Australian news, and some related international items

Nuclear Citizens’ Jury kept in the dark about radiation health risks

Citizens' Jury scrutinyConveniently ignored was a significant body of evidence from studies on workers and the public exposed to low levels of radiation that there is no safe level – no threshold below which significant health effects do not occur.

for now there is no systematic structured way that the detail of these concerns can be brought to the attention of the jurors leaving us with the distinct impression that they are, to borrow a phrase, being treated like mushrooms – kept in the dark and fed on bullshit!

Testing the accepted Linear No Threshold (LNT) model for radiation and health 

Citizen’s Jury – weighing evidence or manufacturing consent? Observations from the first sitting day
Following on from the already much criticised recommendation from the Nuclear Industry Royal Commission that South Australia become the site for storage and hopefully disposal of around a third of the world’s nuclear waste, the government has funded a ‘citizens’ jury’ process. In the first stage of this a group of 50 people have been randomly selected as representing a cross section of the public – balanced by age, gender and whether they own or rent their homes – to spend 4 days identifying questions of concern and producing a consensus report on the evidence to be later presented to a large group of around 450 citizens for further consideration.

Let us for a moment leave aside the concern about the way the naming of this process as a ‘jury’ is so obviously a myth – divorced from anything that resembles a balanced legal process where evidence is weighed by a group of citizens in the context where a case for and against is presented to them in the presence of an impartial judge who ensures that the process is fair and balanced. Let us focus on one of the all-prevailing concepts of trial by jury: where people giving evidence commit to telling the truth – the whole of it and nothing but. On this simple basic requirement, the process of the citizens’ jury leaves much to be desired.

As part of a small group I was permitted to observe the first two sessions of the first day of this ‘jury’ process dominated by three representatives of the Royal Commission presenting the main recommendations contained in the 320 page report released in May 2016. I left deeply concerned that the jury were, if not being directly lied to, being given something far short of the whole truth. Let me give just three examples.

In response to one juror who asked the simple question about whether there was an existing example anywhere in the world of the kind of deep underground waste dump being proposed for South Australia she was told about the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) in the USA. Perhaps conveniently omitting the inconvenient truth that this site is currently still closed as a result of a fire in 2014 and release of radiation in the underground facility.

Asked whether the deep underground storage proposal was the best option for dealing with the waste another juror was told that this had been thoroughly investigated in the USA as part of the Yucca Mountain waste storage disposal site – again conveniently omitting to say that the Yucca Mountain site proposal had been abandoned.

But of much deeper concern was the way ‘evidence’ on radiation safety was presented.
 The Royal Commission proposes that we import by ship 138,000 tonnes of highly radioactive ‘spent’ nuclear reactor fuel rods in 140 tonne steel and concrete containers, unload and store these at a dedicated port, transport them overland to a long term ‘secure’ above ground storage that would be needed for around 120 years while a deep underground disposal site is identified and built for long term storage. The waste repository would involve a mine shaft and caverns excavated some 500 metres underground into which the fuel rods (presumably removed from the 140 tonne containers) would be deposited. The
caverns would then be back filled with clay and the whole site eventually sealed so as to prevent anyone gaining access for several hundred thousand years.

Now, for the moment let us ignore the wishful thinking that can ignore the fact that the past 100 years have seen two world wars, at least two global financial meltdowns, a current threat of international terrorism and a changing world order that is shuffling the deck of cards that the game of geopolitics is played by. Let us also ignore the fact that the time frame for considering this nuclear waste safety issue extends beyond that of recorded history – with its many changes in dominant civilisations cultures and values. And let us forget that most of what we know of these previous now only vaguely understood civilisations has been learned as a result of archaeologists finding places that looked interesting and digging them up to see what was there (and often finding that ‘robbers’ had been there before them).

