Don Luckey versus Helen Caldicott – Low Dose Radiation Health Effects

By Rod Adams

The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Dr. Helen Caldicott titled Unsafe at Any Dose in which she summarized her theory that even the tiniest doses of radiation cause both negative health consequences for the victim and undetectable genetic defects that will affect many generations to come. Here is an example of the language that she uses to propagate this theory:

Nuclear accidents never cease. We’re decades if not generations away from seeing the full effects of the radioactive emissions from Chernobyl.

As we know from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it takes years to get cancer. Leukemia takes only 5 to 10 years to emerge, but solid cancers take 15 to 60. Furthermore, most radiation-induced mutations are recessive; it can take many generations for two recessive genes to combine to form a child with a particular disease, like my specialty, cystic fibrosis. We can’t possibly imagine how many cancers and other diseases will be caused in the far future by the radioactive isotopes emitted by Chernobyl and Fukushima.

A few days earlier, the far less widely read St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story about Dr. Don Luckey titled A challenge to the fear of radiation’s invisible rays. Dr. Luckey’s theory, documented by numerous peer reviewed papers and a book published in 1980 titled Hormesis With Ionizing Radiation, is that the effects of low levels of ionizing radiation are more similar to the effects of other external forces.

With World War II over, scientists finally were able to get their hands on antibiotics for research. Luckey was researching the effect of bacteria on vitamin deficiencies in animals. He injected baby chicks with tiny amounts of antibiotics, too little to actually do anything. Unexpectedly, the chicks thrived. He expanded into turkeys. Same result.

“I got the concept and could predict that high doses and low doses would have opposite effects,” he says.

In 1954, he joined the University of Missouri’s medical school as chairman of the biochemistry department. He conducted an experiment exposing crickets to diluted doses of pesticides. The crickets grew more quickly. He published the results. A flood of reprint requests came in.

“So,” he says, “I just figured that radiation should be hormetic also.”

Radiation protection professionals and nuclear operators trained under regulatory guidance to keep doses As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) have a great deal of difficulty accepting the notion that tiny amounts of radiation could have beneficial effects. Both the American Nuclear Society and the Health Physics Society, however, have issued position papers confirming the following statement about the health effects of low level radiation:

The current philosophy of radiation protection is based on the assumption that any radiation dose, no matter how small, may result in human effects, such as cancer and hereditary genetic damage. There is substantial and convincing scientific evidence for health risks at high dose. Below 10 rem (which includes occupational and environmental exposures) risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are non-existent.”

Note: The rem is the unit of effective dose. In international units, 1 rem = 0.01 sievert (SV)

(Emphasis added.)

In terms of distance from the position statement about radiation health effects issued by two of the most interested technical societies in the United States on the subject, Dr. Luckey’s statements about the possibility of moderate beneficial health benefits seem closer to reality than Dr. Caldicott’s statements about unimaginable long-term risks to people who are alive today and those who will be born sometime in the future.

Dr. Luckey is confident enough about his research to keep a large chunk of uranium ore on his bedside table. Though anecdotes are not science and small samples are not proof, Dr. Luckey is 91 years old and in reasonably good health.

One of the real challenges associated with determining the health effects of low level radiation—either positive, negative, or zero—is the fact that it is nearly impossible to set up laboratory conditions with a zero-level control situation. The earth is a radioactive planet in a radioactive universe. There is some ongoing research on bacteria being conducted in deep salt caverns with extremely low background levels near the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. So far the results are not conclusive. Here is a quote regarding the research obtained from a private email discussion forum:
Updated: (May 4, 2011 4:24 am)

Yes, we’ve been doing these at WIPP for two years now and there is no evidence that LNT is correct below 10 REM. I will see what is publishable right now and send it along.

So far all we have been able to do is use two different bacteria with different sensitivities to radiation, e.g., highly sensitive (which should show an effect at low-doses and should show any hormesis effect if there is one) and radiation resistant. These are Shewanella oneidensis (Radiation Sensitive) and Deinococcus radiodurans (Rad Resistant). Since it is so difficult to see any effect below 10 REM, we are looking at three indicators of cell growth: assaying for protein, optical density of the cultures, and cell counts. So far, the total lack of radiation causes growth stress, while some amount of radiation is necessary for optimal growth, and radiation above background but below 10 REM has no adverse affect of growth. This study is sometimes referred to as coming from the “other side of background”.

