An Exclusive Nuclear Street Interview with Low Dose Radiation Health Effects Expert Dr. Antone L.Brooks

A native to southwestern Utah, Dr. Brooks’ exposure to low dose radiation began literally at an early age as fallout from Nevada Test Site drifted with the prevailing westerly winds and descended on St. George

 - By Randy Brich -

Dr. Antone (Tony) Brooks, a grandfatherly figure who recently retired as the Technical Research Director of the US Department of Energy’s Low Dose Radiation Research Program, keeps his finger on the pulse of the low dose research efforts as he writes a book about the history of the program. 

His interest in low dose radiation health effects spans the better part of the last 5 decades, encompassing all the possible health effects and, more importantly, the mechanisms associated with low dose exposure currently known to science. 

A native to southwestern Utah, Dr. Brooks’ exposure to low dose radiation began literally at an early age as fallout from Nevada Test Site drifted with the prevailing westerly winds and descended on St. George.  One particularly nasty shot dubbed “Dirty Harry” dropped its fallout right smack on its citizens.   

As a master’s research assistant, Tony followed fallout across northeastern Nevada and Utah during the halcyon years of the Test Site’s Big Physics Experiments in the early ‘60s.  He routinely measured and plotted fallout movement to man through the food chain in farms across the Great Basin Desert. Thisbegan his lifelong quest to elucidate the health effects of exposure to low doses of ionizing radiation.

Dr. Brooks responded to my request for an interview, graciously sharing his insights into the mysterious world of low dose radiation research, in the following question and answer exchange.

Nuclear Street: Tell me about your background and what made you want to study radiation.

Dr. Antone (Tony) Brooks:  I was born in St. George, Utah which is located about 80-120 miles from the Nevada Test Site.  The United States shot over 100 Nuclear weapons above ground at the test site, each of the tests were announced so that we knew when they were to happen.  As a young boy my dad would get us up early some mornings and tell us that they were going to shoot off another A-bomb in Nevada.  The morning sky would light up and we would count and see how long it took for the shock wave to hit.  We could calculate how far the shot was away from St. George and thought that was very exciting and interesting.  In 1953 when I was a young teenager the fallout cloud from the nuclear test “Dirty Harry” went right over St. George so I am a so-called “down winder.”   In St. George there was a small truck with speakers on the top that would go around town and tell us if there was a ball game, dance or other special event.  On that day the speaker told us that there was a fallout-cloud over town and advised us all to go into our homes.  I remember thinking that is very interesting but I was not concerned enough to stop the basketball game and go home.  This was the general attitude of the people of St. George at that time.

When I went to the University of Utah and started to work on a Masters degree (1960-1962) I still had a keen interest in radiation and did my research in the field of Radiation Ecology.  I worked for Dr. Robert Pendleton and we chased fallout clouds over the state of Utah.  We measured fallout in over 80 dairy farms.  We sampled the soil, grass, milk, wildlife and humans.  Fallout was on everything and in everything and I was very concerned that it would be producing both genetic effects and cancer in me, in my family and in my friends.

The question in my mind became: was the dose from the fallout high enough to cause health effects, is it doing anything?  What would the health impact be from such radiation exposures?  After I got my Ph.D. in Radiation Biology from Cornell University I invested my research life in trying to understand the biological effects of low doses and low dose-rate exposure to ionizing radiation.  Through all this research I have concluded that radiation is a very good cell killer -- that is why we use it in cancer therapy -- but, it is not a very potent mutagen or carcinogen.  Thus, at low doses, radiation is not one of the major factors that result in cancers in the human population and, in fact, since radiation is such a poor carcinogen the potential increase in cancer in the low dose region cannot be detected in human populations.

NS:  Can you estimate the amount of money that the US government has spent studying radiation since WWII?

Brooks:  No, there is no way to estimate the amount of money invested to understand the health effects of ionizing radiation.  I do know that it is huge.  During the development of the Atomic Bomb the government set up a series of National Laboratories [Brookhaven (NY), Argon (IL) , Oak Ridge (TN), Sandia (NM), Los Alamos (NM) Lawrence Livermore (CA), Lawrence Berkley (CA), Pacific Northwest (WA)].

