Vegter doesn’t understand science let alone physics

IN A RAMBLING and shoddy piece of quackery published by Daily Maverick, discredited anti-humanist curmudgeon Ivor Vegter claims, inter alia “a lot of opposition to nuclear power is motivated by fears over the safety of nuclear reactors. Chernobyl and Fukushima scared the pants off people. But they’re wrong. Nuclear is by far the safest form of energy on the planet, bar none.”

It is clear from the manner in which the purported facts are presented, that Vegter doesn’t understand science, let alone scientific evidence. Is opposed to humanism and the manner in which scientific consensus is driven by published research, peer review and moderation.

So far as Vegter is concerned, not a single person has died as a result of direct exposure to radiation in the Fukushima and Chernobyl disasters. Vegter thus proceeds to impute the findings of the Japanese government, who likewise impute the findings of the World Health Organisation attributing an increase in infant mortality as a result of radiation exposure.

Did anyone die because of Fukushima?

Thyroid screening of under 18-year-olds, conducted in the aftermath following the Fukushima disaster “detected a large number of thyroid cysts and solid nodules”, ‘including a number of thyroid cancers that would not have been detected without such intensive screening.’

A UNSCEAR report quoted by Vegter, and used apparently as strong evidence of ‘no deterministic effects from radiation exposure’ is a merely a ‘white paper’ to ‘update and consolidate’ some of the earlier findings and conclusions of an assessment of the ‘radiological consequences of the Fukushima Daiichi accident’ and fails to note the deaths of workers.

Instead of affirming the earlier prognosis of no deterministic effects, it rather provides a political platform for a ‘Recapitulation of the earlier 2013 report’, in effect carrying news of  ‘a controversial document stating a radiation-induced increase in thyroid cancer incidence’ amongst the public where the authors reported ‘a 50-fold (95% CI: 25, 90) excess in Fukushima Prefecture.’

UNSCEAR however discount the controversial finding,  as ‘too susceptible to bias’, thereby upholding the validity of the earlier committee findings and paving the way for new data and experimentation. Far from being definitive, the UN committee sponsor merely restates the areas and vectors of investigation requiring more research, alongside abnormalities (or lack thereof) in the gonadal tissues of frogs, collected from sites with elevated levels of radionuclide concentrations and ‘morphological defects in Fir trees’.

That the Republic of Korea apparently also ‘experienced an apparent large increase in thyroid cancer rates once they instituted universal screening’, alongside Japan, merely signals that the baseline of medical research into the disaster is fraught by epistemological dilemma, and where does one start?

Far from a recapitulation, Japan recognised the death of one worker from direct exposure to radiation in September this year, which is one whole human being more than Vegter is willing to digest, so scratch curmudgeon and call the man a cannibal.

Instead of ‘no observable health affects’ as Vegter asserts in his rambling and ill-considered article, the worker tragically died of lung cancer as a result of being exposed to some ‘195 millisieverts (mSv) of radiation, several times more than the annual allowable dose.’ The government was ordered to pay compensation.

The report referenced here is not simply a draft UN report or an unreleased news brief put out for comment by the Japanese government (perhaps unavailable to low-paid freelance journos without Internet, or requiring analysis since one may need to translate Japanese), but is a hard fact carried by major news agencies, including CNN, The Guardian and Time Magazine. It is thus wholly unnecessary for me to spend more time traversing similar reports on the Chernobyl & Fukushima disasters, suffice to add that we know a lot more about the epidemiology of radiation exposure and cancers caused by fission products and the vectors in which these disasters have played themselves out, than anyone at the Daily Maverick.

But let’s give Chernobyl a go anyway. The figures quoted by Vegter are ‘28 victims of acute radiation syndrome and 15 cases of fatal child thyroid cancer.”  Unsurprisingly, this is the conservative position articulated by persons such as  Wade Allison of the University of Oxford.

Environmental physicist Jim Smith of the University of Portsmouth, UK, however prefers to cite a 2006 study by Elisabeth Cardis of the International Agency for Research on Cancer in Lyon, France. “This predicted that by 2065 Chernobyl will have caused about 16,000 cases of thyroid cancer and 25,000 cases of other cancers, compared with several hundred million cancer cases from other causes.”

A case of inferring there is a consensus in science when the exact opposite is true? Or simply failing to report on a controversy within the scientific literature?