The same thing many have been saying for decades.

Source: Dr. James Conca, Director of the WSCF Labs. Dr. Conca gave me permission to extract that quote and also told me that Dr. Geof Smith from New Mexico State University and Roger Nelson from DOE are leading the research effort.
End of updated text.

This would not be recognizable as a Rod Adams post if I did not take the opportunity to try to stimulate a discussion about the ever-important question of motivation. Why has fear of radiation been so widely accepted and propagated that it is nearly impossible to have a rational discussion about the possibility that low level radiation may have beneficial health effects? Why have nuclear professionals accepted the excessive costs and restricted industry growth associated with attempting to push a natural part of our environment to a level below normal variations? Why do establishment media outlets like the New York Times continue to publish theories like Caldicott’s that are not supported by facts or peer review?

My answer is that spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt about radiation at even the low levels routinely achieved by the nuclear energy industry is part of a decades-old marketing strategy by the established energy industry. Their product offerings cannot compete in terms of energy density, affordability, or waste generation. Coal, oil, and gas, as valuable as they have been for the development of our modern society, are inferior on most objective measures for many applications requiring reliable heat input. Wind, solar, geothermal, waves, and pixie dust are simply too unreliable or too limited to serve many customer needs.

Unfortunately for the propagation of truth, the established energy industry has access to a lot of cash and the best marketing talent that money can buy. In the face of that kind of power, it is a good thing that some very smart people developed the Internet and the software that allows widespread communication with a relatively tiny investment. It is also a very good thing that I live in a country with a Constitution that includes the 1st Amendment.

Additional Reading

Observations on the Chernobyl Disaster and LNT, Zbigniew Jaworowski, Dose-Response, 2010.

Short-Term and Long-Term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents, John P. Christodouleas, M.D., M.P.H., Robert D. Forrest, C.H.P., Christopher G. Ainsley, Ph.D., Zelig Tochner, M.D., Stephen M. Hahn, M.D., and Eli Glatstein, M.D., New England Journal of Medicine, 2011.

Resolving the controversy over beneficial Resolving the controversy over beneficial effects of ionizing radiation – talk given by Jerry Cuttler, DSc, PE, to World Council of Nuclear Workers (WONUC), Versailles, France, 1999 June 16-18.

PS – I would like to dedicate this post to Jim Muckerheide, a long time ANS member who worked very hard for many years to organize sessions at annual meetings regarding the health effects of low level radiation. He convinced me with facts and research long ago.


Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., and host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005 and is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.

22 thoughts on “Don Luckey versus Helen Caldicott – Low Dose Radiation Health Effects

  1. Rod Adams

    @Yellowcake Country – one more thing – how do you feel about the impacts to human health of Australia’s massive coal mining industry? How much water does the average mine consume in extraction and cleaning activities? How much water do your coal fired power plants consume? Are any of them on rivers and using exactly the same kind of water intake and discharge cooling systems that are supposed to be causing environmental hard to the Hudson River from Indian Point?

    I know for a fact that the 85% or so if your electrical power that is produced by burning coal dumps in excess of 1000 grams of CO2 per kilowatt hour into the atmosphere, while the complete life cycle accounting at Indian Point produces less than 50 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour. That number is higher than the one that I would use for a modern plant, because Indian Point is old and used a lot of fuel produced in gaseous diffusion enrichment plants and concrete produced in a system that was even more dominated by fossil fuel than today’s US grid is.

  2. Rod Adams

    @Yellowcake Country – I am not sure where you learned how to debate and discuss issues, but simply offering a litany of supposed harm is not the same as providing references that can be critically reviewed.

    I am aware of the allegations that you list, but I am also well aware that there is little to no evidence that indicates that mining uranium is any more hazardous than mining dozens of other useful materials. During the very early stages of uranium mining, when the government made it very clear that the material was desirable by offering generous payments, there were people who took short cuts. There were even some companies that did not take safety precautions and put workers at risk.

