During the Australian Broadcasting Company documentary titled I Can Change Your Mind About … Climate there is a scene where Anthony Leiserowitz (via Skype video) shares some of what he has learned during his research about climate change attitudes with Nick Minchin and Anna Rose, the show’s protagonists.
Here is how the producers of “I Can Change Your Mind About … Climate” describe Dr. Leiserowitz:
Anthony Leiserowitz, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Yale University School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and Director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. He is an expert on public opinion about climate change and the environment. His research investigates the psychological, cultural, and political factors that influence environmental attitudes, policy support, and behavior. He conducts research at the global, national, and local scales, including many surveys of the American public.
Not only was the discussion enlightening about the reasons why different people end up with different opinions about climate change responses when presented with essentially the same body of information, but it also got me thinking about a possible way to fight back against the Gundersens, Caldicotts, Riccios, Grossmans and Wassermans of the world.
That group of five tend to use apocalyptic rhetoric to describe what will happen to the world if we do not immediately start turning our collective backs on all of the benefits that abundant atomic energy can provide. They spin tall tales of deformed children, massive numbers of cancers as a result of minor radioactive material releases, swaths of land made “uninhabitable” for thousands of years, countries “cut in half”, and clouds of “hot particles” raining death and destruction ten thousand miles from the release point.
Every one of those clowns have been repeating similar stories for at least two solid decades, and continue to repeat their stories even after supposedly catastrophic failures at Fukushima have not resulted in a single radiation related injury or death. According to eminent scientists – like Dr. Robert Gale – Fukushima is unlikely to EVER result in any measurable increase in radiation related illness.
One important element that we have to consider to assess cancer risks associated with an accident like Fukushima is our baseline risk for developing cancer. All of us, unfortunately, have a substantial risk of developing cancer in our lifetime. For example, a 50-year-old male has a 42% risk of developing cancer during his remaining life; it’s almost the same for a 10-year-old. This risk only decreases when we get much older and only because we are dying of other causes.
It’s true that excess radiation exposure can increase our cancer risk above baseline levels; it’s clear from studies of the survivors of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of people exposed to radiation in medical and occupational settings, and of people exposed to radon decay products in mines and home basements. When it comes to exposures like that of Fukushima, the question is: What is the relative magnitude of the increased risk from Fukushima compared to our baseline cancer risk? Despite our fears, it is quite small.
If the nuclear industry – as small and unfocused as it is – really wanted to take action to isolate the apocalyptic antinuclear activists, it could take a page from the effective campaign of the fossil fuel lobby. It could start an integrated campaign to help the rest of us to remember that, despite the dire predictions, the sky never fell, the predicted unnatural deaths never occurred, the deformations were figments of imagination, and the land is not really irreversibly uninhabitable for generations.
The industry would effectively share the story of Ukraine’s recent decision to begin repopulating the vast majority of the “dead zone” that was forcibly evacuated after the Chernobyl accident. It would put some context into the discussion about radiation health effects; even if leaders shy away from directly challenging the Linear No Threshold (LNT) dose assumption, they can still show that even that pessimistic model says that a tiny dose leads to a tiny risk.
Aside: My personal opinion is that the LNT is scientifically unsupportable and should be replaced with a much better model. We deserve far less onerous regulations; there is evidence that existing regulations actually cause harm. I hear a rumor that there is a group of mostly retired, but solidly credentialed professionals who are organizing a special session at the annual ANS meeting to talk about effective ways to influence policy changes. End Aside.
Most of us recognize that there is no such thing as a zero risk; repeated assertions of “there is no safe level” should be addressed by accepting “close enough” to zero so that even the most fearful person can stop worrying. The sky has not fallen, even though we have experienced complete core meltdowns and secondary explosions that did some visible damage.
Nuclear plants are not perfect, there will be accidents and there will be radioactive material releases. History is telling me that the risks are acceptable, especially in the context of the real world where there is always some potential for harm. The benefits of accepting a little nuclear risk are immense and must not be marginalized by the people who market fear and trembling.
Update: Posted at 3:13 on May 2, 2012.
I need to add Michael Collins to my list of apocalyptic antinuclear activists who uses fear and trembling. Check out this recent video and see just how many errors you can find.
I visited Michael’s web site at enviroreporter.com. The blog link there leads to a page not found error, so I left the following in the “Contact” form:
As a nuclear energy professional I was completely unimpressed by your recent appearance on “Attack of the Show.”
Why are you working so hard to make people fear something that poses no danger?
Do you have any idea how to measure radiation and how to interpret the resulting units of measure? Do you have any understanding of the fact that filters are specifically DESIGNED to concentrate particulates? Of course a filter that has been cleaning particulates out of the air for 40 days will exhibit higher than background dose rates – if it didn’t, it would not be doing a credible job of FILTERING the air.
If you are really interested in learning more about radiation and its effects on human beings, I have plenty of colleagues who are radiation health professionals who can help you improve your level of knowledge.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
PS – I began my nuclear education in the US Navy’s nuclear power program. I ended up serving as the Chief Engineer Officer on USS Von Steuben. During a part of my career, I was the Chemistry and Radiological Controls Assistant, in charge of the ship’s program for environmental and health monitoring for radioactive materials.
PS – I was amused to note how many ads for water filters, air filters and radiation detectors were running on Michael’s highly promoted site. Hmmm.