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Censure the Censors
Did the HPS Board of Directors Censure a Past President for Exposing an Attempted Cover-Up of Radiation Research?
A $500 billion cleanup bogged down. Taxpayer dollars wasted. Public health put at risk.
This may sound like the makings of the next blockbuster thriller. But, according to a past-President of the Health Physics Society (HPS), it's the real-life drama playing out right now at the Hanford nuclear site and other radioactive waste cleanups around the country.
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At the center of it all? A scientific squabble over radiation risks that has erupted into accusations of a government cover-up.
Now a past-President has taken on the mantle of a very public whistleblower and has taken the unprecedented step of alerting Congress, igniting a firestorm within the HPS. But was it an act of conscience or treason?
What could be so controversial to spark this chain reaction?
The answer traces back to the very origins of radiation health science and the murky history of one long-standing assumption: that even the tiniest exposure to radioactivity can be deadly.
Has adherence to this outdated theoretical model hindered life-saving research into nuclear energy and cost taxpayers billions in unnecessary cleanups? Or is this incendiary claim just an attempt to downplay proven cancer risks for the sake of profit and expediency?
For the "whistleblower" at the heart of the affair, the stakes are equally profound. Savior or scapegoat - how will the HPS and scientific historians remember his explosive revelations? Could he bring long-overdue changes or destroy a respected society from within?
Summary of Events
In April 2022, the HPS released a video series challenging the scientific basis of the entrenched linear no-threshold (LNT) radiation risk model.
Emails obtained via FOIA revealed EPA, CDC and NCRP officials criticizing this series and making widespread, coordinated plans across agencies to discredit the research. The emails suggest a broader institutionalized culture beyond just isolated officials attempting to marginalize dissent on the LNT model, specifically characterized by:
Attempts to discredit the research and reputation of Professor Edward Calabrese, who argued against the use of the LNT model at low radiation doses. This included suggestions by involved parties to falsely imply he was funded by the Department of Energy, also implying, inexplicably, that the DOE is an unreliable source of scientific information.
Efforts to get scientists sympathetic to the LNT model into leadership positions at the HPS, in order to "move the needle” and counter the influence of the Calabrese videos.
NCRP and CDC officials coordinating with HPS insiders to nominate and elect “pro-LNT” individuals to the HPS Board of Directors. This "stacking the board" was intended to assert control over the HPS.
Members of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee working to exclude mention of Calabrese's work from a NAS report on low-dose radiation risks. One member called his work 'inaccurate.'
The stated goal in these emails is to discredit those like Calabrese presenting evidence that contradicts the LNT model in the low radiation dose range. The actions aimed to suppress challenges to the LNT model in order to maintain it as a basis for radiation protection policies and regulations.
The officials involved were reportedly motivated by a commitment to preserve the LNT status quo. The FOIAed email records displayed little openness to scientific debate or evidence contradicting the LNT model. The coordinated efforts crossed multiple government and non-governmental radiation protection organizations to marginalize and suppress dissenting views on the LNT’s validity.
In June 2023, then HPS President John Cardarelli informed Congress in two letters (1)(2) about the recently-discovered apparent suppression of science by current and former government officials (and HPS members) and over-reliance on the unsupported LNT model, which he argued has stalled cleanups and wasted taxpayer funds.
After sending this letter, the HPS Board of Directors voted to censure Cardarelli for sending a letter without the BoD's approval, even though there is no requirement for such approval for HPS Presidents' letters. Further, several BOD members voting for the censure motion were involved in the “stacking the board” planning and execution, as revealed in the FOIA emails.
Motivations for Suppressing LNT Challenges
Why would scientific professionals work so hard to suppress a countervailing theory that accounts for the void of data in the "low dose" range supporting the LNT model?
There are a few potential reasons why academics and bureaucrats may be inclined to retain the linear no-threshold (LNT) model for radiation risk despite scientific evidence that effects are negligible below a certain dose threshold:
Institutional inertia. The LNT model is deeply entrenched in regulatory and advisory institutions like EPA, NRC, and NAS. Challenge threatens established bureaucracies, policies, and approaches built up over decades around the LNT.
Professional politics. Careers and reputations of many senior officials are tied to the LNT model. Their influence could wane if it were overturned. Opposing the status quo risks marginalization.
Power preservation. The LNT gives agencies more discretionary authority and control, allowing maximum flexibility to restrict radiation exposures. Moving to a threshold would curb regulatory reach.
Legal liability. Admitting effects only above a higher threshold could open the door to more radiation exposure and risks. If harms did occur, it could lead to blame and liability for those who moved away from the ultra-conservative LNT model.
Public perception. Belief in the LNT model is deeply ingrained in public consciousness. Bureaucrats may fear backlash from changing views built up over decades. Being seen as "weakening" standards could undermine agency credibility and trust.