    In addition, there were independent prospectors who literally dug “dog holes” into rich deposits and worked all day to bring up as much material as possible – often chain smoking as they were digging. This activity is documented in numerous sources and described well in Gwyneth Craven’s book titled “Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy”.

    The uranium mining industry cleaned up its act decades ago. There is some amount of legacy material remaining that needs to be secured, but there is no medical evidence of it causing continuing harm.

    The other piece of this discussion that you completely ignore is the fact that nuclear energy does not have to be perfect in order to be far superior to the current choice – burning massive quantities of fossil fuel and polluting the entire planet in the process.

  3. Joffan

    The WIPP work on bacteria in low-background environments is interesting. If anything it should overstate the effect of medium-level radiation for multicellular animals, since they have the option of killing off ailing cells, which bacteria do not. Obviously there are numerous other differences, but I’d expect this to be the biggest difference.

  4. Yellowcake Country

    @ Brian Mays: “Is it “arrogance” to ask for some references to back up your claims?”

    Is it “arrogance” to ask a nuclear proponent to supply evidence rebutting the documented evidence provided by others?

    If a nuclear proponent is asking for references to support the claims of the issues on the Indian Point reactor’s environmental impacts, the contamination of rivers, streams and billabongs by the uranium industy, the systematic leaking of tailings dams, the massive use of precious water by the U industry and nuclear reactors and the requirement to monitor tailings dams for ten thousand years, should he be engaging in a topic of which he knows little?

  5. Rod Adams

    Actually, Dr. Luckey belongs to the Greatest Generation – a collection of achievers who thrived by working hard, inventing amazing technology and investing for the future.

    Most of what you wrote is talking point drivel coming from groups with an agenda to deny the benefits of atomic energy to mankind. Though others disagree with me, I believe that the most likely motive for that mission is to maintain human society’s fossil fuel addiction. It is, after all, a highly profitable addiction for the pushers.

  6. Rob Brixey

    Friendly reminder of the implications of “Linear No Threshold” theory.
    radiation from:
    1) Routine Medical xrays causes 100,000 deaths per year
    2) Natural background causes 650,000 deaths per year
    3) Air travel causes 510 deaths per year
    4)Eating Brazil Nuts (among my favorites) causes 250 deaths per year

    …and undoubtedly, sleeping next to a K40 source, and that 0.18mSv /year from a living human being would also “cause” 45,500 deaths per year.

    Get real.

  7. Brian Mays

    Is it “arrogance” to ask for some references to back up your claims?

    Dr. Luckey is a well-published scientist with a distinguished career. You are an anonymous person on the Internet with an obvious bone to pick.

  8. Rod Adams

    @Dennis – the LNT may have made “millions for shielding companies”, but just think of the billions that it has made for fossil fuel companies whose sales have been increased because of the fear of radiation. The numbers in that business are almost too large to believe – in 2010, ExxonMobil sold more than $440 BILLION worth of oil, gas and associated services. This year, OPEC is on track to sell more than one TRILLION dollars worth of oil – and they only control about 30% of the world’s market.

    When I was in high school in the mid 1970s – right after the OPEC oil embargo – we were building nuclear plants so fast that the US News and World Reports annual article on the best career opportunities for high school and college students listed nuclear engineering at either the top or very near the top of the list.

    Little did I know that utility companies had already started canceling orders because they were afraid that “overcapacity” might cause them to have to shut down coal fired power plants before they were fully paid off in the rate base. Under the strange rules of cost accounting followed by the PUCs at the time, that would have meant that the company would have had to eat the remaining cost and could not charge it to customers.

    If we had simply kept building nuclear plants at the pace achieved and maintained for the period from 1963-1983, the US would have stopped burning coal by 2000 and would have stopped burning natural gas in electric power plants by 2010. We would have the grid portions achieved in France.

    The price of oil would be far cheaper than it is today because energy is fairly fungible. That is a more complex discussion than I want to get into here.

    Remember – I am not talking about a conspiracy, but about a commercial strategy that happens to be very profitable for a tiny group of people. They fossil fuel interests are concentrating the world’s wealth into greedy and corrupt pockets while damaging the entire economy by their selfish opposition to a capable competitor.

