Uranium – Twisting the Public’s Opinion 

This article first appeared on Online opinioin

The documentary “Uranium – Twisting the Dragon’s Tail” is the latest glossy and highly sophisticated soft sell for the nuclear industry. It’s also, if you look at it closely, rather confusing.

I will start from the end, because that’s where the main message of this film comes out clearly   “Just imagine a world where reactors can produce immense amounts of clean, safe, energy. There is no such thing as a future without uranium” These final words are said against a background of soaring celestial choirs.

This seems to be the formula now, in nuclear promotion. The 2013 propaganda film “Pandora’s Promise” carried the same positive message – an ever rocketing energy demand to be met by ever increasing, indeed limitless, electrical energy provided  by new nuclear reactors.

But, like ‘Pandora’s Promise’, this new documentary devotes the first two thirds of its series in discussing the negative aspects of the nuclear industry.  Episode One covers its history, ill effects of radiation, the atomic bomb and its use. Episode Two continues this, with a sympathetic attitude to Australian Aboriginal concerns.

Unlike “Pandora’s Promise” this film does not denigrate anti-nuclear activists, and there is no attempt to ridicule Dr Helen Caldicott, as “Pandora’s Promise” did.

Indeed, the first two episodes are beautifully clear and accurate, as well as entertaining. Really, I couldn’t criticise them.

With the final episode – that’s when the message kicks in, and also when it gets confusing.

Having shown and explained the suffering and death caused by nuclear weapons and ionising radiation, the presenter, physicist DR Derek Muller appears to change course: he “wants to understand whether the benefits are worth the risk . By the end of it all, he implies that they are.

Muller moves on to the biological effects of ionising radiation. He warns about “high doses of radiation” – and here confusion begins. Muller equates the single big dose of radiation he received on a 4 minute visit to Pripyat hospital basement, to the background radiation one receives in year. We learn that the effects of low dose radiation are almost invisible – can’t really be measured – so presumably we can forget about them.

Muller consistently mixes up “natural” radiation with ionising radiation from nuclear fission He talks about background radiation as “natural”. There’s no mention of the increased ionising radiation in the biosphere as a result of the atomic bomb testing in the 1950s and 60s.

In Muller’s previous presentations on his youtube shows Veritasium, he has consistently confused the naturally occurring radioactive potassium K, with the nuclear fission produced radioactive isotopes, such as caesium 137 and strontium 90. As part of this confusion he constantly uses bananas as a comparison https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRL7o2kPqw0.

Cesium-137 is 12 million times more radioactive than potassium-40.   Another highly-radioactive fission product, strontium-90, releases almost 20 million times more radiation per unit mass than does potassium-40.  Muller seems to have no understanding of the way in which bananas are used in the body. The human species has had thousands of years of experience with bananas and other foods containing potassium 40 (K40). We have a natural trace level of K40 in our bodies. When we eat bananas, our bodies excrete the extra cesium, so by the natural process of homeostasis, our K40 level remains the same. This is not the case with the very recently created radioactive isotopes from nuclear fission; they remain, and build up in the body.

Now we get the publicity plug for Australia’s Lucas  Heights nuclear reactor. From this presentation, you’d imagine that the sole purpose of this reactor is to benefit medicine. In fact the original purposes of the reactor were to further the nuclear weapons and nuclear power industries. The first Hifar reactor was built in the 60s as a research reactor. The radio pharmaceuticals facility was literally tacked on at the end of the reactor. In the long term, a linear accelerator would turn out to be more efficient and economic for this purpose, when the full costs of the nuclear reactor, waste disposal included, are counted.

Muller He makes a light and amusing story on the first isotope”Molly 99″ and  the process of obtaining from “her”  – technetium 99 -a “life -saving medicine”. But no, it’s not. It is used to help diagnosecancer – not cure or even treat it.  So he glosses over the nuclear reactor and its waste problems, managing to get a laugh with a suitable ex-footballer cancer patient.

Returning to the theme of low dose radiation, Muller interviews Professor GeraldineThomas. She gives a comforting story about how quickly radioactive iodine disappears from the environment, and she completely ignores other radioactive isotopes.  “More people died from falling out of bed every year in UK, than died from Chernobyl radiation”. Both Muller and Thomas point out the difficulty of detecting causes of cancer, and conclude that there is “no persuasive evidence of any health effects from Chernobyl radiation”.