Look at our own backyard dumbass, no safe dose

In order to counter Vegter’s baldfaced lies and open chicanery, one should add that South Africa has had its own share of problems associated with the nuclear industry and especially, uranium mining, milling and processing. The communities of Tweelopiesspruit and Wonderfontein, two informal settlements affected by run-off from radioactive slimes dimes, a byproduct of the mining industry, are all affected by increased annual exposure and dose rates.

It is appropriate that Vegter, a cherry-picker of facts, deserves to be tackled in his own backyard, and this is not the first time this writer has had cause to call him out in this regard, for being nothing more than a racist.

An estimated 1.6 million South Africans live in informal and formal settlements on, or directly next to, tailings, according to Wilma Stassen of Health-E. “In addition to accidental ingestion through the water or air, some of these communities are also directly exposed to radiation from the high levels of uranium and its byproducts (called daughter products) in the tailings.”

The Council for Nuclear Safety (CNS) estimates that at least 10,000 SA mineworkers, or roughly one in 20 mineworkers, have been exposed to radiation levels that exceeded safety limits.

A report from 2010 states that according to CNS estimates, ‘1 000 employees at Harmony Gold mine were exposed to radiation levels that in some instances were three times higher than the annual dose limit of 20 mSv a year.’

To give readers some indication of the controversy surrounding dosage, but without immediately jumping into a rigged debate on the conservative linear no-threshold (LNT) model, which forms the object of Vegter’s lopsided straw-man piece, (more on this below) one should first state here that these poor communities already receive in excess of the annual allowable worker dose limit of 20mSv set by the National Nuclear Regulator (NNR).

This is not the place to discuss hormesis or the theory that low exposure to toxins such as lead, arsenic, cyanide and asbestos may have beneficial affects, given stressors such as natural selection.

Our NNR myopically operates on the assumption that the life-span of a human being is one year, and acts accordingly, and hence annual allowable dose rather than cumulative effects of exposure to radiation over ones entire life-time, is all that matters to the regulator. Not only do we have an institution which disclaims any knowledge of bio-accumulation of radioactive fission products, and other radiation products in our own backyard, but we have a Minister of Energy who disclaims any responsibility in the event of a nuclear disaster, so that it is impossible to get household or health insurance for these types of disaster.

Speaking of which, it really is a bit rich for any journalist to spew stats-based comments like: ‘Coal kills a lot of people. Not only does it kill coal miners, but it kills the rest of us because of particulate pollution,” in order to somehow make a point in comparison to nuclear energy, this after having already sung the praises of oil, gas, coal and fracking in previous anti-climate science pieces.

According to the NNR the annual allowable dose is “a level which represents a 1 in 1000 risk of contracting cancer” or as the more progressive US Dept of Energy would put it, ‘1 in 500 risk of contracting cancer’, so keep that in mind when next you visit your oncologist. I will leave it up to readers to tackle the Brian Wang energy stats (read misrepresentation by maths), suffice to state they are a means of deflecting our attention away from the impact of high and low dose ionising radiation on the central nervous system, and the metabolism of different radioactive elements, both within our body and the environment.

Like the USA, our regulator recognizes ‘threshold early effects’ starting at ‘around 1Sv’.  Before stating “an immediate dose of 5Sv is generally considered lethal.” Didn’t we just read a piece by Vegter contradicting the findings of our own NNR?

If you want a better perspective visit the Dept of Health.  A code of practice for medical x-ray equipment published by the Department sets the effective allowable dose at “20 mSv per annum, not more than 100 mSv over a period of 5 years (not more than 50 mSv in any one year)”. Bare in mind, we are talking about the effect of ionising radiation exposure in the form of beta, alpha and gamma radiation, not the long-lived affects of bio-accumulation of fission products up the food chain, and into our gut and bones.

A 2007 parliamentary portfolio committee inquiry into the Nuclear Industry, which I attended, heard submissions and hearing from the widows of workers exposed to radiation during the 1996 Pelindaba accident and apparently involving a fire at the plant, in which at least 7 people including Harold Daniels died.

Far from being 100% safe, on 16 March 2009, another leak of radioactive gases from Pelindaba was reported by NECSA involving abnormal levels of gamma radiation associated with Xenon and Krypton gases causing an evacuation of staff and an emergency to be declared.

