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The half lie of the Dragon's Tail

By Noel Wauchope - posted Thursday, 27 August 2015


The documentary "Uranium - Twisting the Dragon's Tail" is the latest glossy and highly sophisticated soft sell for the nuclear industry. It's also, if you look at it closely, rather confusing.

I will start from the end, because that's where the main message of this film comes out clearly "Just imagine a world where reactors can produce immense amounts of clean, safe, energy. There is no such thing as a future without uranium." These final words are said against a background of soaring celestial choirs.

This seems to be the formula now, in nuclear promotion. The 2013 propaganda film "Pandora's Promise" carried the same positive message - an ever rocketing energy demand to be met by ever increasing, indeed limitless, electrical energy provided by new nuclear reactors.

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But, like 'Pandora's Promise', this new documentary devotes the first two thirds of its series to discussing the negative aspects of the nuclear industry. Episode One covers its history, ill effects of radiation, the atomic bomb and its use. Episode Two continues this, with a sympathetic attitude to Australian Aboriginal concerns.

Unlike "Pandora's Promise" this film does not denigrate anti-nuclear activists, and there is no attempt to ridicule Dr Helen Caldicott, as "Pandora's Promise" did.

Indeed, the first two episodes are beautifully clear and accurate, as well as entertaining. Really, I couldn't criticise them.

With the final episode - that's when the message kicks in, and also when it gets confusing.

Having shown and explained the suffering and death caused by nuclear weapons and ionising radiation, the presenter, physicist Dr Derek Muller appears to change course: he "wants to understand whether the benefits are worth the risk. By the end of it all, he implies that they are.

Muller moves on to the biological effects of ionising radiation. He warns about "high doses of radiation" - and here confusion begins. Muller equates the single big dose of radiation he received on a 4 minute visit to Pripyat hospital basement, to the background radiation one receives in year. We learn that the effects of low dose radiation are almost invisible - can't really be measured - so presumably we can forget about them.

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Muller consistently mixes up "natural" radiation with ionising radiation from nuclear fission. He talks about background radiation as "natural". There's no mention of the increased ionising radiation in the biosphere as a result of the atomic bomb testing in the 1950s and 60s.

In Muller's previous presentations on his YouTube show Veritasium, he has consistently confused the naturally occurring radioactive potassium K, with the nuclear fission produced radioactive isotopes, such as caesium 137 and strontium 90. As part of this confusion he constantly uses bananas as a comparison https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TRL7o2kPqw0.

Cesium-137 is 12 million times more radioactive than potassium-40. Another highly-radioactive fission product, strontium-90, releases almost 20 million times more radiation per unit mass than does potassium-40. Muller seems to have no understanding of the way in which bananas are used in the body. The human species has had thousands of years of experience with bananas and other foods containing potassium 40 (K40). We have a natural trace level of K40 in our bodies. When we eat bananas, our bodies excrete the extra cesium, so by the natural process of homeostasis, our K40 level remains the same. This is not the case with the very recently created radioactive isotopes from nuclear fission; they remain, and build up in the body.

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About the Author

Noel Wauchope taught science before switching to nursing. She has several post-graduate qualifications, in health informatics, medical terminology and clinical coding. She is a long time anti-nuclear activist.

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