Over at HuffPo Alec Baldwin Tries Real, Real Hard to Sound Smart But…

April 13th, 2010 4:49 PM

No one has ever accused Alec Baldwin of being a rocket scientist, but apparently the actor fancies himself a nuclear physicist. At least that’s the logical conclusion to draw based on his post over at HuffPo entitled “The Human Cost of Nuclear Power.” The actor assumes his new role with gusto, metaphorically donning a lab coat to explain what he believes are the inherent dangers of nuclear power, but his bizarre conclusions and the outdated, discredited research he cites suggests that a straightjacket would be his better fashion choice. 

Let’s start with a question that illustrates just how far the limb that Baldwin is precariously balancing upon extends: what kind of power plant emits the most radiation? The correct answer isn’t the obvious answer. According to the Department of Energy, coal fired power plants emit about one hundred times more radiation, per unit of energy produced, than nuclear plants, chiefly because coal naturally contains trace amounts of radioactive compounds and, unlike nukes, they’re not designed with radioactive shields. Before anyone living near a coal fired power plant runs screaming for the door, I should hasten to add this is still an incredibly tiny amount of radiation, about 1/10,000th of all the radiation that an average person is exposed to each year. Natural sources, by far, make the biggest radioactive contributions to our lives. Nothing else is even close. 

As the focal point of his argument, the actor cites a study that has been the subject of more criticism than Baldwin’s daughter receives from her dad via voice-mail. The Radiation and Public Health Project’s so-called “tooth fairy” study purported to demonstrate a link between cancer and proximity to nuclear power plants, based on supposedly elevated levels of a radioactive element (strontium 90) found in children’s teeth. Without boring you with the details, the study was so poorly conducted and conclusions drawn so wildly unsupportable that even the New York Times could barely suppress an editorial smirk while covering the story. A host of peer-reviewed studies have thoroughly debunked the supposed link between nuclear power and injurious health effects. Nonetheless, the Radiation and Public Health Project is near and dear to Baldwin’s liberal heart, so the facts be damned. Nuclear power is dangerous! Anyone who has seen the China Syndrome ought to know that. 

Baldwin also says that: “There are no safe levels of exposure to the byproducts created by the generation of reactors currently in use.” If he’s trying to tell readers that it would be unwise to pull a Homer Simpson and bring a spent fuel rod home, it’s hard to disagree. Still, the average parent is probably more worried about the dangers of a child breaking one of those energy-efficient, mercury-laced fluorescent light bulbs than whether Junior is going pick up some waste plutonium on the black market. On the other hand, if Baldwin means “radiation” when he talks about “byproducts,” then not only is he wrong – since we live with far more natural radiation than the man-made variety – he’s quite possibly worse than wrong. There is a strong body of scientific research that not only suggests that low levels of additional radiation don’t threaten human health, it might in fact be beneficial. The effect is called “radiation hormesis” and it’s been the subject of several peer-reviewed scientific studies, published in respected journals like Nature and Human & Experimental Toxicology. Plus, consider this: if radiation is bad for you in any dose, it follows that the higher the dose, the worse the effect, right? So, it follows that there should then be a correlation between cancer rates and background radiation levels (which vary, depending on where you live), right? 

There’s not.                          

Baldwin falls into the inevitable trap of somebody trying to practice science without a license or a clue. He relies upon “experts” who are more than willing to create a story that fits his treasured narrative (particularly when donations are in order) then, when he tries to explain their tale, those of us who have actual degrees in science (like yours truly) can’t help but howl with laughter.  While I’ll confess that I’m not much of a movie-goer myself any longer, I do understand that Baldwin has somewhat redefined himself as a comic actor over the last few years. Perhaps penning articles for HuffPo as a would-be Dr. Science is another step in this conversion process? That’s the only context in which his opinions about nuclear power make any sense at all.

Editor's Note:  Originally posted at Big Hollywood.