Volume 22, Number 2 April 1993


Trashing the Planet

Dixie Lee Ray, with Lou Guo Published by Perennial (Harper-Collins), 1992, $10 paper, $20 cloth.

This is a provocative book. The reader is continually presented with assertions that are contrary to majority views. Dr. Ray asserts as her motivation that "--I do part company with alarmists that misuse science to foment fear and who clamor with increasing stridency that industrial progress must stop or be redirected into uneconomical alternatives--."

She provides interesting evidence for her assertion that the dangers to the public and ecosphere of Alar, DDT, dioxin, and PCB have been exaggerated by overzealous environmental organizations, although I suspect there would be considerable scientific disagreement with her assertions as well.

Very few people would dispute her claims as to the benefits of nuclear radiation as used in nuclear medicine. In attempting to argue the possibility that a small amount of ionizing radiation may be beneficial, Dr. Ray presents some thought-provoking data, but also ignores some information to the contrary.

The BEIR V report of the National Academy of Sciences uses a linear no-threshold model for solid tumors. Their recommendation is that the cancer incidence is 800 cancers per million people exposed to 1 rem. This is eight times greater than the figure used by Dr. Ray. It is also known that, contrary to her claim that there is no evidence of linearity below 10 rem exposure, there is a linear induction of cancer due to x-ray exposure in the pelvic region down to 0.8 rem, and to 6.5 rem for thyroid carcinoma induced by x-rays. Since the normal cancer rate is 1500 persons per year, proof of radiation-induced cancer at low doses presents a formidable statistical problem. However, because it is difficult to measure at low doses, it does not necessarily mean that cancer induction is negligible, as Dr. Ray implies. When ignorant it is prudent to be conservative, in the opinion of this reviewer.

Dr. Ray argues that energy conservation produced by sealing homes is a health hazard because of increased radon concentration. Actually radon concentration in homes arises by percolation from the soil beneath the home and not from building materials. It can be substantially decreased in areas of high radon containing soils by improved ventilation in the crawl space beneath the home. In condemning conservation and arguing for building new electrical generating plants, Dr. Ray ignores the benefits of improved insulation of structures that require heating and cooling, and improved efficiency of lighting and appliances. She ignores the fact that in the period 1973 to 1986 US. GNP improved 35% with no increase in the use of energy due to conservation efforts. The energy thus saved per year is equivalent to all the present US. electrical generating capacity.

In stating the case against renewable energy sources Dr. Ray argues, in connection with wind energy for electricity production, that "most of the efforts have failed and been abandoned." Although some wind turbines have failed, the development in the last decade in California has produced wind turbines that are 98% reliable and have an installed capacity of 1600 megawatts, enough to supply the city of San Francisco. Wind resources in the midwest alone could supply all the country's electrical needs using this proven technology.

Dr. Ray dismisses solar energy as being too diffuse. She quotes the high cost of Solar One in the Mojave Desert. This was a pilot project funded by DOE and not intended to be cost-effective in the marketplace. She ignores the fact that production of electricity is occurring for the Southern California grid using solar-thermal energy from parabolic reflectors located in the California desert with an installed capacity of 430 megawatts. Using this known technology it is estimated that a 6000 square mile desert area could also supply all US electrical needs.

Having dismissed renewable energy sources, Dr. Ray argues that nuclear power has less environmental impact than use of fossil fuels for production of electricity (acid rain, no greenhouse gases, releases less radioactivity to the environment than coal burning). As to nuclear waste she argues that it should be reprocessed since nuclear waste repositories are politically difficult, and disposed at sea. This is surely a controversial and unproved proposal.

Although Dr. Ray laments "environmental extremism," her book is hardly an example of a measured and balanced discussion of the complex issues involved. However, it does present the reader with a viewpoint stressing unlimited energy production and de-emphasizing environmental caution that is not often presented in such frank terms.

John A. Jungerman
Physics Department
University of California
Davis, CA

Global Warming: Physics and Facts

Edited by Barbara Goss Levi, David Hafemeister and Richard Scribner. AIP Conference Proceeding 247, AIP, New York, 1992, 512 pages, $76 for AIP or APS member.

[This review is reprinted, with permission, from Contemporary Physics, Volume 33, Number 3. See also the description of this Forum-sponsored conference and conference proceedings, in Physics and Society July 1992.]

First the title: Physics and facts? Since when was physics not facts? What it means is physics and policy, which makes the blunder even worse. However, it is a good book, and we had better forgive the choice of label, which was obviously made for alliterative rather than descriptive purposes.

