Radiation and the Value of a Human Life

By James Conca

The 63rd Annual Meeting of the Health Physics Society wrapped up last week in the great city of Cleveland and there was a palpable air of excitement that things might change.

HPS represents the group of scientists most responsible for protecting us from the harms of radiation. They know we have ridiculously-low rad limits that can cause more harm than good, and also unnecessarily cost us hundreds of billions of dollars that could be used to save actual lives.

The venue for this meeting was fitting since Ohio is experiencing some of the national insanity of prematurely closing nuclear plants for no good reason other than unjustified fear of radiation and the intransigence of lawmakers and anti-nuclear groups to value the best low-carbon, safest energy source we have to fight global warming. Even in light of all climate change experts’ call for more nuclear, from Jim Hansen on down.

The assumption of LNT: any radiation dose no matter how small will cause harm. However, small doses of radiation, < 10 rem(cSv)/yr, appear to be easily handled by cellular repair mechanisms that evolved as a normal adaptive response with the emergence of the eukaryotic cell 2.3 billion years ago. It would be odd indeed if the upper end of Earth background radiation was not near the threshold for significant radiation-induced biological effects.CONCA

The assumption of LNT: any radiation dose no matter how small will cause harm. However, small doses of radiation, < 10 rem(cSv)/yr, appear to be easily handled by cellular repair mechanisms that evolved as a normal adaptive response with the emergence of the eukaryotic cell 2.3 billion years ago. It would be odd indeed if the upper end of Earth background radiation was not near the threshold for significant radiation-induced biological effects.CONCA

This fear originated around 1959, when the world adopted a singularly foolish hypothesis for the negative biological effects of radiation, called the Linear No-Threshold hypothesis, or LNT and its resultant policy, ALARA (As Low As Reasonably Achievable).

LNT assumes, in contrast to almost all data on living organisms, that any radiation is bad and there is no threshold of radioactivity below which there is no risk, even Earth background radiation levels. Following ALARA means that we should protect everyone from all radiation, making doses as low as we possibly can, even if it costs billions.

Indeed, we do spend billions of dollars each year protecting against what was once background levels. It’s right out of a Road Warrior movie. No wonder the fear of radiation took over the worldview. Science fiction is much more fun to study than real science.

The Plenary Session at the HPS meeting was devoted to just these issues. Yours truly started off with a discussion of what these extra unnecessary costs might be. About $500 billion is a good estimate for America, over a trillion dollars for the world.

Dr. Roger Coates, President of the International Radiation Protection Association in London, followed with a discussion of ‘Prudence and the Hidden Burden of Conservatism’, outlining the strong support for developing a more practical and pragmatic approach to radiation protection.

While prudence is a noble concept that we use in our everyday lives to keep us from harm, the combined impact of accumulated layers of conservatism in deriving radiation limits has resulted in limits that are hundreds of times below the radiation doses that we should worry about, and at a great cost. Always choosing the worst-case scenario isn’t conservative, it’s just wrong. That’s why we developed statistics in the first place.

Dr. Antone Brooks gave the Landauer Lecture, title ‘Ya, But What If?’ that probed the fear that permeates society with ridiculous radiation scenarios like:

‘Ya, but what if the fallout from bomb testing in the 1950s and 60s created a cancer epidemic in Utah?’ No, Utah has the lowest cancer rate in the Nation and Washington County, where the fallout was the highest, has the second lowest cancer rate in the state. And is where Dr. Brooks grew up.

Or, ‘Ya, but what if radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer?’ No, radon alone is not very effective in producing lung cancer.  Radon combined with cigarette smoke increases lung cancer, but it’s the smoking that dominates that risk.  If you have radon in your home just stop smoking and put a fan in the basement.

DOE could save billions, and clean-up more sites, if society adopted a more reasonable limit for radiation, still well below background levels, but where no harm has ever been observed.AFTER DOE

DOE could save billions, and clean-up more sites, if society adopted a more reasonable limit for radiation, still well below background levels, but where no harm has ever been observed. AFTER DOE

Most of the fears and questions surrounding radiation have been answered very well over the years and all studies point to the need to have a reasonable threshold for radiation below which we don’t have to worry about health effects. And we don’t have to spend billions protecting against a phantom menace.