  9. Dennis Mosebey

    I am one nuclear professional and I suspect there are many more who believe the Linear Non Threshold Theory of Dose is bunk. It is bad science similar to Global Warming and does nothing but make millions for shielding companies and others over the years. Unfortunately both the NRC and INPO continue to cling to it like honey to a bees legs and thus it remains a costly thing to the nuclear industry and will continue to be so. Theodore Rockwell who wrote the Radiation Shielding Handbook felt so strongly about it that he actually used his own money for a time to try to lobby in DC but finally had to give up due to not making a dent. ALARA is a useful thing in telling you something about how well you are controlling your source term, example, fuel leakers cause issues and hot particles can in fact cause large local doses, but I have sat in Alara meetings where we agonize over whether we can do a job because the dose would be higher than we want,say 200mrem vice 100mrem and these are always based on estimates that turn out when the job is done to be down in the 10-20 mrem range. Bunk to the Linear Non Threshold Theory and the horse it rode in on. Dennis Mosebey

  10. Sid S Kere

    As a nuclear engineer, I am aware that there is a certain amount of natural radioactivity coming from the earth’s minerals as well as cosmic rays. Mankind has no control over either source of radiation; and all life has been subject to it since day one, i.e. for millions of years. I respect Dr Helen Caldicott’s other positions such as opposition to nuclear weapons. However, her position that radioactivity at any level is harmful is not supported by empirical evidence. If her theory were true, then all life including human life would have mutated out of existence by now after experiencing millions of years of low dose radiation from natural sources.

  11. Yellowcake Country

    “He injected baby chicks with tiny amounts of antibiotics, too little to actually do anything. Unexpectedly, the chicks thrived.”

    Dr Luckey belongs to a bygone era of ignorance . The majority of antibiotics distributed in the US and Australia et al are fed to livestock (force-fed to chickens on daily basis) and as a result the indestructible super bugs have emerged and are killing humans.

    Low level radon emissions insidiously kill uranium mine workers. Additionally, all tailings dams leak radioactive solutions. The documented evidence of contaminated rivers, streams and billabongs is beyond dispute. The nuclear industry has never been given permission to contaminate humanity’s ecosystems and the taxpayer picks up the tab for remediation (if it’s at all remedial). The nuclear industry’s arrogance is beyond belief.

    Tailings dams must be monitored for 10,000 years according to Australia’s supervising scientist. They are not.

    The once through nuclear reactors that suck up and slaughter billions of marine life every year are having their licences extended. The Indian Point reactor continues to operate despite the refusal by authorities to grant a new water licence and depite the ecological carnage the operators have committed over forty years.

    “Dr. Luckey is confident enough about his research to keep a large chunk of uranium ore on his bedside table. ” Great. The issue is not about the relatively safe, undisturbed ore body. The issue is about crushing the ore, mobilising heavy metals, including radioactive isoptopes to the environment and leaving billions of tonnes of low-level radioactive overburden and waste rock for future generations.

    Non-existent, unproven Gen IV reactors will solve the problem? When will these be coming off an assembly line? 2040, 2050?

    The tailings dams at the Olympic Dam Project in Australia are leaking one million litres of hazardous solution every day. The OD Project takes 35 million litres of water, free of charge, from the Great Artesian Basin in Australia in the driest continent of the planet, every day.

    Rod Adams believes this is acceptable?

    Those from yellow cake country (and beyond) do not.

  12. Brucie B

    In my opinion sane research using scientific methods needs to happen
    otherwise we langush in total ignorance much like the Galileo Galilei brutality.
    The Chesser/Baker study on the Chernobyl disaster:
    “…No germline mutations were found in microsatellite DNA from exposed embryo of Apodemus agrarius (field mice).”
    Hormesis takes into account DNA repair not mutation in statistical study.
    Of course there’s the ‘poison level’ where that level is located will take more research into homo sapien sapien .
    …I won’t get emotional about it.

  13. Rod Adams

    @Tom Murphy – there is a difference between a “conspiracy” and a marketing strategy. The later is a standard business practice taught at all of the business schools I know of.