At each of these laboratories a biology division was developed and funded to study and understand the potential health impact of exposures to ionizing radiation.  In addition to the National Laboratories, specialty and University Laboratories were also funded for many years to conduct research that helps to understand specific problems associated with radiation exposure.  Every type of radiation was used to expose ecosystems, plants, animals, tissues, cells and molecules to measure the biological impact of radiation.

The effects of high doses of radiation given over a very short period of time were easy to characterize.   The amount of radiation needed to kill many different species of animals and to induce cancers was determined.  These data were related to the human data from the Japanese A-bombs and radiation accidents.  These studies used very large doses.

Because of this extensive effort it is accurate to say that we know more about the health impact of radiation on humans than any other environmental or physical insult.  The long term effects and the effects of very low doses of radiation were harder to understand.  This was an important factor in the development of the DOE Low Dose Radiation Research Program.

NS:  How much of the taxpayers’ money has been spent on the DOE Low Dose Radiation Research Program?

Brooks: The DOE Low Dose Radiation Research Program was developed to apply modern cell and molecular information gained from the genome project to determine if and what the effects of low doses of radiation were and how this information could impact risk assessment.  With this new technology it has been possible to measure changes in the low dose range which were not possible in the past.

click for full sizeThis Program was set up to last for 10 years starting at about 10 million dollars per year and increasing to about 20 million dollars a year at the present time.  This money was given to both the National Laboratories and individual scientists through a careful peer review process.  The research was conducted in the low dose region (0.1 Gy and Less) and more than 700 open literature publications on the biological responses in this low dose region have resulted from the program.  All these publications and additional information can be found on the DOE web site (

In addition to the DOE program, there were two other large research efforts in the United States that were initiated to understand the effects of low doses of radiation.  These were funded by the National Institute of Health and NASA.  Each of these agencies invested more money per year in low dose research than the DOE Program.  The low dose research conducted by the DOE was also helpful for scientists in Europe, Japan and France to develop current research programs on the effects of low doses of radiation.

NS:  Can you summarize in lay persons’ terms the findings of the Low Dose Program?

Brooks:  The data generated by the research in the low dose region demonstrated that the biological responses seen following exposure to low doses of radiation are very different than those observed following high doses.   The body can detect and respond to low doses of radiation by activating a number of genes and proteins that help protect the body against damage from that exposure and from subsequent exposures.  These responses are called “adaptive responses” and are widely observed in the low dose region.

Exposure to low doses of radiation have been demonstrated to lower the number of free radicals in the body, protect the cells against transformation (changes that produce cancer), kill pre-cancer cells through a process of programmed cell death (apoptosis), activate immune responses and to lengthen the time between radiation exposure and the induction of cancer. It has also been established that exposure to the same amount of radiation (dose) over a short period of time is much more effective in producing biological changes than exposure of the same amount of radiation over a longer period of time (dose-rate).

Thus, not only the amount of radiation but the time over which the radiation is given is important.  It has been discovered that if radiation deposits energy in a single cell that this cell sends messages to other cells and that protective responses are triggered in the whole tissue not just in the cells that are “hit” by the radiation.  The body is responding to the radiation exposure as a unit to protect against the potential damage from the radiation and it is not responding as a series of individual cells.   Many processes and biological systems are in place to protect cells and tissues from radiation damage.  All these processes support the concept that at low doses and dose-rates the amount of damage and risk for the development of cancer or genetic effects are decreased below that predicted from exposure to high doses.

NS:  Does the US Government’s radiation policy match the science, i.e., are the health effects from radiation exposure directly proportional to dose?

