Message is reaching the public – radiation risks have been greatly exaggerated

An important message that has been discussed often by web publications like Hiroshima Syndrome, Yes Vermont Yankee, Canadian Energy Issues, Nuke Power Talk, Neutron Bytes, Atomic Power Review, and ANS Nuclear Cafe has jumped to the mainstream press in the form of a New York Times article by George Johnson titled When Radiation Isn’t the Real Risk.

The article, in a publication whose daily readership and established reputation dwarfs even the best read nuclear focused blogs, informs readers that evacuating the area near the Fukushima nuclear plants and forcing people to remain away from their property for more than four years has caused immeasurably more harm than simply allowing the people to remain in place and letting the radioactive materials naturally disperse and decay.

As Johnson wrote:

But about 1,600 people died from the stress of the evacuation — one that some scientists believe was not justified by the relatively moderate radiation levels at the Japanese nuclear plant.

Had the evacuees stayed home, their cumulative exposure over four years, in the most intensely radioactive locations, would have been about 70 millisieverts — roughly comparable to receiving a high-resolution whole-body diagnostic scan each year. But those hot spots were anomalies.

By Dr. Doss’s calculations, most residents would have received much less, about 4 millisieverts a year. The average annual exposure from the natural background radiation of the earth is 2.4 millisieverts.

Johnson might also have included the fact that the variations in human exposures from natural radiation and medical diagnostic procedures range from a low of about 1 mSv per year to a high of approximately 250 mSv per year. Even the people who received doses on the high end of the estimate would have been well within the existing variations in dose. There is little, if any, evidence pointing to excess negative health effects due to variations in existing radiation doses.

The reason the computed doses are so low is that there was not much radioactive material released. The small amount that escaped was distributed over a large area, with much of it being washed out to sea. The most active and hazardous materials are also the ones that disappear the fastest.

Dilution might not be the solution to routine pollution, but it is the generally accepted, effective solution to the unplanned release of hazardous gases or fine particles.

Unfortunately, decision makers have been taught to believe that radioactive material is especially hazardous and that even the smallest measurable amounts need to be avoided if at all possible. They have been repeatedly told by loud voices that there is no safe dose of radiation. The organizations that have been established as the protectors of public health with regard to radiation have focused on establishing regulations that require their licensees to control radiation doses to levels that are as low as reasonably achievable.

The agencies that have the legislated responsibility for being experts on radiation have not invested enough effort helping agencies charged with other aspects of public safety to recognize the difference between dose standards established to raise the performance bar for radioactive material licensees and radiation doses that are high enough to detectably harm human health. There are at least two orders of magnitude of difference between the two.

Most radiation protection specialists know that current standards are far lower needed to protect health and willingly expose themselves to much higher doses. They tell each other that establishing and enforcing tighter than needed standards is okay because at least it’s “conservative.”

They ignore the important fact that misunderstanding risks can lead to hazardous decision making. In a crisis situation where panic kills and calm, properly focused efforts lead to the greatest chance for survival and recovery, improper prioritization is far from protective.

Crisis decision making has been one of my focus areas for many years. I’ve spend a good portion of my life learning to evaluate hazards and protect people from harm, starting with the Red Cross senior lifesaving course that I took in 1975 in preparation for working as a lifeguard.

As a submarine junior officer, I was trained to be a first responder and leader of casualty assistant teams. My mentors emphasized the importance of promptly evaluating risks and prioritizing actions based on reducing the most immediately hazardous items as rapidly as possible before later addressing less pressing items. Only after taking care of top priorities would we move to items that were merely annoyances needing to be cleaned up.

Because I was a first responder in a nuclear powered ship, my training included an emphasis on understanding when radiation was hazardous to health, when it was a concern to be managed, and when it could be ignored. It’s probably worth noting here that I was transferred out of my first responder role — after nine years of heavily reinforced training and practice — in December 1990.

As I worked my way into positions of increasing responsibility, I learned to coordinate multiple teams of first responders, to write procedures that could be studied in advance, and to prepare quick reference material that could be consulted in emergencies in order to help people in pressure situations take the right paths. Getting the guidance right was vital to producing correct, timely decisions.

The importance of good guidance is not limited to the information provided to people on the scene; higher level leaders are often not specialists and “crisis mode” does not provide time for extensive research.

Articles like Johnson’s need to be repeated and promoted. The people charged with regulating “use of radioactive materials to protect public health and safety, promote the common defense and security, and protect the environment,” need to clearly separate regulations designed to hold licensees to a high standard and public safety limits that should be established by determining — in advance of any future crisis — how high radiation doses have to be before they have the potential for observable harm to human health.

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