Fukushima, Hillel and Rabbi Nahman miBreslav: במקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש

Note: Shakla-ve-taria does not usually discuss current headlines. While Shakla ve-taria is a place that definitely welcomes and promotes discussion and debate, it usually presents articles that have matured for a long time. After the announcement today (Thursday, April 21) of a 20 km radius "closed zone" around Fukushima, it was felt however, that we could not keep silent anymore on this disaster.

במקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש

We shall try to be as honest as possible, however uncomfortable that be.

We are facing an on-going nuclear catastrophe of an unplanned and still unknown magnitude. On the one hand, this kind of accident is not described in the user's manual operating a nuclear power plant nor in any of the models of the nuclear engineers. On the other hand, a number of people have been sounding the alarm for many years now. Their concerns have not been heard -- at least have not been taken into account into a responsible social and environmental policy. The latter fact is hardly new: in virtually any society, there are noble voices that are mostly unheard of, that are sometimes slandered, or deprived of freedom (or even worse). One needs to reach out to these voices, despite the distracting noise of consomption, of seemingly innocent everyday life. These noble voices strive to bring about a real change for others, but they do not expect the whole world to become transparent to itself: their work is never done.

It is therefore disturbing to see that while Japan is on the verge of an even greater disaster, some major vectors of information continue confidently producing the same data, without an inch of critical thought, especially when plenty of people are relying on it.

Most media and even "scientific" sites still rely on the International Commission of Radiation Protection (IRCP). Even for instance the MIT NSE Nuclear Information Hub. If you look up the post on Regulatory Limits on Radiation Dose, dated April 7, you'll see that the author relies on the International Commission of Radiation Protection (IRCP) and its " latest Recommendations on Radiological Protection".  I shall raise two fundamental issues with the IRCP. The first one is philosophical and the second one is very concrete. I shall try to be not too technical.

1. On the first page of the IRCP recommendations, you read

The primary aim of radiological protection is to provide an appropriate standard of protection for man without unduly limiting the beneficial actions giving rise to radiation exposure. This aim cannot be achieved on the basis of scientific concepts alone. All those concerned with radiological protection have to make value judgements about the relative importance of different kinds of risk and about the balancing of risks and benefits. In this, they are no different from those working in other fields concerned with the control of hazards.’
This is indeed disturbing. A body that calls itself "International Commission on Radiological Protection" sets as a fundamental principle that "the primary aim of radiological protection is to provide an appropriate standard of protection for man without unduly limiting the beneficial actions giving rise to radiation exposure." The problem is not that we all know that indeed, the aim of protecting man from radiation "cannot be achieved on the basis of scientific concepts alone". This is indeed true, for there is no agreed-upon definition of what constitutes "protection". But there is neither an agreed-upon definition of what constitutes "beneficial actions giving rise to radiation exposure". Beneficial for whom ? We may agree on some given medical treatment (even though there is usually a lot of scientific debate), for instance, but should we agree on the huge financial benefits provided to the the energy corporations' elite ? Who decides here ? The answer is right here in the first principle: human protection (the concrete protection of people) is acceptable as long as it does not limit the interests of people. In the previous sentence, there is no reason to assume that these are one and the same people. For instance, workers in the nuclear industry (and people living near nuclear power plants) are by definition on the front line. Hard reality, but this is the world we live in, this is the reality as we experience it. As the Michnah (Baba Metsia 83a) puts it plainly:

הכל כמנהג המדינה.
All (contract) according to the custom of the country.

That is, you cannot protest what is fair and what is not in matters of contracts (in this case, hiring workers) from an a priori position. You have to follow (in one way or another) the local custom. Rabbi Yohanan ben Mathia goes even as far as saying to his son (who had hired workers and had included meals for them): "Even if you were to give [the workers] Salomon's meals, you would not have fulfilled your obligation." Do not even think that you can decide yourself a priori what is fair when you hire workers. We always live in a given situation. There is no use to protest against it a priori. Our assessments are relative, not absolute.

However, here, the issue is not the question of fairness. This is a matter of principle. The ICRP is supposed to be a commission on human protection. The problem is that the ICRP distorted its mandate from the very beginning, by taking upon itself the task of, so to say, protecting the benefits of radiation. By "balancing the benefits versus the risks of radiation", the ICRP removes the legal and moral uncomfort that the nuclear industry has to bear. Although the ICRP issues recommendations only, it has a considerable influence on policy-making. Concretely, we all know that had the ICRP simply stated that

The primary aim of radiological protection is solely to provide the best standard of protection for man,
this possibly would not have prevented, in practice, the numerous accidents of the nuclear industry. Admissible levels would have been lower, probably, but in any case, the document is issued only as a recommendation, not law. And even in the many countries where some of it is incorporated into law, law is difficult to enforce in practice.  To sum up: it is possible to argue that the practices of the nuclear industry would have been much the same, but the law would have had a chance to be different. The difference cannot
be overstated. The law would have had a chance to be different.