They are following the nuclear lobby’s spin, in completely ignoring the work of Russian scientists  Alexey V. YablokovVassily B. Nesterenko, and Alexey V. Nesterenko, whose mammoth study on Chernobyl concluded that  “A more accurate number estimates nearly 400 million human beings have been exposed to Chernobyl’s radioactive fallout and, for many generations, they and their descendants will suffer the devastating consequences.” The authors argued that the global death toll by 2004 was closer to 1 million and said health effects included birth defects, pregnancy losses, accelerated aging, brain damage, heart, endocrine, kidney, gastrointestinal and lung diseases.

Professor Thomas reassures us that “a small amount of radiation exposure is OK” “We are extremely well adapted to a low dose radiation environment”.  Apart from Thomas’ dismissive account of exposure to radioactive iodine, there is absolutely no mention of the effects of internal emitters of radiation – that is, the radioactive isotopes breathed in or ingested, that can sit in a body’s organs for years, decades, emitting high dose gamma radiation.

Moving on to the Fukushima nuclear accident, we are told that the psychological effects are the serious ones. What a great piece of spin this is! Of course the psychological effects are extremely serious. Wouldn’t you be worried, if you were a pregnant woman, or if you feared that your child might later get leukaemia, because you decided to return to a radioactive environment?  It is the reality of increased risk of fatal illness that accentuates the other disastrous consequences of that accident.

Prof Thomas assures us “The most important studies will be those on the mental effects”. In the context of this documentary, that just makes me envisage more documentaries like this one – with more spin about how we mustn’t worry about ionising radiation.

The presenter, Derek Muller emphasises and repeats “not one death from Fukushima radiation – not one!” Yet in scholarly articles, we learn that Cancer deaths due to accumulated radiation exposures cannot be ruled out“. Caracappa, Peter F. (28 June 2011), “Fukushima Accident: Radioactive Releases and Potential Dose Consequences” (PDF), ANS Annual Meeting, retrieved 13 September 2011

Inevitably, we move on to the real core of the message – the wonderful new nuclear reactors. We meet the young and personable, Dr Leslie Dewan, who graduated not that long ago in Nuclear Science and Engineering, and now she is CEO of Transatomic  Power, which  plans to build its first demonstration Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor in 2020. (Transatomic Power has probably put in a submission to the South Australian Nuclear Fuel Chain Royal Commission. But we don’t know, because commercial submissions don’t have to be published).

The documentary appeared in Australia at a very convenient time for the South Australian Royal Commission.   Dr Muller often covers his back with remarks about nuclear weapons “the most savage thing that man has ever built” and like his “feeling that renewables are going so fast – perhaps we can use alternatives”. But ultimately, his is a message of confidence in nuclear power. He says “Every year uranium saves more lives than it has ever destroyed” Really? Where are the facts to back up these kinds of statements? And all is spoken with guru like solemnity, and the backing of soaring holy choral music

What Muller and Thomas are doing is following the script from the tobacco and asbestos industries. They know full well that the toll of cancers, heart conditions, birth defects, from persistent exposure to ionising radiation will not become apparent for decades. They would have us believe that it will be impossible to establish ionising radiation as the cause of this toll of suffering and death.

But it’s not impossible. True, fatal mesothelioma from asbestos does leave a ‘smoking gun’ – in that exposure to asbestos is just about the only possible cause – and a person’s history can be tracked.

But  what about tobacco? Early last century, Sir Richard Doll undertook the epidemiological research, that, combined with studies on mice, proved tobacco as the major cause of lung cancer. Such epidemiological studies have been carefully not undertaken by the nuclear governmants and nuclear industries. Where such research has been done, it has been forgotten or ignored. An example is the work of Dr Rosalie Bertell in the Tri State Leukemia Survey — that resulted in much stricter controls over X-raying. I’ve already mentioned Dr Yablokov in Russia. There’s the painstaking 10 year research by Dr Vladimir Wertelecki and the Omni-Net Ukraine Birth DefectsProgram,

We are living in a strange time, where science is valued if it brings a benefit to corporations. Dr Derek Muller and Professor Geraldine Thomas are comfortably ensconced in that world. But there must be some scientists out there who are like Sir Richard Doll, and whose work is motivated by the public good.

And we desperately need those scientists.

This documentary “Uranium – twisting the Dragon’s Tail” is just Series One. I would love to know who helped to fund  Gene Pool Productions for PBS and SBS to produce this. I’m betting that Series Two will follow before long, with a glossy and positive story about Generation IV nuclear reactors.


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