Unless you, the reader, are in a boat out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you’re getting a radiation dose between 200 and 1,000 mrem/year (2 to 10 mSv/yr) in the United States, just from background sources such as rock, dirt, potato chips and cosmic rays (EPA Rad Limits) and the radioactive isotopes of uranium, thorium, radon and potassium that are in them.

(Yes, potato chips are the most radioactive food, but if you eat ten bags a day, it’s the salt and fat that will kill you, not the radiation!)

Some places in the world have background doses ten times higher than us, but there have never been any observable health effects from these doses. Ever. Anywhere.

On the other hand, regulations require nuclear waste disposal systems and clean-up standards to meet release criteria of less than 4 mrem/yr (0.04 mSv/yr) to downgradient drinking water supplies. Moving from Cleveland to western Colorado will give you an extra 100 mrem/yr (1 mSv/yr). Should we make moving to Colorado against the law? Yes, according to these regulations. No, according to common sense.

There are different types of radiation and different biological effects of each and it doesn’t matter whether the radiation is natural or man-made, they’re the same. The measure of dose (rem or Sv) takes all that into account. However, we have made our regulations act as if they are different which is totally unscientific.

It is not possible to see statistical evidence of public health risks at exposures less than 10,000 mrem/yr (100 mSv/yr) because any risk is well below the noise level of all other risks faced by humans or the environment. That’s why we will never see any deaths, or even excess cancers, from Fukushima radiation, but 1,600 people died in the days following the accident from the frantic forced evacuations that resulted mainly from fear.

It is useful to note that the debate surrounding LNT in the 1950s was all wrapped up in the Cold War and was used by China and the USSR to stop above-ground nuclear bomb tests by America, so I guess that was a good thing. LNT sounded like a nice conservative idea at the time, but little did we know the collateral damage that would follow, such as fear of radiological medical diagnostics and treatments that save millions of lives each year.

The underlying problem with LNT is that life originated on Earth in a much higher radiation background than exists today, long before we split the atom. When the eukaryotic cell emerged over 2 billion years ago (the type of cell that makes up all higher life forms including humans), background radiation was between 1,000 and 20,000 mrem/year (10 and 200 mSv/yr).

In order to survive and thrive, these cells developed very efficient mechanisms for repairing radiation damage at or below these levels. These same mechanisms were essential to life when oxygen first entered the atmosphere about the same time. Free oxygen is thousands of times more deadly than radiation and we have only recently understood the importance of anti-oxidants in molecular biology and in our food for overall health.

Radiation is one of the weakest mutagenic and cytogenic agents on Earth. That’s why it takes so much radiation to hurt anyone.

Health physicists get a little frustrated that, on the one hand, they know that there is no real risk from any radiation below background, but are required to keep to limits a hundred times lower. The public often asks, ‘if it’s so safe, why are you working so hard to keep it so low?’

Good question. And the answer is ‘Because we’re told to. It’s the rules.’

So what are the costs of regulating radiation doses to such absurdly low levels?

A better question might be – How much do we consider the value of a human life to be?

It depends on how you view it, and who is paying (1234):

$7 million is the value of a human life according to EPA.

$316,000 is the average paid out in health care over a life in America.

$129,000 is the average historic legal value of a human life in America.

$12,420 is the death benefit to families of deceased soldiers, although circumstances in combat can increase that.

$45 million is the value of a single healthy human body when chopped up and sold on the black market for body parts.

$2.5 billion is the amount we spend to save a single theoretical human life based on LNT, although it is doubtful we have saved any lives at these levels.

$100 is the cost to save a human life by immunizing against measles, diphtheria, and pertussis in subsaharan Africa.

So, we could save 25 million lives in Africa for the cost of saving one theoretical life from low-levels of radioactivity. This is nuts. And it creates an ethical dilemma we have not yet faced up to.