This analysis does not assume any given political position. We do not claim that a different law would have prevented the accident. This analysis only assumes a certain type of relation to Law.

2.  There are other committees than the ICRP studying the effects of radiations.  There are the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation ( UNSCEAR), the European Commission and risk agencies in any EU member State (like the Institut de Radioprotection et de Sûreté Nucléaire ( IRSN) in France) and the risk agencies in many countries.  I would like to discuss here another one, the European Committee on Radiation Risk (ECRR), which was set up in 1997. The context of the formation of this committee is rather interesting:
The ECRR was formed in 1997 following a resolution made at a conference in
Brussels arranged by the Green Group in the European Parliament. The meeting was called specifically to discuss the details of the Directive Euratom 96/29, now known as the Basic Safety Standards Directive. This Directive has, since May 2000, been EU Law regulating exposure to radiation and to releases to the environment of radioactivity in most countries of the Union. The Euratom Treaty preceded the Treaty of Rome and so once the document had been passed by the Council of Ministers there was no legal requirement for the European Parliament to address it. It was thus cleared without significant amendment although, astonishingly, it contained a statutory framework for the recycling of radioactive waste into consumer goods so long as the concentrations of itemised radionuclides were below certain levels.
( 2010
Recommendations of the ECRR
, page 10) 
One should bear in mind that in terms of policy-making, the ICRP is much more influential than the ECRR. As noted above, many policy-makers rely on the ICRP. However, several of the conclusions of experts in the ECRR directly contradict recommendations of the ICRP and other agencies. However, the ICRP has not included nor discussed so far the contradicting data reported by the ECRR. A debate was held in 2009 between Professor Chris Busby, Scientific Secretary of the ECRR, and Dr Jack Valentin, Scientific Secretary Emeritus of the ICRP (shortly after he resigned from his position). At this  point, we urge the reader to watch and decide for himself. (Busby talks about the first half an hour, then Valentin talks about half an hour and the debate itself starts below approximately at 1h 03' and the reader can alternatively read a short transcript of the debate.)

We shall only discuss briefly one of the issues. A fuller account is available for the courageous reader in the 2010 Recommendations of the ECRR. The model that the ICRP uses (and that is presently used to set legislation on exposure limits) is at best based on the so-called Linear No Threshold (LNT) model. This model does not set a threshold under which the radiation is completely safe but posits (included in the low-dose region) a linear relation between dose and cancer yield. This model is falsified by documented facts, notably many observations of anomalously high levels of cancer and leukemia in populations living near nuclear sites. The alternative model is more complex and takes into account the interaction with DNA. This is absolutely necessary if you take into account internal exposure. Most models currently used predate the discovery of the DNA and do not take into account internal exposure... Why ? At that point, you are compelled to leave the realm of science and to enter that of politics. DNA was discovered in 1953. The effects of radiations on DNA have been studied for a long time now; however, this has not yet given rise to a coherent policy of protection. The politics of radioprotection is a long and tortuous history of secrecy,  Cold War, corporate interests and lobbying, and foreign policy. A complete review is beyond the aim of this article. The bottom line is that the current IRCP recommendations cannot be relied upon. The reader (be he a concerned citizen or a decision maker) is strongly advised to consider the ECRR recommendations instead.

Hence, on the one hand, the recommendations are still recommendations and are not even likely to be implemented soon, and on the other hand, even the ECRR model is by definition provisional, as is any scientific model. Were it not for the on-going disaster in Japan, we might quietly ponder on the temporary validity of scientific models and policy-making. However, given the world we live in, it is not the figure of Karl Popper that comes to our mind at the present time, but one story told by Rabbi Nahman of Bretslav.
A king was once informed by his faithful prime minister that there had been a blight on the crops of that year. They had been so affected that anyone who would eat of the grain would become insane.  "But," said the minister, "there is no need to worry. I have set aside enough grain from last year's harvest for both of us that will last us until the harvest of the following year." However, the king shook his head. "No," he said, "I shall not avail myself of privileges other than those shared by my subjects." He looked at his prime minister. "We shall all eat of the same grain," he continued. "But this is what we shall do. You and I will mark our foreheads with an indelible imprint, so that when we go insane, I will look at you and you will look at me and we will know."

What Rabbi Nahman intended with this story, no one knows for sure, except maybe that in a world that is gone insane, no one can claim to be immune. But we can know that we are insane. We should know.

However, I would like to return to the closed zone around Fukushima. I do not know how many people were evacuated, probably tens of thousands. It is now officially declared a closed evacuation zone. Anyone who would want to live there faces arrest. The meaning is that this 20km radius zone is officially uninhabitable. The implied consequence is that people should flee this place. Of course, this is true. The evacuees' plight is immense. They need help. The future is grim. But I would like to return to Fukushima in a different sense. At the very place where the disaster began, there is no man now -- and for many, many years to come. And according to Hillel in the Michnah (Avot), had there been a man there, the disaster might have been prevented. This, of course, applies to us, in the world we currently live in.

במקום שאין אנשים, השתדל להיות איש
In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.