These days, there is a steady stream of books about the climate, and the harmful changes that are threatening or, according to some, already appearing as the thin end of the wedge. Many of these books are cobbled together out of the proceedings of some conference or another, with all that that implies for hastily thrown together manuscripts, uneven treatment and fragmentary coverage. Despite appearances -- the cover of this book is emblazoned with the subtitle AIP Conference Proceedings 247 in letters larger than those of the main title already criticized -- this book is not one of those. It is in fact based on a short course held at Georgetown University in Washington in April 1991. This, of course, is not the same thing at all as a conference, especially when it comes to proceedings. The lecturers at short courses tend to be motivated (by a fee, if nothing else) to teach, and the lectures themselves are carefully chosen by the organizers and speakers to form a comprehensive set, pre-prepared and written up. The lectures and subsequent discussions tend to highlight any shortcomings and allow the author to hone the notes and proceedings to a high standard. So it is here. The fact that the principal editor of this volume is also senior associate editor of Physics Today probably helped as well.

What we have then is one of the best and most up-to-date books on global warming available so far. It begins with a tutorial on elementary radiative transfer, including some of the relevant parts of cloud physics (clouds are the biggest unknown in the climate system), continues with the atmospheric and oceanic circulations, and the numerical models which attempt to describe them, the Earth's radiation budget, the carbon cycle and trace gases, a little about the basis of climatic records. All of these are written by researchers in the field who really know their stuff but are not so famous that they disdain to write it down carefully. Even the policy chapters, on how we might lower carbon emissions and so forth, often so vague and dull, are surprisingly good, and manage to be quite incisive and even fairly quantitative.

A regrettable omission is the lack of a chapter on the details of climate-related measurements, their problems and prospects, the more so because these lie on the "critical path" as much or more than models and policies do. Notwithstanding this one shortcoming, this book is an excellent place to start for any physicist wishing to understand what global warming is all about.

Professor F.W. Taylor
Clarendon Laboratory
Oxford University
Oxford, England

Chernobyl: Insight from the Inside

V.M. Chernousenko
Springer-Verlag, 1991, $34 hardcover

Mr. Chernousenko's work on the accident at Chernobyl proved to be one of the least readable books that I have ever come upon. In addition to the obvious translation difficulties, much of the book consists of a listing of "facts" regarding contamination levels, and other statistics, that could best have been left to the appendix. As a result of this emphasis on relating the contamination data, the central tenets of the book, including the details of the accident and the clean-up efforts, are obscured. This is most unfortunate, because this material is of the greatest importance, both for understanding the accident itself and for understanding the Soviet system.

The author sets out to demonstrate that the information released by the Soviet government regarding the accident was deliberately erroneous. Indeed, he refers to the series of myths -- 21 in all -- purportedly released by the government to make the rest of the world, and, perhaps of greatest importance, the people of the Soviet Union, believe that the accident was not very significant and that the clean-up proceeded rather smoothly. Unfortunately, the 21 myths are not of equal value, and, indeed, are often overlapping to the extent that the reader cannot regard them as separate. This is particularly true of the myths about the extent of the low level radiation contamination.

In addition, the author offers only limited support for his contentions of mythical status for some issues, whereas the support for other issues is extremely strong. For instance, that a 35 rem lifetime exposure is too high (myth 11) is certainly debatable, and is by no means on the same level as the clear myth that the death toll from the accident was only 31.

The author has two goals in this work: to inform the world of the true extent of the accident, and to secure proper protection from radiation contamination for the people of the former Soviet Union still living in affected zones. Unfortunately, the book was written while the affected zones were part of the Soviet Union. With the breakup, the zones now lie in three countries -- Russia, Byelorus, and the Ukraine -- and the government he attacks no longer exists, deflating the impact of his appeal and the importance of this second goal. In addition, while the extent of the data on contamination is overwhelming, the data has not been verified by outside groups. He also strives hard to make the case that low level radiation contamination is extremely dangerous, but again the verification is lacking.

On the other hand, Chernousenko was certainly an insider on the accident clean-up, having worked in the zone as scientific director of the Ukrainian Academy of Science's task force for the rectification of the consequences of the accident. Indeed, he was one of three authors of the secret report on the accident prepared for the Soviet government. Thus, his accounts of the accident itself, and work on the reactor after the accident, are the most detailed and well-prepared sections. They include very compelling interviews with some of those involved, making his account of the extent of the accident extremely convincing.

The Soviet government was determined to restart the other reactors at the site. To do this, they concluded that they had to cover the destroyed reactor with a sarcophagus. The highly radioactive debris from the destroyed reactor -- including core material -- had to be removed as well. It was determined that this material would be dumped into the shell of the destroyed reactor prior to sealing off the sarcophagus.