The presence or absence of a threshold dose for radiation is a societal decision that society has been left out of. That needs to change. We have real problems that need to be solved. Yes, we need to deal with radiation doses above, say, 5 rem, 10 rem, whatever level you want to draw as the threshold. But there’s always a threshold. No different than, mercury, cadmium, or lead. Everything is in the environment at some level, but the old adage that dose makes the poison is quite true.

Life on Earth has dealt with this issue for billions of years, it certainly will for the next billion or two. One part per billion of lead is no big deal. One part per million…now that’s a problem. It’s why we have a 15 part per billion threshold for Pb in drinking water.

Life has easily dealt with radiation levels up to 10 rem/year for over 3 billion years. It’s not a problem. 100 rem/year…now that’s a problem.  We need a threshold, or we spin ourselves into nonsense.

Like we always do.

Note: another scientific meeting on LNT is scheduled for this coming September 30 to October 3 in the Tri-Cities, Washington.

This article originally appeared on Forbes.


Dr. James ConcaDr. James Conca is the Senior Scientist at UFA Ventures, Inc. in the Tri-Cities, Washington, an Affiliate Scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Dr. Conca is an expert on energy, nuclear and dirty bombs, a planetary geologist, and a professional speaker. He is also an ANS member and part of the ANS Social Media Team. Follow him on Twitter @jimconca and see his book at Amazon.com.


Feel free to leave a constructive remark or question for the author in the comment section below.


7 thoughts on “Radiation and the Value of a Human Life

  1. Dwight Baker, PE

    The NRC staff learned shortly after TMI that if they approve anything they are vilified in the media and berated on Capital Hill. If they approve nothing and regulate to ridiculously low limits the pay is the same and life is good. Senator Domenici demonstrated many years ago that the only way to change this mindset is to introduce an authorization bill that cuts the NRC budget by 30% or more.

    If we don’t have a plan to make that happen, then we don’t have a plan.

  2. idm

    Thanks for finally talking about > Radiation and the Value of a Human Life | ANS Nuclear Cafe < Liked it!

  3. John Tanner

    Health effects from chemical or radiation insults are negligible at low enough doses where the body’s defenses can easily deal with them, then become proportional to the dose as the body’s defenses become saturated. A smoother way to picture this than that frequently presented, including by Dr. Conca, would be a function which is quadratic starting at the origin, then gradually becomes linear at higher values of the dose. Mathematically this is the upward facing segment of a hyperbola that intersects the origin.

  4. William Ernest Schenewerk

    2.1 LNT Does Not Agree with Nagasaki Bomb Data
    Mortality/1000-person-a arising from malignant neoplasms at Hiroshima and Nagasaki is presented 1950-1974 [13]. Except at zero exposure, Hiroshima Data is different from Nagasaki data, even at extreme of error bars, which generally do not overlap. In the instance of breast cancer, time delay is greater than 10 a [14]. Low Dose analysis requires curve fitting[14]: “Disagreement about the somatic risks from low doses of ionizing radiation stem from two difficulties fundamental to the logic of inference from observational data. First, precise direct estimation of small risks requires impractably large samples. Second, precise estimates of low-dose risks based on high-dose data, for which the sample size requirements are more easily satisfied, must depend heavily on assumptions about the shape of the dose-response curve, even when only a few of the parameters of the theoretical form of the curve are unknown.” There is also the issue that cancer mortality is constantly dropping, with leukemia mortality being half what it was in 1945. Paraphrased: 1.0 Sv mammograms (normal mammogram does is ~0.004 Sv) would have to be given to more than 10,000 women, all the same age, to have a statistically significant test of LNT, and the result would only be available after 2035, 15 years before CO2 doubles.
    2.1.1 Hiroshima Bomb Data
    Hiroshima annual mortality curve fit from [13] data, including neutrons versus exposure, 0 to 280 rad (0 to 2.8 Gy):

    Hiroshima Annual Mortality
    = 2.0/1000-a + 0.009/1000-rad-a * 100 rad/Sv
    = 0.002/a + .0009/Sv-a * Sv = annual risk per person. (01)

    Using Hiroshima data, each Sv dose increases annual cancer death rate by ~1/2.