    It would be a stretch to believe that an industry dominated by a 40 year old cartel and nationalized companies like Gazprom would fail to work together against a common threat to its market dominance.

    Besides, I was a literature major in college. Analyzing motives is what we do.

  14. Paul Lindsey

    According to this NASA Facts paper (pg 2, 2nd para under “Measuring Radiation”) , astronauts on the ISS receive 80 – 160 mSv per six-month stay, depending on the solar activity. That 8-16 Rem per six month stay, or 44 – 88 mRem per day. While the astronaut population is small, it includes both genders and they are highly monitored. This should provide a good starting point.

  15. Brian Mays

    Using the term ANY may be too conservative …

    Not only is it too conservative, it is impossible as well. Any observable health effects is the best that you’ll be able to do.

    When it comes to low-dose radiation, the set of data has a very low signal-to-noise ratio. For example, according to the BEIR VII model, you’re looking for that one extra diagnosis of cancer — in addition to the 42 cancer diagnoses that are expected anyway — in sample of 100 people who have been exposed to 100 mSv (10 rem) of low-LET radiation.

    Thus, it is not surprising that the ANS and HPS state that below this level of exposure, the “risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are non-existent.” If you then consider the possibility of hormetic effects at low doses, then you have to realize that you might find one less diagnosis of cancer in an even larger sample, again something that is difficult to detect.

  16. Tom Murphy

    @ donb – I think you may not be representing her positon correctly. I believe she is not referring to background radaition. If she was, then your argument would be spot on. Instead she is referring to some level of radation above natural background due to a nuclear power plant accident.

    We know “high single doses” like those experienced by bomb victims will kill or cause cancers. We know we can withstand some minimum level over our entire life time without ill effects. It is the vast middle ground that we are talking about.

    What minimum dose rate and what annual cumulative dose level can ANY human be exposed to without ANY short-term or long-term health effects?

    Using the term ANY may be too conservative….

    What minimum dose rate and what annual cumulative dose level can MOST human be exposed to without APPRECIABLE short-term or long-term health effects?

  17. Tom Murphy

    Good Morning and thanks for an informative post with a number of interesting references.

    I agree with you that the LNT theory taken to its extreme is not practical. We have evolved in a radioactive environment so we know we can tolerate some minimum radiation. I suspect that the dose rate above normal background that a person can be exposed to without any short-term or long-term effects probably has a range [some people less tolerant and some more tolerant; may even be a significant range].

    I do not think it is fair to characterize anyone who is advocating the LNT model as being a fear monger. Nor do I think it fair to characterize anyone who is advocating a change from the LNT model as being a paid shrill for the nuclear power industry.

    I have learned to filter out the sections where you start assigning ulterior motives and laying out conspiracy theories. For me, those parts of your posts detract from the arguments.

  18. donb

    Dr. Helen Caldicott wrote:
    Furthermore, most radiation-induced mutations are recessive; it can take many generations for two recessive genes to combine to form a child with a particular disease, like my specialty, cystic fibrosis. We can’t possibly imagine how many cancers and other diseases will be caused in the far future by the radioactive isotopes emitted by Chernobyl and Fukushima.

    One wonders how life can possibly continue on Earth, given that the Earth is naturally radioactive. Natural radiation has had millions of years to damage the genes of all forms of life. So much damage should have accumulated by now that life ought to cease. The contribution of man to this damage is very recent and insignificant compared what nature has been able to do over the eons.

  19. Jim Raleigh

    People seem to forget that even the NRC tried to address the scientific findings related to the health effects of low doses with their proposal of the “Below Regulatory Concern” (BRC) Rulemaking. Unfortunately, the rulemaking efforts failed.

  20. Rod Adams

    @sd – you may not have noticed, but this is a blog, not a scientific paper. It is a comparison between an emotional op-ed and a story about a man’s life work.

    I made no pretense of producing a research effort, but I did link to some serious papers. I hope you will take the time to do some reading and mind expanding.

    By the way, would you care to elaborate on the fallacies?

  21. sd

    There is no scientific method being cited above, simply emotionally appealing and false argumentative fallacies.

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