exposed to radio isotopes from the burning of fossil fuels, coal and natural gas, than they were to be exposed to radio-isotopes from power producing reactors. The "Linear (No-Threshold) Hypothesis," holds that there is no lower limits to the damaging effects of radiation. Critics of nuclear power using the Linear Hypothesis often hold that even a tiny amount of radiation that escapes into the environment from power producing reactors has an adverse impact on human health. What my father, Bob Moore and other Oak Ridge scientists had shown was that far more radiation coming from radio isotopes like radon, was escaping into the environment and entering the bodies of people from fossil fuel burning, than was coming from nuclear reactors.

My father's research had shown that radioactive isotopes like radon were being transported through natural gas pipelines into homes all over the country. Other researchers had shown the presence of radioactive isotopes in coal fly ash, that was entering the lungs of people who lived in surrounding areas. From this information it was not difficult to calculate exposure rates and given the "Linear (No-Threshold) Hypothesis," the effects of radiation exposure from fossil fuel burning would be very predictable in terms of its health and mortality consequences.

The Linear (No-Threshold) Hypothesis, is itself questionable. There is powerful evidence when people are exposed to radiation from natural sources, there is a threshold below which no adverse health consequences can be observed. It is irrational to argue that radiation from natural sources is somehow different than radiation from reactors. Radiation is radiation. Thus my father's conclusion would have been that given the facts and the "Linear (No-Threshold) Hypothesis" radiation exposures from burning fossil fuels killed tens of thousands of people. The implications of my father's report then would have been to show that a transition to nuclear power could have a positive consequence for human health and might save the lives of tens of thousands of people every year.

In effect my father would have turned the reasoning of the enemies on its head, by showing that given their own beliefs about the health consequences of radiation , a far more serious radiation problem was caused by not turning to nuclear power and continuing to burn fossil fuels. Needless to say the coal barons, the natural gas producers and anti-nuclear leaders like Ralph Nader, Helen Caldicott, Amory Lovins and Joe Romm had an interest in seeing my father's report suppressed.

My father's conclusion would have been unacceptable to the fossil fuel lobby and their
political allies, the anti-nuclear movement. There would have thus been a powerful political interest in suppressing my father's National Academy of Science report, and as far as I can determine it was in fact suppressed. To say the least, my father's conclusions were buried.

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