    Hiroshima lifetime risk
    = 0.0009/Sv-a * 70 a/life = 0.063/Sv-life. (02)

    ICRP Publication 103, 2007, LNT whole risk coefficient is 0.057/Sv-life [15]. Result: Curve fit to Hiroshima bomb data, 0 to 2.8 Sv, supports LNT. At 350 rads, Hiroshima mortality drops to ~3.5/1000-a, then rises to 5/1000-a at 550 rad. Hiroshima bomb had neutrons which are difficult to convert to Sv. Hiroshima annual cancer mortality at 1.0 Sv is 0.0029/a, 1.45 times zero radiation exposure rate.
    2.1.2 Nagasaki Bomb Data
    Nagasaki bomb curve fit from [13] data is significantly different from Hiroshima bomb data. Nagasaki Annual Mortality,
    (0 to 5.5 Gy):

    Nagasaki Annual Mortality
    = 0.0018/a + 0.000006/Sv^2-a * (100 Rad/Sv)^2/1000-a
    = 0.0018/a + 0.00006/Sv^2-a * Sv^2 = annual risk per person.

    Using Nagasaki data, each Sv dose increases annual cancer death rate by ~3%. Nagasaki annual cancer mortality at 1.0 Sv is 0.00186/a, 1.03 times zero radiation exposure rate. At 1 Sv, Hiroshima elevated mortality rate is more than 10 times Nagasaki rate. Similar Hiroshima versus Nagasaki mortality results is obtained from 1980-CONAES [16], which is a good starting point for any energy research.
    [13] Alvin M. Weinberg, “The Future of Nuclear Energy,” I:Physics Today, Volume 34, Number 3, p48, doai: 10.1063/1.2914469, http://ds.doi.org/10.1063/1.2914469, (1980).
    [14] Charles E. Land, Health statistician, Environmental Epidemiology Branch of the National Cancer Institute, Bethsda, Maryland, 20205, “Estimating Cancer Risks from Low Doses of Ionizing Radiation,” I: Science, B: 209, pp. 1197 – 1199, (September 9, 1980).
    [15] Radiation Protection Recommendations, I:ICRP Publication 103, Nominal risk coefficients, 10^-2/Sv for stochastic effects after low-dose exposure, Annex A, (2007).
    [16] Harvey Brooks and Edward L. Ginzton, co-Chairman, “Energy in Transition , 1985-2010: Final Report of the Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Systems, Committee on Nuclear and Alternative Energy Systems, National Research Council, ISBN: 0-309-66780-1, http://www.nap.edu/catalog/11771.html, (1980).


    As a nuclear engineer for 40+ years, I dealt with this issue continuously while designing shielding and radiation protection systems. It seems to me that the HPS needs to have a hearing with the ICRP and or the NCRP to present this case and see if we can get the rules and guidelines changed. Merely putting this argument in front of like-minded folks will not accomplish changing the rules. I do believe that Dr. Conca has done a masterful job of presenting a rational argument. Thank you Dr. Conca.

  6. Brian Grimes

    Hi Jim,
    Nice to chat with you at the ANS Philadelphia meeting in June. I wanted to pass on a thought on a potential interim initiative for a change in NRC regulations. I think ALARA was an arbitrary way of encouraging low doses, and could be changed, even without adopting new science. A rulemaking proposal for a staged licensee and NRC response could provide equivalent protection at much reduced cost, I think. The rule could be based on response to actual measured individual exposures, with graded licensee root cause investigations and NRC response. There is now a de minimus level ( 2 mrem) under ALARA. If licensees were required to track individual occupational exposure trends above 50 mrem or so, initiate a root cause investigation at 100 mrem (the current NRC adequate protection limit for the general public), and NRC investigate at 1 rem, this would provide adequate margin below the occupational exposure limits. I am not sure collective dose targets are meaningful at low levels.

  7. Tina

    I am a health physicist and I couldn’t agree with you more on the ridiculousness of the LNT model. In fact, I can’t think of any health physicist I know that would disagree with you. It is interesting the dollar figures you stated for other things in your article. Well done! Hopefully, shining a big, bright light on this issue, as was done at the HPS Annual Meeting (which I attended), will effect some change in this policy of over-conservatism with radiation dose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>