Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Radiation risks of the Fukushima nuclear accident, expressed as slices of bacon

If we must die . . .

Because I apparently enjoy banging my head against brick walls and similarly productive activities, I commonly place myself in the path of rampaging internet mobs, calling for humility, moderation, and tolerance (hypocrisy being one of my other defects of character.)

Nuclear energy in the United States is, by far, the largest single source of low-carbon energy. Nuclear energy production has been flat in the United States for the last ten years, even as the need for more low-carbon electricity has become screamingly apparent, partly because these plants tend to be expensive and can take a very long time to build, but in large part because these plants are very unpopular, due to fear of nuclear radiation.

Nuclear kWh -- flat as a day-old soda

Nuclear advocates don't always respond to these concerns in the best way. Besides pointing out that these risks are often overstated, a fair number of them foolishly try to deny that ionizing radiation from nuclear accidents or improperly stored waste could cause any harm at all, justifying that counterintuitive conclusion with misreadings of the epidemiological literature or with reference to pseudoscience like radiation hormesis.

The truth is that the cancer risk of low-level exposure is real, but very, very small. Since the cancer risk of red and processed meats are in the news -- sometimes being similarly exaggerated -- I wondered if one could express the risks of the Fukushima nuclear accident in terms of an equivalent number of slices of bacon.

Ten thousand people living close to the Fukushima plant, tested in this study, were exposed to as much as 1.07 mSv of internal radiation (one person) [1]. The average was less than that. They don't directly give the average or the means to calculate it in the paper, but judging by these graphs, and by the fact that two-thirds of adults had no detectable internal radiation exposure at all, we can estimate the average at less than 0.25 mSv. One mSv carries with it an additional risk of death from cancer of 0.005%.

Doctors and researchers are still trying to sort out the cancer risks, if any, from non-charred red meat. Processed meats, like bacon, are definitely associated with distal colon and rectal cancer. There may be other cancer risks, such as gastric cancer, but these are so small that scientists are still arguing about them. The only significant risk (other than that associated with excess calorie consumption, i.e., obesity and its diseases, and hypertension from excess sodium in susceptible individuals) is from colorectal cancer. Two slices of bacon per week carry with them a 47% increase in the risk of death from colorectal cancer, which in Americans is 15.5/100,000 = 0.0155% risk of death.

0.0155% * 0.47 = 0.007285%

But this is meat consumption over the long term, so we will give our hypothetical colon cancer victim 30 good years of bacon consumption before succumbing -- 0.007285/(30 * 52) = 0.00000466987% excess risk of death from colon cancer per serving. 1 mSv is approximately 0.005%, so 0.00005/
0.0000000466987 = 1070 slices of bacon.

One civilian in the "hot zone" at Fukushima was subjected to an excess cancer risk comparable to three slices of bacon with breakfast daily for a year. The average exposure in the hot zone was on the order of two slices daily for four months.

I suggest slices of bacon as a new standard method of describing radiation risks from nuclear energy. Real, but small. 

1. External exposure is more variable and harder to measure, but this study found 2/3 of external exposures were less than 1 mSv, and 98% were less than 10 mSv. 10 mSv is a good bit of bacon -- 3 slices a day for ten years -- but still less than a single abdominal CT. 98%, again, were below that, and 2/3 were less than a tenth of that.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Matt Ridley is an idiot

We do not often dwell on our mistakes, here at IT. This is because I already have a full-time job. But one glaring error of a few years ago needs to be corrected:

Dr. Ridley, a former editor of the Economist (the only newsweekly in the English language worth the paper it's printed on) is no idiot, nor is the idea that things are going to get better an idiotic one. Hence, consideration of his thesis is a little OT for this blog, but we aren't going to let that stop us, especially as Mr. Ridley's thesis is a favorite canard of the most dangerous and savvy deniers, those that have given up attack the science of global warming and instead dedicate themselves to attacking the case for action. The endless adaptivity of humans figures prominently in this set of crackpot ideas.
My friends, I was wrong. Matt Ridley is a screaming idiot. The evidence of this has been piling up for a while now, but the New York Times has helpfully assembled an overwhelming case for mandatory headgear for the 5th viscount Ridley.

It's mind boggling the diversity and scale of the stupidity Ridley displays in this interview. Ignorance of science, art, and economics are all on display. (He proclaims Vernon Dursley one of his personal business heroes. It would be easier to take this as "a bit facetious" were it not that Ridley oversaw the first run on an English bank since 1878(!), culminating in a taxpayer bailout that left the bank owned by the state.)