Robots were brought in to do this work, but were unable to withstand the radiation. It was then left up to "biorobots," humans, to clean up the site. Dressed in makeshift radiation suits, the workers were sent into areas where radiation levels exceeded 1000 rem per hour. Due to the high dose levels, a large number of workers were needed. The author contends that six hundred and fifty thousand workers were directly involved in the clean-up, many of them needlessly. For example, the building of the sarcophagus was given priority over clearing the rest of the debris, even though the debris could not be cleared once the sarcophagus was closed. As a result of this stupid decision, cranes that could have been used to help remove the debris from the buildings adjacent to the destroyed reactor were employed instead to build the sarcophagus, and many more workers were thus exposed to high radiation levels.

Many of these workers, mostly soldiers drawn from throughout the Soviet Union, were exposed to sufficient radiation that illness resulted. According to the author, in order to hide the extent of radiation exposure, the medical organization in the Soviet Union refused to regard their subsequent illness claims as having any relation to their radiation exposure, and they were consequently left unable to work and with a pension insufficient to meet their medial needs. Again, interviews and other personal accounts by many of these workers are included, and are the most effective elements in the book.

The book's arguments are enhanced by photographs, including some of the reactor after the accident, showing the extent of the damage far more clearly than can be conveyed by words. There are also photographs of the "biorobots," workers dressed in radiation suits sent to clean up the site in place of robots that could not withstand the high radiation levels.

The Chernobyl accident must be regarded as a prime example of the danger of government secrecy. Actions taken by the government time and again were aimed at maintaining the official line. Anything that could embarrass government officials was kept classified, even from those whose lives were literally dependent on the knowledge. Millions of people have been placed at risk by a government most concerned with saving itself. This work is must reading, not as a tome on the dangers of nuclear power, but on the dangers of a government allowed to operate beyond the view of the people it governs.

James R. Treglio
ISM Technologies, Inc.

Recent Publications on Arms Control

A September, 1992, Congressional Budget Office report, "Limiting Conventional Arms Exports to the Middle East", by Michael O'Hanlon, Victoria Farrell, and Seven Glazerman, has a number of sections that might be of interest to the physics community. It is not an analysis of the technical capabilities of weapons, but does have some discussion of methods for quantitative evaluation of weapon effectiveness, methods which have generally been quite primitive. In the mid-east, as an example, the air forces of post-Gulf War Iraq are outranked only by those of Israel, Libya, and Syria. A chapter covers the effect of arms trade limitations on US technical industries. Related government studies include the Congressional Budget Office's "The Economic Effects of Reduced Defense Spending," and the Office of Technology Assessment's "Global Arms Trade" and "After the Cold War."

The Programme for Promoting Nuclear Non-proliferation publishes quarterly news briefs with encyclopedic coverage of this broad policy issue, reporting on diplomatic activities, trade in nuclear materials, IAEA operations, nuclear power and waste storage developments, nuclear testing, relevant conferences and publications, etc. Recently the Programme began preparing its own studies. The first, published in March 1992, is on the relationship between the Non-Proliferation Treaty and a possible complete ban on nuclear testing. Information about these publications may be obtained from the Mountbatten Centre for International Studies, University of Southampton, Southampton, S09 5NH, UK.

Further on nuclear testing, the September 1992 Arms Control Today contains an article by Ray Kidder summarizing his position that "only a small number -- if any -- further nuclear tests are needed for these purposes [to ensure reliability and safety], and with proper planning, these could be accomplished in a period of three years." The article also refers to two reports from 1987 and 1991 where details may be found.

A simmering arms control question during the Cold War period was the possible development by either of the superpowers of depressed trajectory missiles. Such trajectories, which are lower than the "minimum energy" trajectories and hence faster, are feasible though they pose some technical difficulties, and could possibly undermine the deterrent capabilities of the nation attacked -- for example, by destroying aircraft on the ground. This issue was aired in a Forum-sponsored APS session in April 1990, and in this newsletter in January 1991. Concerns remain while large numbers of nuclear warheads are present in an unstable world. Lisbeth Gronlund and David Wright present their technical analysis of depressed trajectories and a possible ban on testing in Vol. 3, No. 1 (1992) of Science and Global Security.

A follow-up to my mention in the July 1992 Physics and Society of controls on ballistic missiles: John Harvey compares the threats of missiles and of advanced strike aircraft in a detailed study in the Fall 1992 issue of International Security.

Michael Sobel
Brooklyn College