The Top 10 Pro Nuclear Power Arguments Refuted

Dr. John Gofman provides here a point-by-point debunking of the arguments most favored by pro nuclear power advocates.
January/February 1981
TVA's Sequoyah Nuclear Power Plant, one of two atomic reactors in the U.S. licensed after the Three Mile Island accident. Pro nuclear power arguments typically try to misrepresent the health hazards of radiation or misdirect attention to other hazards.


Despite the fact that nuclear power plant construction has slowed since the accident at Three Mile Island, America's conflict over the peaceful use of atomic energy goes on. Indeed, smarting from the wounds inflicted by the near-disaster outside of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the proponents of nuclear energy have "come out swinging" with magazine and television advertisements, traveling speakers, literature, and even airport advocates who loudly promote their point of view.

Well, there's nothing wrong with people's expressing their opinions, of course. On the other hand, though, the folks here at MOTHER EARTH NEWS feel there's nothing wrong with rebutting such propositions, especially when the arguments seem to us to be either subtly misleading or downright incorrect. So we spent some time seeking out the strongest and most commonly used pronuclear statements we could find. Then we sent the arguments off to Dr. John Gofman, chairman of the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility and one of our country's most prominent opponents of nuclear power. The following, then, are ten of the arguments most often used by proponents of nuclear power and Dr. Gofman's replies.

ARGUMENT 1: We receive more radiation sitting in our living rooms than is given off by nuclear power plants. A brick wall puts out 3.5 millirems of radiation per year, but a nuclear power plant releases only 0.3 millirem in the same time period. In fact, you can stand right next to a nuclear power plant and receive no radiation at all.  

GOFMAN: First, let me agree that certain building materials do give off enough radiation doses to deserve consideration. Let me also agree that there is a very low dose of radiation emitted at the fenceline of a nuclear power plant that is functioning normally. If this were not the case, workers couldn't park their cars nearby, or even approach such utilities at all.

However, the "no dose at fenceline" statement doesn't consider the radiation people can receive from the entire nuclear power fuel cycle. We need to take into account all of the steps that make up the atomic energy process, including the production of mountains of uranium tailings (unshielded piles that are continuously releasing radioactive radon); the inventory of radioactive poisons—such as cesium 137, strontium 90, and iodine 131—that "leak" or "puff" into the atmosphere when a power plant is not functioning normally; the quantities of radioactive wastes being moved in fallible vehicles that can (and do) leak; and the so-called burial sites which have also been shown to leak and spread their material into the environment at large.

Now, let's come to the claim that a nuclear power plant itself releases only 3/10 of a millirem per year. Were that radiation dose—coupled, of course, with other fuel cycle emissions—truly always so small, I would hardly waste my time concerning myself with the hazards of nuclear power. But the proof that advocates of this energy source have no confidence whatsoever in their estimate of the plant's releases lies in their behavior with respect to the legal radiation standards.

As late as 1979, nuclear power plants were, legally, allowed to bombard the public with 170 millirems per year. When my colleague Arthur Tamplin and I proposed a tenfold reduction in that standard, the nuclear industry and pronuclear government agencies fought us tooth and nail. Now it has to be regarded as the acme of strange behavior for an industry to say, "Look, we're never going to give you more than 3/10 of a millirem per year" ... and then demand that the permissible standard remain more than 500 times as high as that limit! So I would say that as long as the industry fights against reducing legal standards to a level comparable to the 3/10 millirem per year that nuclear power advocates claim is the maximum dose per plant, any member of the public can dismiss such ludicrously low estimates.

(The legal standard was changed in 1979. It now permits 25 millirems per year of ionizing radiation to be passed on to the general public, under normal operating conditions! The Catch-22 here is that if anything occurs to make the operating conditions "abnormal," a nuclear facility is permitted to release an increased—and unrestricted—quantity of radiation.)

ARGUMENT 2: People living in high altitude cities, such as Denver, receive twice as much natural radiation as do those living at low altitudes ... yet the residents of such cosmically bombarded locales don't display double the average incidence of cancer.  

GOFMAN: The answer to this favorite pronuclear argument is that the cosmic radiation hitting the people in Denver probably does cause an increase in the number of cancer cases per capita. (One should not expect to find twice as many cases of cancer, of course, because radiation is not the only cause of the disease.) But to statistically demonstrate such a reality, we would first have to know [1] that the medical reporting of disease categories was equally accurate in that city and the sea level community to which Denver was being compared, [2] that the people who are considered "at risk" in both communities had all lived at the same location all their lives, and [3] that any other carcinogenic factors—aside from background radiation—were identical in both areas. (Undoubtedly they would not be identical.)

The fact is that no expert in the field of vital statistics would be prepared to contest the point that Denver residents may be experiencing an increased cancer incidence rate as a result of cosmic radiation when compared with otherwise equivalent people at sea level.

