Fear of radiation has ruined far more lives than exposure to radiation

Ted Rockwell, one of my favorite nuclear energy professionals, recently shared the following comment on an email list that was discussing a recent report about the National Academy of Sciences effort to learn lessons from Fukushima.

This fact should be stated loud and clear, right up front:

In every “nuclear disaster”. radiation injured few if any people, whereas overplayed FEAR of radiation had disastrous impact, ruining the lives of thousands. A recent study showed that people who refused to evacuate Chernobyl were happier and outlived the evacuees by 20 years, while the evacuees themselves were depressed and suicidal.

There is nothing else that is as central to the issue as that one fact. It should not be skewed by unreasonable premises. In addition, the impact of unwarranted fear of radiation has caused massive avoidable use of fossil fuels, to the detriment of people and the environment.

Ted Rockwell, November 26, 2012

I might be wrong, but I would guess that Ted’s reaction was stimulated by the following passage contained in the NAS study background statement:

Additionally, the Japanese government estimates that up to about 2,400 square kilometers (930 square miles) of land might need to be decontaminated to reduce radiation exposures to acceptable levels. The cost of decommissioning and decontamination is likely to run into the tens of billions of US dollars (trillions of Japanese yen) and could generate millions to tens of millions of cubic meters of waste.

(Emphasis added.)

That may be what Ted was thinking about when he wrote “should not be skewed by unreasonable premises.” The scary cost and waste mass numbers associated cleaning up the Fukushima area to “acceptable” levels could be reduced by changing the rules of the game, which have been established over many years to ensure that nuclear energy is a loser.

Instead of spending virtually unlimited amounts of time and money to achieve standards for doses that are politically considered to be “acceptable”, we should spend what would amount to far less time and money reviewing the science. An honest review would allow decision makers to recognize that tens of thousands of people have been exposed to far higher levels of radiation dose over lengthy periods of time.

Those accidentally or naturally exposed populations have been extensively studied and found to have small or no measurable negative effects, even when exposed to levels that are several times as high as those in the evacuated areas near the Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station. The US NRC investment of our tax dollars into the NAS effort to learn lessons could be better spent by first directing work that would provide a sound basis for determining what an “acceptable” dose really is.

This topic always makes me want to ask a few hard questions.

Should the people who are professionally rewarded for spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about radiation be held accountable for their actions, even if they did not “intend” to harm anyone?

If people do not trust experts who are employed as nuclear energy professionals when they reassure people about the low level of radiation risk — please consider the fact that employment provides at least some evidence that the professionals retain the respect of their peers — why do they trust self-anointed experts like Arnie Gundersen, Robert Alvarez, Chris Busby and Helen Caldicott when they spread stories that have been selectively slanted to cause panic for profit?

Here is something else to consider. Linfen is the central city in an area in China that was once known as the most polluted place on earth. Some even call it China’s Chernobyl. However, it was not the site of a “nuclear disaster”, it is a place where there are an unusual concentration of coal burning furnaces.

Linfen remains an unhealthy place to live, but it has not been evacuated. Instead, the Chinese have made investments in better technology, shut down a number of coal burning furnaces and worked to clean up the environment. Though things are improving, there are still elevated levels of pollution that cause negative health effects. A similar story could be told about Pittsburgh, PA or even London, England.

In my opinion, this dichotomy can be partially explained by the fact that coal interests have worked for many decades to teach people to accept coal smoke (perhaps grudgingly) as a necessary evil associated with better living — compared to not burning coal.

In contrast, nuclear energy interests have been pretty quiet and allowed the field to be dominated by people who work hard to teach people to fear even the tiniest quantities of radiation. Interestingly enough, the public has received reassurances that radiation doses received as a result of coal smoke or natural gas extraction are quite harmless.

What do you think?

Additional Reading

Report of ICRP Task Group 84 on Initial Lessons Learned from
the Nuclear Power Plant Accident in Japan vis-à-vis the ICRP
System of Radiological Protection
– Highly recommended reading for all policy makers!

About Rod Adams

13 Responses to “Fear of radiation has ruined far more lives than exposure to radiation”

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  1. Mark says:

    And remember, in my experience, very few ‘fear’ medical radiation. If they are under investigation or treatment, they generally accept it as a good thing where the benefit will always out weight the risk (the small risk). When it’s a personal thing ‘this illness is affecting me’ – they just want the professionals to get on with it. Energy production and the risks from it (all sources) are much less tangible and less personal. I think that is part of the problem.