Where does one even begin with this density of nonsense? He takes the attitude of a sullen 12-year-old to literary fiction, describing it as "like playing tennis without the net" because it is not composed of things that "actually happened." Yes, this millionaire and hereditary peer, educated at Eton and Oxford, thinks fiction is unworthy of attention because it isn't "really true."

It gets worse. He lavishes praise on "The Hockey Stick Illusion," a discredited heap of paranoia and lies that looks all the more embarrassing in 2015 as dozens of papers have replicated the "hockey stick" and record-shattering warmth over the ensuing five years as extended the sharp edge of the hockey stick even further.

And it gets even worse than that:
Which writers — novelists, essayists, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Ian McEwan, Willis Eschenbach, Stewart Brand, Deirdre McCloskey, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Niall Ferguson, Richard Dawkins, David Quammen, Sam Harris, Bill Bryson. People like this are more than mere writers; they are the generators of new ideas through fine prose, the heirs to Voltaire.
Leave aside the fact that Sam Harris is a bigot, Richard Dawkins has parleyed an interesting idea he had thirty years ago into a career as a professional anti-religious whiner, and the fact that I instantly knew, before Googling the name, that Ayaan Hirsi Ali would be an angry former Muslim employed by right-wing think tanks to vilify Islam and Muslims. What touches this list into immortality is that Ridley has placed Willis Eschenbach -- Willis Eschenbach -- on his list of writers he most admires. Jesus wept.

For those lucky people who have never turned over one of Eschenbach's rocks, he is a failed massage therapist/failed cabinet maker/Watts dittohead whose writing is horrible. Not just wrong on the science (as we expect); not just irrational and paranoid: horrible in style, in usage, even in grammar and spelling. Willis Eschenbach writes like English is his second language, learned exclusively from a brain-damaged crackhead.

Think I'm exaggerating? Take a look:
James Hansen and others say that we owe it to our Grandchildren to get this climate question right. Hansen says “Grandchildren” with a capital G when he speaks of them so I will continue the practice. I mean, for PR purposes, Grandchildren with a capital letter outrank even Puppies with a capital letter, and I can roll with that.
In any case Hansen got me to thinking about the world of 2050. Many, likely even most people reading this in 2010 will have Grandchildren in 2050. Heck, I might have some myself. So I started to consider the world we will leave our Grandchildren in 2050.
But Hansen doesn't capitalize "grandchildren," unless the word is used in a title, as with "Storms of My Grandchildren." This is the dedication of that book:
To Sophie, Connor, Jake,
and all the world's grandchildren
Tastes differ, but I very much doubt anybody with any knowledge of the English language at all would describe the above as indicative of an "heir[] to Voltaire." It rambles. It is vague and lazy ("many, perhaps most of the people reading this . . . .") It attempts a breezy conversational tone which combined with the mistakes with which the post is riddled grammar and usage (the titular eight-tenths needs a hyphen, "grandchildren" is not a proper noun, "unajusted" is still missing its "d" five years on, you don't capitalize "Final Conclusion" and you can't even pretend to blame Hansen for that one . . . .) gives the impression not of relaxed ease, but arrogance coupled with embarrassing vacuity.

Speaking of vacuity, here's Willis trying to defend himself from Roy Spencer's complaint that he stole from 20-year-old climate papers and presented their ideas as his own:
Easy for you to say. You’re some anonymous humanoid, might be a 16-year-old Valley girl for all we know, who is totally safe from such untrue accusations because you never have to take responsibility for your words—you hide your identity behind an alias like some kid in a chat room.
Who is acting like an adult here? Me, or you, you who won’t stand behind what you say, you who are too ashamed to sign your own work? Unlike you, I have a reputation to uphold and defend, and defend it I will.
This writing sample really has it all. It rambles, the second sentence is a garbled, overlong mess, and he's larded up the whole thing with useless flourishes that make it sound even dumber than the underlying stupidity of the content requires.

A decent ninth-grade composition teacher should have cured Willis of referring to "untrue accusations" or unnecessarily explaining that the purpose of an alias is to "hide your identity." He makes the classic neophyte writer's mistake of deploying useless adjectives ("totally safe," "untrue accusations") and seems to be unwilling or unable to hold a coherent thought from one end of a sentence to the other: "Unlike you, I have a reputation to uphold and defend, and defend it I will." What happened to upholding it?

Matt Ridley compared this hot mess to Voltaire. He, like Willis Eschenbach, is an idiot. I deeply regret my error.