ARGUMENT 3: A chest X-ray exposes a person to 50 millirems of radiation, and a coast-to-coast jet flight gives one a dose of 5 millirems. But the spokespersons of the antinuclear "movement" don't complain about those hazards.  

GOFMAN: An individual has the right to choose to accept the radiation received by flying coast to coast or by having a chest X-ray ... in exchange for a perceived benefit for him- or herself. (The dose received from a variety of medical X-rays is high enough, though, that I would not recommend undergoing such examinations unless the procedures are required in order to make an accurate diagnosis of a potentially fatal disease.)

But nuclear power does not offer a voluntary choice. The radiation released by nuclear power is imposed upon people. Indeed, atomic power represents the use of an entire population as involuntary guinea pigs in a gigantic game of Russian roulette, the results of which could be an epidemic of cancer, leukemia, and genetic disease. And there would be no justification for such an involuntary imposition of risk even if the majority of the people in a country voted in favor of nuclear power, because the majority has no right to risk committing genocide against the minority.  

ARGUMENT 4: The genetic dangers often cited by anti nuclear activists are obviously exaggerated, because not even the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II produced any harmful genetic effects.  

GOFMAN: I've often heard the statement that the Hiroshima/Nagasaki data show that no genetic damage results from radiation, so I went out of my way to analyze, very carefully, those particular scientific papers ... and I was astounded to discover that the findings in that study were exactly the opposite of what is being claimed! The often quoted Neel-Kato-Schull study examined dominant genetic diseases that are expected to cause death in early life among children under 17 years of age, and definitely indicated that ionizing radiation increased the incidence of such diseases.

The Neel-Kato-Schull findings were significant at what is called the "5% level," which means there's one chance in 20 that the findings were the result of chance and 19 chances out of 20 that the findings were correct. Now the scientists who did this work decided that—considering the delicacy of the matter—they didn't want to trumpet their results around ... so they concluded in their paper that they found "no clear effects" (my italics).

Well, they had indeed found that radiation has an effect on the incidence of genetic damage, at the 5% level of significance. But—by twisting the words in their summary—they provided pro nuclear advocates with the opportunity to grab at the statement that "no effect was clearly observed" and then to jump to the fraudulent conclusion that "no effect exists ".

The Japanese evidence certainly does not prove the absence of genetic effects of radiation.

ARGUMENT 5: Anti nuclear advocates exaggerate the dangers of plutonium. After all, the substance is easily safeguarded because it's produced in very small quantities. Furthermore, other dangerous poisons—like lead, which has an infinite half-life—are continually being spewed Into the environment.  

GOFMAN: Plutonium has to be one of the most dangerous carcinogens that I know of. In fact, I believe that my own estimates of its toxicity—figures that are thousands of times higher than those of "official" estimating bodies—may well be understated.

And—although nuclear advocates claim that the carcinogen is now made in relatively small quantities—if we develop an industry involving reprocessing fuel rods (which must surely come to pass if we commit ourselves to the nuclear energy route), society will be handling millions of kilograms of plutonium. Under such circumstances, in order to avoid a lung cancer epidemic, the containment of this plutonium will have to be 99.9999% perfect. In other words, they'll have to safely guard all but one part in a million!

And yes, lead does have an infinite half-life and may be injuring the brains of many, many children, particularly those in urban environments. However, pointing to the dangers of another damaging pollutant to justify creating plutonium is the equivalent of arguing that if others are committing murder, then additional homicide is justified!

The correct assessment involves the realization that if we're letting the lead industry get away with dangerous pollution, we should do something about the lead industry, not promote still another dangerous violation of human rights and health.

ARGUMENT 6: If all U.S. power were nuclear in origin, the radioactive waste produced would amount to only the size of one aspirin tablet per person per year.  

GOFMAN: The important concern here, of course, is not only the amount of poison, but its toxicity. A fully developed nuclear industry would produce more than enough hazardous substances to kill everyone on the earth many times over. So the real issue is not whether each citizen's "share" of such materials occupies the size of a football field, a garage, or an aspirin, but whether one hundredth, one ten-thousandth, or one millionth of the accumulated poisons will escape. If the cumulative amount that is released is anything like one-thousandth of the little "aspirins" nuclear proponents speak about, we'll have one giant "headache": a cancer and leukemia epidemic that will make all of history's advances in public health care seem trivial.

ARGUMENT 7: Anti nuclear activists often complain that the potential damage caused by atomic power isn't covered by any insurance companies. But the reason such businesses haven't insured the industry is simply that they have no actuarial experience on which to base their rates.  

GOFMAN: Yes, the insurance companies have said, "We don't know the safety of nuclear power plants, so we won't insure them." For this reason, Congress passed—and twice renewed—the Price-Anderson Act, a law that relieves the nuclear power industry of any liability claims beyond $560 million (a small sum in the event of a major catastrophe). Congress has also decreed that the taxpayers would, in effect, reimburse the nuclear industries for $460 million of that $560 million!

