I originally wrote this post hours before my father's death in January 2009. It was followed in the Nuclear Green sequence of posts by a notice of my father's death and then by his obituary. Of all Nuclear Green posts, this is more relevant to the current situation. in Japan. I have revised it in order to focus on my father's contention that the worst case consequences of worst possible nuclear accidents are not all that bad. The relevance of the current situation in Japan should be obvious.
This photograph was made during a June 27, 28. 1963 visit by my father, Dr. C.J. Barton, Sr., to the Atomic Research Establishment at Harwell. Seated is Alan E. J. Eggleton of the Health Physics and Medical Division of Harwell. Eggleton investigated radiation released by the Windscale reactor fire. No doubt he and my father had a long conversation about the radiation release following reactor accidents.
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. The main objections fell on Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) research that served as a basis of many of the reports conclusions. 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 potentially adverse 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 for the National Academy of Science. During the years my father was George Parker's research partner in nuclear safety research (1960-1964), 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 Divisions, 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 his study of radioactive radon in natural gas. 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 use, 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.
My father's research also raised questions about how dangerous radioactive fall out from nuclear accidents, such as the current accidents in Japan really are. In a post-retirement essay my father wrote with the assistance of George Parker, they reviewed the consequences of three major reactor accidents in which significant amounts of radioisotopes had been released. The three accidents involved the Windscale Pile No. 1, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. The Windscale accident which my father investigated is far less known, but it resulted in a significant release of radioisotopes. My father and George Parker stated,
The second myth that we will discuss is that, because operating reactors contain large quantities of radioactivity, they are inherently unsafe. One nuclear power critic stated in the wake of the Chernobyl reactor accident : ‘There is tremendous uncertainty. mi reactors have a severe accident potential. I’ This potential was recognized in the early days of the the development of nuclear reactors and a tremendous effort has been made to minimize the likelihood that reactor accidents will result in loss of life or extensive property damage. We will discuss the three accidents in operating reactors that resulted in release of significant quantities of radioactivity: Windscale Pile No. 1, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Of these, only the latter resulted in deaths and large—scale property damage. We will compare these accidents and give reasons for our belief that loss of life from accidents in modern light—water nuclear power producing plants is unlikely.
Windacale Pile No. 1. The Windscale reactor was used to produce plutonium. In October 1957, during use of a procedure to release energy stored in the graphite moderator, the temperature in part of the reactor became high enough that some of the metallic uranium slugs and the nearby graphite moderator began to burn, releasing fission products through the stack that discharged air used to cool the reactor. effort to quell the fire with carbon dioxide was unsuccessful and it was finally quenched by the introduction of a large quantity of water. The accident made this reactor unusable.
Three Mile Island (TMI-2). This reactor located near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania is the site of the most serious US. reactor accident to date and the only major accident in a large light—water reactor to date. Early on April 28, 1979, a series of events at this reactor began that resulted in a loss—of--coolant accident. (LOC).. Early report characterized the accident as a unique combination of failures, design deficiencies and operator errors. The critical error was the action of an operator who shut down the high—pressure injection of water that started automatically two minutes after the reactor shut down. If this water injection had been allowed to continue, the reactor core would have remained under water and serious core damage would have been avoided. Steps have been taken to eliminate the design deficiencies and operator errors revealed by this accident.
Chernobyl—4. This accident occurred about 80 miles north Kiev, Ukraine, in April and May, 1986. Russian report that was published several months later stated that the accident took place because of a variety of poorly conceived actions and procedures related to an experiment that was being conducted during an otherwise routine shut down of the reactor. Human errors compounded by a lack of proper procedures resulted in overriding of safety protection systems and to react.or failure evidenced by two explosions, one after the other, apparently caused by a prompt critical reactivity excursion (a sudden increase in the rate of fissioning in the reactor resulting in production of a large amount of heat in the reactor core) and steam or hydrogen explosion. The explosions blew the top off the reactor core container and the top off the the building in which the reactor was housed. The very hot reactor core released fission products directly to the atmosphere as the hot graphite moderator continued to burn until large quantities of boron carbide, lead, dolomite, sand and clay (5000 tons total) were dumped on the core by helicopters hovering over the reactor.
A report published in 1987 listed the known human casualties of this accident as 203 persons hospitalized and 31 deaths. It seems unlikely that we will ever know all the human consequences of this accident which include an unknown number of deaths from over—exposure to radiation and disruption in the lives of thousands of people who were relocated on very short notice.
My Father and Parker added,
The point of this comparison of the three reactor accidents is to make it clear that the potential for accidents is much greater for the Windscale and the Chernobyi reactors than in light water reactors. More important, however is the design and construction of these reactors which includes a very thick steel core container and a thick steel—reinforced building around the reactor. Multipie safeguards are provided, some of which have been greatly improved as the result of the lessons learned from the TM1-2 accident.Over 20 years ago, my father and George Parker stated,
A comparison of fission products relesed in the three accidents reveals some important differences. Radioactive iodine (1—131) is a particular hazard in reactor accidents because it concenrates in the human thyroid through drinking contaminated milk or eating contaminated vegetables. The amount of this fission product released in the three accidents is (in curies):
Windocale, 20,000; T1il—2, iS to 30 Chernobyl—4, 7.3 million. The low level of iodine release from TMI—2 is believed to be due to the solubilty of the iodine in water, possibly because it combines with cesium, another fission product, to make cesium iodine. The noble gases have a very low solubiity in water and the release of these gases from TI’lI—2 is estimated to be in the rarnge 2.4 to 17 million curies as compared to 340,000 from Windscale and about 46 million from Chernobyl—4. These gases are not retained by the human body and their principal hazard is skin exposure. in the TNI—2 accident, no one received a greater dose from exposure than the average U.S. citizen receives annualy from natural radioactivity. Significant quantities of other fission products were released only in the Chernobyl accident (estimated total 22 million curies). t. TNI—2, the solubility of these fission products in water probably helped to minimize trieir release and filters in the hot air discharge tower apparently caught most of the solid materials produced by the partial burning of the Windscale reactor core.
Information Handling it TMI—2. Mental stress among the people living in the vicinity of TI1I—2 was judged to be the principal health effect of this accident. This has been ascribed in large measure to poor information handling. Initially, the plant operators were slow to recognize the seriousness of the accident and when higher authorities became involved, including the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, their lack of preparation for handling both the accident and relations with the news media became evident. The latter proceeded to fan the public’s already strong fear of radiation. The unneeded action of the governor of Pennsylvania in ordering the evacuation of children and pregnant women living within five miles of the plant accentuated these fears. It appears that. regarding the mishandling of news from TNI—2, there was more than enough blame to to around.
Plans for second generation nuclear power plants designed to be even safer to operate than those now in use are presently available. If the U.S. public could be convinced that the myths discussed in this article are untrue, it would expedite progress toward demonstrating the feasibility of expanding use of nuclear power generating plants. The desirability of reducing the amount of sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from coal burning plants is well recognized and nuclear power is at present the most environmentally acceptable alternative for meeting our expanding need for electricity. There is a need for U.S. citizens to look beyond the media hype on the danger of reactor accidents such as that which surrounded the TMI—2 accident and for experts in the nuclear industry to make greater efforts to communicate facts to the public to replace the information being supplied by anti—nuclear groups and uninformed or poorly informed media writers and TV personnel.No doubt this assessment would not have pleased the anti-nuclear ideologues who were given much power during the Carter Administration, and who would have been in a position to surpress my fathers report.