  2. Jason C says:

    On your last point about the public being reassured that coal smoke or NG extraction radiation doses being harmless, I believe that has been addressed very quietly by the fossil companies and not much of a stir was created by it. Thus, the fossil companies are all too happy their radiation releases are “nothing to worry about” and have moved passed that point of concern. Cumulatively speaking, their small leaks add up to some impressive figures though. Yet they still get a pass.

    It’s as though the public is held prisoner by what they are told to believe and unfortunately most of them fall for it.

    Human nature often makes no sense. My favorite example is the Qwerty keyboard vs. the Dvorak keyboard. One was designed to be obsolete and slow people down. The other, Dvorak, was designed to be easier to learn, was carefully researched, requires less movement to type the same words – in every way imaginable it is superior to Qwerty. Yet after more than 100 years after the typewriter invention, the incumbent technology is still present as default.

    I believe the acceptance of nuclear energy is a little bit like the struggle that Mr. Dvorak encountered trying to promote his superior keyboard layout. People want something better but they often don’t want to work or think too hard about it, especially if it’s something only asking for their time to understand/contemplate something somewhat abstract. And it gets even harder if “everyone else” is doing it the same old way.

    Mr. Dvorak also encountered firm resistance to his invention.

    • Paul Smith says:

      I think the Dvorak keyboard analogy fits better with renewable energy concepts. For one thing, nuclear power is used around the world and some people actually want to get rid of it but can’t whereas the Dvorak keyboard isn’t used anywhere that I’ve ever seen.

      Also, renewable energy looks great on paper but since the technology is undeveloped and unreliable, it has to be forced down our throat for it to be even considered. The renewable supporters think its the greatest thing ever and try to convince us all to sink our money into it and put time and effort into it until it starts paying dividends. That is just like the Dvorak keyboard supporters (if you can find them). Who in the world wants to relearn to type (especially people who can already type 75 wpm on a Qwerty keyboard).

      • Jason C says:

        You should read up on the history of the Dvorak keyboard first. The Qwerty users wanted to ban the Dvorak typers from the typing competitions after they kept winning every year for 10 years straight. Not to get off topic here, we are talking about the struggles that superior technology has in the face of incumbent technology and its proponent’s efforts to keep the status-quo.

        The Dvorak keyboard is indeed superior and there are a small percentage of users who do use it just by choosing that layout in their computer settings (myself included at one time). Nuclear power is a superior technology and far more complex than a keyboard layout, but it encounters the same type of resistance based on irrationality and well, people being too lazy to make the change for something better, or because their security depends upon keeping things the same.

        Nuclear by most measures has had a fair degree of success, but nowhere near the decimating effect it should have had on the competition for creating electricity.

        Sorry, but you have the parallel comparison backwards.

  3. Paul Smith says:

    I think the problem is that people don’t trust scientists or self-proclaimed experts. It is the same problem that those who want to discuss climate change face and its why many people still don’t believe in evolution or carbon dating. Somebody comes along and provides the alternate viewpoint and we are all made to believe that the experts are just scaring people toward themselves and their field. The nuclear industry, on the other hand, doesn’t try to “scare people” toward nuclear energy (which would be an ineffective tactic in any case). They try to provide reasoning and logic. Logical analysis is not an effective method as we’ve seen.

  4. Jim Baerg says:

    A bit off topic but I thought I’d mention this item
    http://nextbigfuture.com/2012/11/enriched-uranium-fission-reactor.html
    about a very low mass reactor for space use.

  5. DV82XL says:

    Too much of anything can be harmful. If you were to drink twenty liters of water at once, it would kill you. Carbon monoxide is poisonous above a certain level, but in the brain it performs a useful function as a signal transmitter. Many drugs work fine in the right dose, but are lethally poisonous in larger amounts. This is precisely the case with ionizing radiation: Most of us have no objections to dental X-rays, CT-scans and a host of other uses of radiation in its various forms.

    Common sense says that extra precautions are most needed when we know least, and in a reasoned approach to any new technology we should start with a cautious limit which may be relaxed later, as instrumentation improves and our appreciation of it grows. The regulation of ionizing radiation has resolutely gone in the opposite direction, driven by fear. The so-called “precautionary principle”, which seeks to reduce exposure to ever lower levels and at any cost, has not proved to be “cautionary” at all. It has led to unacceptable societal penalties, as clearly demonstrated in the aftermath of the Chernobyl and Fukushima Dai-ichi events.The time has come to change the LNT paradigm and to base radiological safety and protection on modern knowledge and the realities of the natural radiation environment.