The insurance companies are smart. They don't know the risks, so they won't insure. Does that mean it would be a good idea for you to "bet your life" on nuclear power?

If the utilities were sincere about the safety claims that they make publicly, they would agree to repeal the Price-Anderson Act and say, "We'll put our assets on the line and insure each other." None of the power companies has done so, which should tell you what they really think about the safety of their plants.

ARGUMENT 8: Nuclear power supplies 13% of our country's electricity today. If Industry is denied that energy, many jobs will surely be lost.  

GOFMAN: The relationship of employment to energy is a very complex matter. If you simply shut off the electricity serving a specific factory tomorrow, then of course the people working there will be out of work. On the other hand, the long range increased use of electricity in factories often results in more mechanization and a decrease in the number of humans required to conduct the businesses' activities.

Furthermore, there's little reason to believe that the method of energy production affects employment ... though many solar advocates claim that "their" energy source will produce more jobs per dollar than most other power alternatives.

And as for any possible energy —not jobs—shortage that could occur if we were to abandon atomic power (nuclear plants do produce 13% of our electricity, but that amounts to only 3% of our total annual energy consumption). The American Institute of Architects has calculated, in two carefully researched reports, that we could work up to a 26% saving in America's projected energy use by 1990 (which would be equivalent to the production of about 430 giant nuclear plants ) simply by putting conventional technology to work to make our buildings energy efficient.

ARGUMENT 9: The question of the risks of nuclear power is a deeply technical issue that only well-informed scientists in that specific field can understand, and the majority of such people support nuclear power.  

GOFMAN: I have several things to say in response to that one! First, by simply using common sense, the layman will often behave far more intelligently than would a Ph.D. The ordinary man-in-the-street can look at the amount of radioactivity that would be produced in a full scale nuclear industry and realize that containing such toxins to 99.9999% perfection day in, day out, year in, and year out—when one considers all the possible human and machine fallibilities—is impossible. But the expert who looks at a computer printout based on the perfect execution of a string of single operations and then concludes that the toxins can be contained to one part in a million is, to my way of thinking, the person who's behaving like an idiot.

Let me now address the idea that the majority of qualified scientists support nuclear power. When considering this statement, you should first realize that the U.S. government funds about half of the research in this country. And, as I can tell you from my own personal experience, the government doesn't like results that disagree with its policies. Therefore, many scientists are publicly silent on nuclear power, or declare that the issue is too controversial to take a stance on, when privately they will admit their reservations.

Most important, though, scientific truth is not a popularity contest. Throughout history, almost every step forward in science was resisted by the majority of contemporary scientists. When most people thought that our earth was the center of the universe, the planet was traveling through space just as it's doing today ... even though the "vast preponderance" of scientific opinion was steadfastly against such an idea. So remember: No matter how many votes a scientific committee may cast, the truth of nature remains unchanged.

ARGUMENT 10: Every activity—including driving a car—is risky. It's impossible to have a risk-free society. Consequently, the benefits of an action must be weighed against its hazards ... and nuclear power's benefits outweigh its risks.  

GOFMAN: It is absolutely true that we cannot have a risk-free society. And, since that's the case, we should recognize that those who produce hazards for others must be fully prepared to take the financial consequences of the risks. This rule does hold true among individuals, and a corporation or the government should not be allowed to assume the right—which individuals do not have—to aggress against others. Yet nuclear power is currently absolved from the responsibilities of its actions by the Price-Anderson Act.

Moreover, the entire concept of a benefit vs. risk doctrine is immoral. There is no benefit to society that can justify the forcible imposition of risks or threats to life upon individuals. Indeed, there is a straight path from accepting the benefit vs. risk doctrine for society as a whole to the philosophy we saw epitomized in Nazi Germany.

Lastly, let me sum up my replies to all of the arguments presented here by reminding people that the nuclear power question is fundamentally a human rights issue. People have the right not to be aggressed against and used as guinea pigs in a massive human experiment. However, a concern for human rights must not be equated with a craven fear of progress or challenge! Humanity has faced very difficult problems and perilous situations in the past, and shown great ingenuity in devising systems that can minimize dangers in a fashion which results in only voluntary risks being taken. But such things have to be done in a sensible way, without coercion, and with each party or industry involved taking the responsibility for his, her, or its actions.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The pronuclear arguments presented here come from a variety of sources: Nos. 1, 3, and 10 from national ads by America's Electric Energy Companies ... Nos. 2, 4, and 6 from Petr Beckmann's The Health Hazards of NOT Going Nuclear (The Golem Press) ... Nos. 5 and 9 from Bernard L. Cohen's opposition to John Gofman as set forth in "Radiation Fantasies", Reason magazine, March 1980 (Reason Foundation) ... No. 7 from an energy debate attended by a MOTHER EARTH NEWS staffer ... No. 8 from John Gofman's debating experiences (as cited in "Irrevy": An Irreverent, Illustrated View of Nuclear Power, from the Committee for Nuclear Responsibility).