By A. David Rossin
Internationally recognized radiation engineer Ted Rockwell raised more than a few eyebrows when he maintained, in the aftermath of the Fukushima catastrophe in Japan, that the fear of radiation does more harm than the radiation itself. Responsible health experts know that outside the plant boundaries, radiation levels are detectable but low, and that many towns still off-limits are safe for people to return to.
Rockwell placed the blame for panic squarely on politicians – not only those in Japan but also in the U. S. who rejected the advice of scientists and instead listened to alarmists.
Theodore Rockwell, who died earlier this year, just a few months short of his 91st birthday, was one of the pioneers of nuclear power. As a young engineer, Rockwell became a technical director of the Naval Reactors team at Oak Ridge under the leadership of then Captain Hyman Rickover.
That team designed the Nautilus, the first nuclear-powered submarine. Their principles and techniques would guide civilian nuclear power programs for the next half century.
In my first job at Argonne National Lab, I used the still-classified “Shielding Design Manual,” edited by Theodore Rockwell. Later, Ted was able to convince the hard-headed Rickover to make it available to researchers and the commercial nuclear industry. That was decades before Ted became my friend and mentor.
During a career that spanned more than 60 years, Rockwell remained a tireless advocate of nuclear power and a hobgoblin to critics, particularly those who kept trying to raise public fears about low-level radiation. By low levels, Rockwell meant those like we receive from natural background sources: space, the sun, granite and marble, vital exposures from medical and dental treatment, as well as the routine exposures that pilots and flight attendants receive while flying at high altitudes. Despite lawsuits and sensational headlines, their exposures show no effects on their health.
Rockwell challenged critics of nuclear power who claimed – wrongly – that exposure to tiny amounts of radiation would add up over time – they don’t – and increase the risk of getting cancer. Unfortunately, this cancer fallacy has been politicized to such an extent that some radiation protection standards were based on it. Regrettably, efforts to correct the standards have failed due to political infighting by activists and opportunistic politicians.
For Rockwell, the crime was the evacuation zones around the disabled Fukushima plant. More than 20,000 people were killed, none by radiation, all by the tsunami that devastated a large stretch of the coastal plain.
The four nuclear reactors survived the earthquake and actually shut down properly, but were ruined an hour later when the tsunami knocked out all emergency power at the plants and shut off the electricity to half of Japan. Not a single person received a life-altering injury from radiation, which the World Health Organization has confirmed.
The real horror: evacuees reduced to poverty, clinical depression and even suicide, caused by a fear of radiation that overly-conservative international radiation standards created and alarmists exploited.
Those responsible for setting the standards said they consider their approach to be prudent. But well-intended or not, “prudence” based on bad science can become cruelly destructive, as the hysterical response at Fukushima has shown.
Except for some clearly identified spots, the radiation levels in most towns where people could live and work would not ever cause cancer at all.
Sadly, some people in the Fukushima area are wearing cumbersome rad-con suits, filtered gas masks, gloves and booties, and putting the same on their children. Meanwhile, other people who are actually exposed to higher levels of background radiation all the time are living carefree in Brazil, Norway, Iran and India. Generations of people in those countries live normal lives, even though in some places they are exposed to background radiation levels that are a hundred times greater than those around Fukushima.
As Rockwell liked to point out, “Few, if any, people decide where to live, or how to live, on the basis of radiation levels. There is no reason to live any differently now. Let the people of Fukushima return home and get on with their lives.”
A. David Rossin, PhD, is a past president of the American Nuclear Society. A memorial service for Ted Rockwell will be held in Bethesda, MD on August 17. For more information about the time and location of the service, please use the contact form link on the Atomic Insights footer section.