Don Luckey versus Helen Caldicott - Low Dose Radiation Health Effects

May 3, 2011, 7:14AMANS Nuclear CafeRod Adams

The New York Times recently published an op-ed by Dr. Helen Caldicott titled Unsafe at Any Dose in which she summarized her theory that even the tiniest doses of radiation cause both negative health consequences for the victim and undetectable genetic defects that will affect many generations to come. Here is an example of the language that she uses to propagate this theory:

Nuclear accidents never cease. We're decades if not generations away from seeing the full effects of the radioactive emissions from Chernobyl.

As we know from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it takes years to get cancer. Leukemia takes only 5 to 10 years to emerge, but solid cancers take 15 to 60. Furthermore, most radiation-induced mutations are recessive; it can take many generations for two recessive genes to combine to form a child with a particular disease, like my specialty, cystic fibrosis. We can't possibly imagine how many cancers and other diseases will be caused in the far future by the radioactive isotopes emitted by Chernobyl and Fukushima.

A few days earlier, the far less widely read St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a story about Dr. Don Luckey titled A challenge to the fear of radiation's invisible rays. Dr. Luckey's theory, documented by numerous peer reviewed papers and a book published in 1980 titled Hormesis With Ionizing Radiation, is that the effects of low levels of ionizing radiation are more similar to the effects of other external forces.

With World War II over, scientists finally were able to get their hands on antibiotics for research. Luckey was researching the effect of bacteria on vitamin deficiencies in animals. He injected baby chicks with tiny amounts of antibiotics, too little to actually do anything. Unexpectedly, the chicks thrived. He expanded into turkeys. Same result.

"I got the concept and could predict that high doses and low doses would have opposite effects," he says.

In 1954, he joined the University of Missouri's medical school as chairman of the biochemistry department. He conducted an experiment exposing crickets to diluted doses of pesticides. The crickets grew more quickly. He published the results. A flood of reprint requests came in.

"So," he says, "I just figured that radiation should be hormetic also."

Radiation protection professionals and nuclear operators trained under regulatory guidance to keep doses As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA) have a great deal of difficulty accepting the notion that tiny amounts of radiation could have beneficial effects. Both the American Nuclear Society and the Health Physics Society, however, have issued position papers confirming the following statement about the health effects of low level radiation:

The current philosophy of radiation protection is based on the assumption that any radiation dose, no matter how small, may result in human effects, such as cancer and hereditary genetic damage. There is substantial and convincing scientific evidence for health risks at high dose. Below 10 rem (which includes occupational and environmental exposures) risks of health effects are either too small to be observed or are non-existent."

Note: The rem is the unit of effective dose. In international units, 1 rem = 0.01 sievert (SV)

(Emphasis added.)

In terms of distance from the position statement about radiation health effects issued by two of the most interested technical societies in the United States on the subject, Dr. Luckey's statements about the possibility of moderate beneficial health benefits seem closer to reality than Dr. Caldicott's statements about unimaginable long-term risks to people who are alive today and those who will be born sometime in the future.

Dr. Luckey is confident enough about his research to keep a large chunk of uranium ore on his bedside table. Though anecdotes are not science and small samples are not proof, Dr. Luckey is 91 years old and in reasonably good health.

One of the real challenges associated with determining the health effects of low level radiation-either positive, negative, or zero-is the fact that it is nearly impossible to set up laboratory conditions with a zero-level control situation. The earth is a radioactive planet in a radioactive universe. There is some ongoing research on bacteria being conducted in deep salt caverns with extremely low background levels near the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in New Mexico. So far the results are not conclusive. Here is a quote regarding the research obtained from a private email discussion forum:

Updated: (May 4, 2011 4:24 am)

Yes, we've been doing these at WIPP for two years now and there is no evidence that LNT is correct below 10 REM. I will see what is publishable right now and send it along.

So far all we have been able to do is use two different bacteria with different sensitivities to radiation, e.g., highly sensitive (which should show an effect at low-doses and should show any hormesis effect if there is one) and radiation resistant. These are Shewanella oneidensis (Radiation Sensitive) and Deinococcus radiodurans (Rad Resistant). Since it is so difficult to see any effect below 10 REM, we are looking at three indicators of cell growth: assaying for protein, optical density of the cultures, and cell counts. So far, the total lack of radiation causes growth stress, while some amount of radiation is necessary for optimal growth, and radiation above background but below 10 REM has no adverse affect of growth. This study is sometimes referred to as coming from the "other side of background".

The same thing many have been saying for decades.

Source: Dr. James Conca, Director of the WSCF Labs. Dr. Conca gave me permission to extract that quote and also told me that Dr. Geof Smith from New Mexico State University and Roger Nelson from DOE are leading the research effort.

End of updated text.

This would not be recognizable as a Rod Adams post if I did not take the opportunity to try to stimulate a discussion about the ever-important question of motivation. Why has fear of radiation been so widely accepted and propagated that it is nearly impossible to have a rational discussion about the possibility that low level radiation may have beneficial health effects? Why have nuclear professionals accepted the excessive costs and restricted industry growth associated with attempting to push a natural part of our environment to a level below normal variations? Why do establishment media outlets like the New York Times continue to publish theories like Caldicott's that are not supported by facts or peer review?

My answer is that spreading fear, uncertainty, and doubt about radiation at even the low levels routinely achieved by the nuclear energy industry is part of a decades-old marketing strategy by the established energy industry. Their product offerings cannot compete in terms of energy density, affordability, or waste generation. Coal, oil, and gas, as valuable as they have been for the development of our modern society, are inferior on most objective measures for many applications requiring reliable heat input. Wind, solar, geothermal, waves, and pixie dust are simply too unreliable or too limited to serve many customer needs.

Unfortunately for the propagation of truth, the established energy industry has access to a lot of cash and the best marketing talent that money can buy. In the face of that kind of power, it is a good thing that some very smart people developed the Internet and the software that allows widespread communication with a relatively tiny investment. It is also a very good thing that I live in a country with a Constitution that includes the 1st Amendment.

Additional Reading

Observations on the Chernobyl Disaster and LNT, Zbigniew Jaworowski, Dose-Response, 2010.

Short-Term and Long-Term Health Risks of Nuclear-Power-Plant Accidents, John P. Christodouleas, M.D., M.P.H., Robert D. Forrest, C.H.P., Christopher G. Ainsley, Ph.D., Zelig Tochner, M.D., Stephen M. Hahn, M.D., and Eli Glatstein, M.D., New England Journal of Medicine, 2011.

Resolving the controversy over beneficial Resolving the controversy over beneficial effects of ionizing radiation - talk given by Jerry Cuttler, DSc, PE, to World Council of Nuclear Workers (WONUC), Versailles, France, 1999 June 16-18.

PS - I would like to dedicate this post to Jim Muckerheide, a long time ANS member who worked very hard for many years to organize sessions at annual meetings regarding the health effects of low level radiation. He convinced me with facts and research long ago.


Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., and host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005 and is a regular contributor to the ANS Nuclear Cafe.