Where science and politics meet, uneasily

I feel like I’ve spent a couple of months now reading everything I could find about the Chernobyl disaster, the unfolding crisis at Fukushima, and scientific papers on contamination effects, radiobiology and radiation. It has been informative, but I’m so full of it I almost feel like I’m emitting I-131 and Ce-137. The first of the articles is up now, the second will be in next week’s Big Issue magazine and will be up here soon after.

While interesting, especially in parallel with the progressively more and more polarised rants from the pro- and anti-nuclear lobbies in the media and online, it has made be realise the limits and fallibility of a number of things I suppose I’d always held to be pretty bulletproof. Probably quite naively so.

The UN is most certainly a sprawling and highly bureaucratic edifice. It sprouts acronyms like weeds. You need only watch the actions of the five permanent members of the Security Council to see how the politics of international power play off against the supposed humanitarian aims and instincts of the UN. But I was surprised to find just how easily its member states’ tendrils could force the hand of managers or turn discussion one way or the other – not only in the Security Council, but in organisations such as the WHO.

Dr Keith Baverstock’s experience of being advised to ‘avoid’ investigating evidence that might reveal a greater potential health problem than was accepted from radiation releases was not based on some sinister conspiracy originating in the IAEA. In a much more predictable fashion, it stems from financial implications for the US government from lawsuits brought by servicemen and civilians affected by I-131 fallout from surface nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s, not known to be harmful at the time. Or from French reticence to purchase and stockpile millions of potassium iodide capsules for the populations of major cities like Paris, Lyon, Toulouse, Marseilles, and Bordeaux for the eventuality of a reactor failure at one of its 70-odd nuclear power stations nearby. To consider such realpolitik is understandable, but to enact it is ultimately reprehensible — especially when delivered through the mouthpiece of the WHO, for whom the health of the people should be the highest matter.

I was also amazed by the endless stream of contradictory scientific results. Studies that demonstrate a clear relation between cases of leukemia around power stations, increasing as distance to the plant decreases – highly persuasive epidemiological evidence — and then others that show no relation, or contradictory results. It seems that for whatever your position, there is a scientific study to support it. A lot of this comes down to the layman’s inability (or lack of interest) in understanding the nuances of scientific studies, and also journalists’ failures to understand or explain those points across clearly. You need only glance at Ben Goldacre’s work at Bad Science to see how little journalists are able to – or are bothered about – understanding what the study found, rather than what the press release claims. Even the IAEA/WHO’s 2005 Chernobyl report is guilty of this, hiding details in the report’s body behind a press release gloss. But some blame must also be carried by scientists who, by incompetence, by design, or most likely for lack of funds, end up writing up studies whose conclusions hold little or no worth because of methodological failures, lack of controls, and so on. Yet if they come with a catchy headline (“x causes/doesn’t cause cancer”) their substance can travel around the world.

In fact scientists have shown themselves to be a fairly partisan lot, no doubt partly because of a world in which those with the deepest pockets for funding scientific work also have the most vested interests. But it is far from edifying to see, for example in the radiological debate, one side casting the other either as shills for the government or nuclear industry, or environmentalists Luddites.

The truth is somewhere in the middle: true perhaps, but ultimately not very useful. Nuclear science is barely 100 years old. We still don’t know how radiation affects our bodies, we can only peer on either side of the ‘black box’ to see the inputs and the outputs, and make educated guesses at how they connect. The organisations set up to support and regulate the industry, such as they are, are tainted by the requirements of a Cold War nuclear peril that is no longer relevant, but whose long shadow still ties their hands to secrecy.

Suddenly there is a lot at stake: governments have carbon reduction targets to meet, and growing countries to power; the industry has fought off one disaster only to be faced by a second; environmentalists predict the end of the world as we know it. It would be wonderful to think that science without bias or vested interests can answer these questions, but I have found little evidence to see that may happen.