Precautionary principle. Retaining the LNT upholds the "better safe than sorry" ethos of limiting any potential risks, even if speculative. Changing course risks accusations of recklessness if exposures increased.
So, in summary, the above considerations could sway bureaucrats toward maintaining the LNT model despite contradictory scientific evidence. The incentives to override scientific data with policy considerations may simply be too strong in many cases.
Suppression Tactics and Unethical Actions
The FOIA emails suggest the suppression of LNT challenges extends beyond just a few isolated officials to a broader coordinated effort crossing multiple agencies and radiation protection organizations. This implies an institutionalized culture of attempting to marginalize dissenting voices on the LNT model, rather than just the actions of a few rogue individuals.
Again, FOIA emails reveal officials tried to falsely and inexplicably paint LNT critic Dr. Edward Calabrese as funded by the DOE in order to discredit him. Thankfully, this was discouraged by more level-headed members of the group. Emails also show NAS committee members working to exclude any mention of Calabrese's work from a report on low-dose radiation. These unethical attacks aimed at censoring and smearing critics are highly concerning.
HPS (now Past-) President John Cardarelli had an ethical duty as HPS President to inform Congress and the radiation protection community at large about the apparent suppression of scientific inquiry.
Vacating his censure would affirm this duty should supersede internal HPS political dynamics when the public interest is at stake.
The HPS should ensure its internal policies never punish or deter members for making good-faith reports of suppression of science or unethical actions. The priority should be investigating and addressing valid concerns, not silencing the messenger.
Retaliation faced by President Cardarelli risks having a chilling effect where future HPS leaders feel pressure to ignore possible suppression of research. Overturning his censure can send the opposite message — that the organization will not abide censorship of science.
Any HPS policies or actions that could discourage whistleblowing should be reviewed and reformed as needed. Protecting scientific transparency should be paramount.
More open debate on uncertainties and limitations of the LNT model needs to occur both within the HPS and shared with the public. As we've experienced in so many other disciplines, portraying any science as "settled" — when it is not — does a disservice to scientific inquiry and the advancement of scientific understanding.
Impacts on HPS Reputation
The censure of Cardarelli for whistleblowing to Congress about alleged LNT research suppression threatens the legitimacy of the HPS as an unbiased scientific institution.
Retaliation-by-censure could have a chilling effect on future leaders reporting suppression of science.
Voting “YES” to vacate the censure would mitigate HPS's reputation damage and show renewed commitment to scientific transparency.
HPS should affirm that the duty of leaders to report research suppression concerns supersedes internal politics.
Any policies discouraging good-faith whistleblowing should be reformed to prioritize investigating concerns.
More open debate on LNT limitations needs to occur within HPS and publicly to avoid portraying the science as "settled."
In summary, overturning the President's censure can help restore reputational harm and reaffirm HPS principles of scientific transparency and ethics. Broader reforms are needed to prevent recurrence of apparent efforts to suppress challenges to entrenched radiation risk policies like the LNT model.
Focus on HPS Past-President's Congressional Letters
The identical letters from the HPS President to Congressional committees reveal some important points:
The HPS President is bringing to Congress' attention the apparent suppression of scientific inquiry into the linear no-threshold (LNT) model for radiation risk by government scientists and officials.
This suppression was revealed through Freedom of Information Act emails showing coordinated efforts to discredit research and researchers challenging the scientific validity of the LNT model in the low dose range.
The HPS President argues this suppression perpetuates reliance on the questionable LNT model in setting nuclear cleanup standards, hindering progress and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.
He recommends Congress investigate and take action to ensure radiation protection standards incorporate the most current science, which challenges the use of the LNT model in the low dose range.
The incident highlights tensions within the radiation protection community regarding the scientific validity of the LNT model versus other approaches. It also raises broader concerns about scientific transparency and integrity in policymaking.
The President's decision to inform Congress against the Board's wishes took courage but was likely an ethical choice intended to serve the public interest over internal HPS politics. His actions were aimed at prompting an unbiased review of the science and policy by Congress.
To clarify the sequence of events:
The HPS President sent two letters to Congressional committees revealing apparent suppression of scientific inquiry into the LNT model by government officials.
After the letter was sent, the HPS Board of Directors voted to censure the President for writing to Congress without their consent when consent is not a requirement and when several Board members were reportedly involved in a concerted campaign to fill the Board with LNT adherents and suppress futher discussions of the science surrounding existing radiation protection policy.
So, the President acted against the wishes of the Board by blowing the whistle to Congress about the suppression of science. The censure came in response to the act of sending the letter itself.
If you find this entire series of events as alarming as I do, please vote "YES" to vacate the BOD HPS censure of HPS Past-President John Cardarelli II.
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