    Given what we now know, from radiotherapy to the legacy of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to studies of populations living in areas with high levels of natural background radiation, it is clear that radiation safety limits are far too conservative. Evidently, our bodies have learned through evolution to repair or eliminate damaged cells, with a low failure rate.

  6. Rick Maltese says:

    One explanation to why better PR for nuclear is not available is because the leading corporations who own Nuclear plants also own fossil fuel or natural gas or other utility mix. The profits are way better in those other sectors.

    The promotion of nuclear needs to start with the notion that radiation is already everywhere. Once people see that even before the technological age that radiation existed just like it does now goes a very long way.

    I also like the Banana and sun tan comparisons.

    Don’t forget the idea that our magnetic field could not exist without natural nuclear activity in the earths core which protects us from intense solar radiation.

  7. James Greenidge says:

    This article ought be cc:’d to op-eds at NYT, The Huff, Wash Post and such just for the hell of it to see any of them have the brass to actually respond to a counter voice!

    Re: “Additionally, the Japanese government estimates that up to about 2,400 square kilometers (930 square miles) of land might need to be decontaminated to reduce radiation exposures to acceptable levels. The cost of decommissioning and decontamination is likely to run into the tens of billions of US dollars (trillions of Japanese yen) and could generate millions to tens of millions of cubic meters of waste.”

    What I’d love to hear but can’t Google up are any reports from whatever nuclear advocate groups in Japan who survived being pop-up gopher heads over there taking on the lunacy of this policy. I mean you can supposedly get stopped at Japanese airports for wearing a radium dial watch?? This over-the-top zero-rad tolerance nonsense is one of the centerpieces of anti-nuker peeves that the clueless eat up. I’d love to write some chin-up air support to a Japan pro-nuke group if I can, but seems a lost cause unless you Google in Japanese — assuming these brave guys haven’t been wiped out!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  8. Robert Steinhaus says:

    Health Effects of the Three Mile Island Accident (from the report of the Kemeny Presidential Commission) -
    “The major health effect of the accident appears to have been on the mental health of the people living in the region of Three Mile Island and of the workers at TMI. There was immediate, short-lived mental distress produced by the accident among certain groups of the general population living within 20 miles of TMI. The highest levels of distress were found among adults
    a) living within 5 miles of TMI,
    or
    b) with preschool children; and among teenagers
    a) living within 5 miles of TMI,
    b) with preschool siblings, or
    c) whose families left the area.

    Workers at TMI experienced more distress than workers at another plant studied for comparison purposes. This distress was higher among the nonsupervisory employees and continued in the months following the accident.”
    http://www.pddoc.com/tmi2/kemeny/health_effects.htm

  9. Mark says:

    When speaking of radiation exposure from sources such as environmental and medical we are speaking of the energy released by radioactive particles. When speaking of radiation exposure from sources such as Fukushima we are not only speaking of the exposure to the energy given off by radioactive particles but also the direct exposure to the particles themselves in an uncontrolled environment.

    I was living in Fukushima City with my two young daughters and at that time 7 months pregnant wife. I, among many, probably have at least some caesium in my lungs breathed in on those first days after the explosion when the ambient radiation level was 28 microSV. We still had to go outside to get food and water to survive the days after the quake cut lifelines such as power water and essential delivery food delivery services but the government still said “going out for an hour is still less a dose then an x-ray” .
    Sure, go for an x-ray and get a good dose of radiation then go home, done. Being in a nuclear fall out zone is a different story. particles get in you for your to carry around while they continue to emit harmful energy at close contact to tissue until the day you die.

    I am not trying to argue that radiation ruins more lives than the fear of it, I just wanted to introduce you to a reality through first hand experience of being in a nuclear disaster.

    • Adams Rod says:

      @Mark

      Though I understand why you are concerned, one of the best ways to deal with the kind of stress it has caused is to learn more. Human beings have biological systems that have evolved to deal with the possibility of ingesting or breathing stuff into your lungs that is not good for you.

      Radioactive material like cesium is not a special case of material that enters and stays around forever. It behaves in predictable ways based on its chemical nature.

      For cesium, estimates of biological half life range from 50-70 days, even though its radioactive half life is 30 years.

      See, for example, this journal article.

      http://journals.lww.com/health-physics/Abstract/1968/04000/The_Biological_Half_life_of_Cesium_137_in_Children.2.aspx

  10. Gregory Meyerson says:

    Rod, that link to a “recent study” occurs in an article that is framed in a pretty sensationalist way and when you get to the bottom, the article explicitly states that there is no study, just some interesting anecdotal evidence from one man who studied the settlers.

    Perhaps I misread.