What was presented to the jury was a set of bland assurances about the insignificance of the risk to the workers and the public who might come in close proximity to the radiative waste containers during the transport and 100+ year period of above ground storage. Estimates of the exposure were compared to ‘natural’ background and that received from medical exposures (x rays and nuclear medicine) and the health effects of radiation exposures at these levels dismissed as insignificant – one of the RC representatives even suggested that low level radiation

exposures might have health benefits. Conveniently ignored was a significant body of evidence from studies on workers and the public exposed to low levels of radiation that there is no safe level – no threshold below which significant health effects do not occur. The mechanisms by which radiation causes health damage, particularly cancers which are the most studied area, may be complex but evidence suggests that any exposure increases the risk. Faced with this evidence it is not the average or individual time-limited exposure that is critical to the question of safety and acceptability of risk, but the collective dose received by any and all people who are exposed at all stages in the process of managing these radioactive wastes and the cumulative dose received over the very long (minimum 100+ year) periods envisaged for the nuclear storage and disposal process.

To talk only of the dose that might be received by a person standing close to one of the 140 tonne casks is highly misleading. It ignores the cumulative exposure of those handling these containers on ships, at ports, in long term storage, in removing the individual radiative fuel rods for underground storage (unless it is proposed that the whole 140 tonne containers are to be deposited in the underground resting place). It also conveniently ignores the fact that constructing the deep underground ‘repository’ also involves significant radiation exposure. It is a fact that any hard rock mining releases radioactive radon gas. This is a particular hazard not just in uranium mining but any underground mining where the mineral ores are in hard rock. As well as being a risk when inhaled as a gas, part of the radon decay process results in the creation of ‘daughter’ products that are in the form of radioactive particles. These can be deposited in the lungs of the exposed miners where they may remain, emitting radiation in close contact to soft tissues for a lifetime. The result is significantly increased risk of lung cancer – often occurring many years after exposure with considerable difficulty in gaining recognition and compensation for the health damage caused by the mining work.

An honest, truthful presentation of the radiation risk requires at the very least an effort to model and estimate the total collective/cumulative exposure across all these aspects of the nuclear waste disposal process. Then the application of realistic risk estimates to this total exposure to get a rough estimate of the total number of fatal cancers that will result. With this evidence members of a citizens’ jury might be able to make an informed assessment of whether the radiation exposure risk is ‘acceptable’. Without it they cannot.

Even then this assessment might leave out ethical considerations regarding whether it is acceptable to expect others to take this risk on our behalf. Add to the above the mounting evidence that the official risk estimates of health effects from radiation exposure are once again wrong. As with all the previous official estimates used to set radiation exposure ‘limits’ the most recent evidence shows that the risks of fatal radiation-induced cancers are significantly underestimated –  certainly by a factor of two, probably by a factor of six and possibly by a factor of thirteen. Add to this evidence for ‘non-fatal’ but life damaging cancers that double the risk again – and then the evidence for other non-cancer health effects doubling the risk again and the assurances that the nuclear waste dump is safe start to look a bit one-sided if not actually downright dishonest.

So given the pattern of distortions and omissions so evident on just the first day of this citizens’ jury process are we seeing a genuine effort to allow the public to assess the evidence behind the royal commission recommendation or a cynical attempt to manufacture public consent? We can hope that there are some within the group of selected ‘jurors’ who have some inkling that there is more to the story than they are being told.

We can hope that they are able to call for evidence from those who do know – perhaps going beyond the list of ‘experts’ that they have been provided with by the ‘jury’ organisers. And we might hope that the next stage of the process, open to a wider but still ‘selected’ group of citizens, will permit yet further exploration of the gaps identified here; and perhaps more that people observing other ‘jury’ sessions over the next two weeks identify. But for now there is no systematic structured way that the detail of these concerns can be brought to the attention of the jurors leaving us with the distinct impression that they are, to borrow a phrase, being treated like mushrooms – kept in the dark and fed on bullshit!

Dr Tony Webb
June 2016
E-mail: Phone: 0418212632


July 6, 2016 - Posted by | AUSTRALIA - NATIONAL, NUCLEAR ROYAL COMMISSION 2016, South Australia

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