Skip to main content

Radiation and Reason – Wade Allison ****

This is an important and useful book – the problem is going to be getting the right people to read it… but I’ll come back to that later. Wade Allison’s message is simple – we’ve got it wrong about nuclear power. We’ve over-reacted to the level of risk posed by low level radiation exposure, and because of that we make nuclear power ridiculously expensive.
The arguments are very powerful. All the evidence is from the aftermath of large exposures like the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, or from the impact of long term, low level exposure that we have historically vastly overestimated the impact of a dose of radiation on the human body. Allison is not arguing that large doses aren’t dangerous, but that they have to be larger than we used to think to do permanent damage.
A key confusing factor is the way that dosage is assumed to operate in a linear fashion, with the risk increasing steadily as the dose increases. This means you can do easy sums, adding up the dose across a population and getting to a combined risk. However, all the evidence is that the body’s response to radiation is non-linear. Below a threshold it has no noticeable impact. Above this, the impact rises quickly, until it flattens out at certain death – it’s an S shaped curve, not a straight line. This means we should take a totally different attitude to the risks involved.
Similarly, Allison demolishes the myths that nuclear power stations have to be vastly expensive to decommission – or that the storage of nuclear waste is incredibly dangerous. He’s not arguing for a permanent dependence on nuclear fission, but rather that we should make the best use of it while we’re waiting for fusion reactors to be possible – but either way it’s a lot better for the environment than coal, oil or gas fired power stations.
The arguments, then, are very effective. The book has one or two issues. It comments on how we need to educate people to get over the fictional idea of level of risk that the fear of radiation and atomic bombs generated. Yet this book certainly isn’t the way to do it. For example, early on it uses the argument that a 0.1% risk of fatality is the equivalent of a reduction in life expectancy of 2 weeks. This may be true, but it’s impossible for most people to accept as an equation. The mind just doesn’t work like that, and you have to tailor the message to fit what can be taken in.
Allison does have some good human touches. He compares our attitude to nuclear power to the attitude of the masses to Quasimodo in the Hunchback of Notre Dame – they are repelled by his ugliness and strength and don’t see his value. Fear gets in the way. I also like the very apt observation that people treat the sun’s radiation totally differently to radiation from nuclear sources, even though it too carries risk. (I always found it hilarious that the anti-nuclear brigade used to have a badge showing a smiling sun saying ‘Nuclear Power? No thanks! – given that the sun is the biggest nuclear reactor for light years around.) But on the whole the book comes across rather more as a polemic or a university lecture than true popular science. There’s not enough context/people content, and given the message that we need to educate ordinary folk about getting the level of risk wrong, it doesn’t really have enough of an appeal to the general reader.
One other slightly off-putting aspect of the book is that it is self-published. It is well proof read and reasonably well laid out, but I knew it was self-published without looking at the copyright page – it just has that feel. The print is a touch too big and the paragraphs aren’t laid out like a normal published book. Of itself this shouldn’t be a problem – Allison is not some nutcase, expounding his off-the-wall ideas, he’s an Oxford professor – but it does slightly reduce the credibility of the source.
In the end, no one who is against nuclear power is going to read this book. That would be too much to expect. But it is a very useful book for those who are in favour of nuclear power to read, to get arguments to support their position – or for those who are sitting on the fence. We currently take a wholly irrational approach to nuclear power, and it’s time we approached it more sensibly. And for that, I have to applaud Radiation and Reason.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The AI Delusion - Gary Smith *****

This is a very important little book ('little' isn't derogatory - it's just quite short and in a small format) - it gets to the heart of the problem with applying artificial intelligence techniques to large amounts of data and thinking that somehow this will result in wisdom.

Gary Smith as an economics professor who teaches statistics, understands numbers and, despite being a self-confessed computer addict, is well aware of the limitations of computer algorithms and big data. What he makes clear here is that we forget at our peril that computers do not understand the data that they process, and as a result are very susceptible to GIGO - garbage in, garbage out. Yet we are increasingly dependent on computer-made decisions coming out of black box algorithms which mine vast quantities of data to find correlations and use these to make predictions. What's wrong with this? We don't know how the algorithms are making their predictions - and the algorithms don't kn…

Infinity in the Palm of your Hand - Marcus Chown *****

A new Marcus Chown book is always a treat - and this is like a box of chocolates: a collection of bite-sized delights as Chown presents us with 50 science facts that are strange and wonderful.

The title is a quote from William Blake's Auguries of Innocence: 'To see a World in a Grain of Sand, / And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, / Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, / And Eternity in an hour.' It would seem particularly appropriate if this book were read on a mobile phone (so it would be literally in the palm), which could well be true for ebook users, as the short essays make excellent reading for a commute, or at bedtime. I found them distinctly moreish - making it difficult to put the book down as I read just one more. And perhaps another. Oh, and that next one looks really interesting...

Each of the 50 pieces has a title and a short introductory heading, which mostly give a feel for the topic. The very first of these, however, briefly baffled me: 'You are a third mus…

How to Invent Everything - Ryan North ****

Occasionally you read a book and think 'I wish I'd thought of that.' This was my immediate reaction to Ryan North's How to Invent Everything. The central conceit manages to be both funny and inspiring as a framework for writing an 'everything you ever wanted to know about everything (and particularly science)' book.

What How to Invent Everything claims to be is a manual for users of a time machine (from some point in the future). Specifically it's a manual for dealing with the situation of the time machine going wrong and stranding the user in the past. At first it appears that it's going to tell you how to fix the broken time machine - but then admits this is impossible. Since you're stuck in the past, you might as well make the best of your surroundings, so the aim of the rest of the book is to give you the knowledge you need to build your own civilisation from scratch.

We start with a fun flow chart for working out just how far back in time you are…