Brooks:  It is important to recognize the difference between scientific data and radiation protection policy.  In the scientific community more than 75% percent of the scientists are convinced that the amount of health risk induced in the low dose region per unit of dose is less than that produced in the high dose region.  Thus, the new science does not support the concept that the health effects from radiation exposure are directly proportional to dose (Linear-No-Threshold, LNT).  Using the LNT method of estimating risks will overestimate the risks associated with low doses of radiation and in my mind provide a needed degree of conservatism.  On the other hand, about the same percent of the scientists think that the LNT should be used for setting radiation protection standards.

Many government and scientific bodies have reviewed the data and accept the LNT method of estimating risk for radiation protection purposes.  Since this method provides adequate, conservative and appropriate protection against radiation exposure in the environment it is used to set the policy and regulations.   The major problem with this difference between science and policy is that the LNT is often misused to predict risk in the low dose and low dose-rate region where its use is not supported by the science.  If you have a very small dose given to a very large population you can use the LNT to calculate an excess in cancers or any other risks that according to the scientific data does not exist.  We must make sure that the scientists, regulators and the public understand the difference between calculated and scientifically-measured health risk.

NS:  That is going to be an extremely difficult concept to get across to regulators, let alone the public. Do you have any suggestions how we might go about achieving that goal?

Brooks: Yes, fear of radiation is deeply planted in the public mind and will be very difficult to change.  The public perception is that if you are exposed to radiation you will get cancer which is of course not the case.  This radio-phobia was started with the A-bomb and has been supported for many years by the press, movies, politics, law and in some cases scientists in need of funding.   It will take time, energy and work to put the risk of low doses of radiation into a context that can be evaluated by the members of the public.  As the beneficial effects of radiation are better understood, the need for power increases and the very small risk from radiation exposure in the low dose region better defined perhaps fear of radiation will become more like the early fear of electricity.  Then perhaps then we can continue to respect it, control it and use it for our benefit.

NS:  Thank you for the interview and good luck writing your book.

Brooks:  Thank you for this opportunity.  I have invested my life in trying to understand the impact of radiation exposure on human health and hope that my experience and research will be useful to others.

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About Randy Brich
Randy graduated from South Dakota State University in 1978 with a M.S. in Biology.  Following graduation he switched gears and began a lifelong study of ionizing radiation and its beneficial applications to humanity.  During the course of his study he worked as a staff Health Physicist with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission specializing in the licensing and inspection of uranium recovery facilities.  He transferred to the Department of Energy where he worked as a Health Physicist at the Randy BrichNevada Operations Office and later to the Richland Operations Office specializing in environmental monitoring, dose reconstruction, worker protection, waste cleanup and systems biology.

Since then he has retired from the federal government and, after taking time out to build an energy efficient house near the Missouri River, has formed Diamond B Communications LLC.  Diamond B Communications LLC uses a multimedia approach to explain complex energy resource issues to technical and non-technical audiences.  He also guides for Dakota Bike Tours, the Relaxed Adventure Company, offering tours of the Badlands National Park, the Black Hills and Devils Tower National Monument.

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  • Anonymous

    1. The dose dependence of the radiation effect may be non-linear, non-monotonic,

    and polymodal in character.

    2. Doses that cause extreme effects depend on the irradiation dose-rate (intensity).

    3. Low-dose irradiation causes changes (mainly enhancement) in sensitivity to the

    action of other damaging factors.

    4. The effects depend on the initial parameters of biological objects.

    5. Over certain dose ranges, low-level irradiation is more effective with regard to the results of its action on an organism or a population than acute high-level radiation. We explain the non-linear and non-monotonic dose–effect dependence that we obtained in our experiments with low-dose low-level irradiation by changes in the relationship between damages, on the one hand, and reparation of the damages, on the other hand. With this

    kind of irradiation the reparative systems either are not initiated (induced), or function inadequately, or are initiated with a delay, i.e., when the exposed object has already received radiation damages.

  • Anonymous

    Brooks is a government-paid nuclear industry hack who has made a career of minimizing the health risks associated with radiation exposure. Here is one of his latest pseudo-scientific writings published by the National Academy of Science, titled Technical Considerations for NAS Proposed Study of Cancer Risks in Populations Living Near Nuclear Facilities