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Legitimating a Nuclear Critic: John Gofman, Radiation Safety, and Cancer Risks

Ioanna Semendeferi
Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences
Vol. 38, No. 2 (Spring 2008), pp. 259-301
DOI: 10.1525/hsns.2008.38.2.259
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/hsns.2008.38.2.259
Page Count: 44
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Legitimating a Nuclear Critic: John Gofman, Radiation Safety, and Cancer Risks
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Abstract

Whether low-level ionizing radiation has an effect on humans has been a polarizing issue for the last fifty years. The epicenter of this controversy has been the validity of the linear non-threshold dose-response model, according to which any amount of radiation, however small, causes damage to human genes and health. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the nuclear scientist and medical researcher John Gofman (1918–2007) played a pivotal role in the debate. Historical accounts have treated Gofman as a radical antinuclear scientist whose unscientific arguments put enormous political pressure on the nuclear power industry and regulatory agencies. Gofman's bitter struggle with the Atomic Energy Commission, which funded his research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, partly accounts for this view. However, my analysis of Gofman's involvement in the low-level radiation debate shows how he also helped shift the focus in radiation safety from the risks of genetic damage or leukemia to somatic or cancer risks. His arguments led to the introduction of the linear nonthreshold radiation model as a means of numerically estimating cancer risks. This was a watershed event in radiation-safety science and politics. Gofman's case sheds light on the process by which a scientist could secure legitimation even when his technical arguments threatened the government's interests. I conclude that it also points to an open issue in the history of antinuclear scientists, or of other politically active scientists or technology critics: treating them as critics should not preclude historians from treating them as scientists.

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