The same committee heard how routine emissions of radioactive isotopes such as Strontium-90 and Caesium-137 from Koeberg exceed European Safety guidelines. Independent reports commissioned by Koeberg Alert show contamination of wheat and dairy and shellfish within a 50km radius around the plant, and all with demonstrable increase in Strontium-90 and Caesium-137 products, entering our food supply. None of these products occur naturally. (1)

Then on September 2010, 91 workers at Koeberg were contaminated by Cobalt-58 (58Co) isotope with a half-life of 70.86 days. After promising a review of the situation which would have “recommended further steps to avoid recurrence”, the parastatal never published its findings and no health review exists to my knowledge. All just the tip of the iceberg.

So what if LNT is not a straight line?

Lets hammer a final nail into the Vegter anti-humanist coffin.

Vegter claims a science paper supports his views on Linear Threshold exposure.

Firstly the paper he cites is in regard to radiation doses from routine radiography, not the despoliation of the environment by fission products. Secondly, he fails to report on other findings, in effect misstating the summary by inferring there is any scientific consensus on the subject.

This chicanery has already played itself out in the manner in which he treats the consensus position on climate change, and Vegter really doesn’t understand science, because if he did, he would know “Exposure to high doses of ionising radiation in brain tissue leads to the expression and release of biochemical mediators of ‘neuroinflammation’, such as pro-inflammatory cytokines and reactive oxygen species (ROS), leading to tissue destruction.”

And that when it comes to risks associated with low doses and low dose rates of ionizing radiation: Linearity May Be (Almost) the Best We Can Do.

I’ll quote the paper’s summary and try to assist: “At lower doses, radiation risks are primarily stochastic effects, in particular, somatic effects (cancer) rather than the deterministic effects characteristic of higher-dose exposure. In contrast to deterministic effects, for stochastic effects, scientific committees generally assume that at sufficiently low doses there is a positive linear component to the dose response—that is, that there is no threshold”

Complaining that the conservative LNT model used by the World Health Organistion (WHO) is not deterministic, but rather stochastic, as Vegter seems to suggest, in other words, “having a random probability distribution or pattern that may be analysed statistically but may not be predicted precisely”, is a bit like asserting that chaos fractals used at dance parties never caught on in the 90s, because there were no definite edges or boundaries to these computer generated puzzles, and therefore why would anyone notice a fractal?

Obviously, Vegter has never been to a rave.

Another paper relied upon by Vegter begins: “The carcinogenic risk induced by low doses of ionizing radiation is controversial. It cannot be assessed with epidemiologic methods alone…”

Begging the question, if one cannot rely upon epidemiological data or field work gathered round nuclear plants, then what is the point of using this information to assert that the LNT model is wrong because  ‘epidemiologic data is inaccurate at low doses”? Obviously some other method must be found.

Our assumptions about low-dose phenomena may yet turn out to be wrong. But that’s how science operates, folks, you can change your mind. LNT may indeed, one day be replaced as the prevailing model at the WHO, and more likely it will be replaced by a better model, one that takes into account the endogenous affects of ingestion of fission products on human metabolism.

Unlike Vegter’s pro-nuclear polemic, scientific consensus happens via peer review. As Naomi Oreskes a professor of the history of science puts it: “Science has grown more than exponentially since the 1600s but the basic idea has remained the same: scientific ideas must be supported by evidence, and subject to acceptance or rejected. The evidence could be experimental or observational; it could be a logical argument or a theoretical proof. But whatever the body of evidence is, both the idea and the evidence used to support it must be judged by a jury of one’s scientific peers. Until a claim passes that judgement – that peer review – it is only that, just a claim.”


(1)  Allowable limits of fission products had to be raised to accommodate the plant. Strontium-90 is a by-product of nuclear fission and presents a health problem since it substitutes for calcium in bone, preventing expulsion from the body. Caesium-137 because it is a long-lived high-energy beta emitter with a half-life of 30.17 years is one of the two principal medium-lived fission products, along with strontium-90, which are responsible for most of the radioactivity of spent nuclear fuel

“Caesium-137 beta decays to barium-137m (a short-lived nuclear isomer) then to nonradioactive barium-137, and is also a strong emitter of gamma radiation. Caesium-137 has a very low rate of neutron capture and cannot be feasibly disposed of, but must be allowed to decay.”

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