Abject fear of radiation, even at low doses, is a root cause of the cost and schedule difficulties associated with atomic energy development and deployment.
At Atomic Insights, we believe that most of the fear of low dose radiation is not only unwarranted, but it is also purposely created, taught and carefully reinforced by people.
Every person that participates in the campaign has their own unique combination of motives and techniques, but some of the major factors are a desire to prevent use of nuclear weapons, a desire to eliminate nuclear weapons completely, a desire to discourage nuclear energy development for competitive reasons, and a desire to discourage use of moderate doses of radiation as a treatment or a cure for various health conditions.
The radiation fear campaign has been going on in earnest since June 13, 1969. That was the date when the New York Times ran a front page headline stating that “SCIENTISTS TERM RADIATION A PERIL TO THE FUTURE OF MAN.”
Throughout the decades since that first proclamation was issued, there have been additional claims and stories with fear creation and maintenance as either a sole or ancillary purpose.
Here’s a sample from the campaign.
On October 12, 1969, the New York Times published an article written by Kathleen Teltsch under the following headline: “RADIATION LINKED TO RETARDATION: U.N. Report Warns of Even Low Doses in Pregnancy.”
That is a headline that can capture attention and a subtitle that stokes fear, especially among young women who are planning to have children. It will cause fear, anxiety and guilt among young mothers that have, for one reason or another, been exposed to radiation while pregnant with children that are still growing.
It is an unfortunately truth about newspaper readers that some finite portion of the audience only reads or remembers headlines and subtitles.
But there is more to the story.
Though this article did not make it to the influential front page, the editors carefully chose a placement that was almost as impactful.
It was a full, single column article running from top to bottom of the left-most column on a page that was otherwise filled with an attractive ad for the Gimble’s 127th Annual Columbus Day Sale. October 12, 1969 was a Sunday, so the sale was happening the next day.
It seems likely that the article and its placement would draw people in the exact demographic that might be most interested in – and frightened by – finding out that radiation harms children in the womb.
I’m not a newspaper skimmer lazily flipping through sale ads on a Sunday morning of a three day weekend in the late 1960s, so I carefully read the rest of the article. I wanted to learn more about what the New York Times and the United Nations wanted to tell people about radiation health effects in the fall of 1969.
The scientists that wrote the report issued in October 1969 were members of the standing committee that the United Nations had created in 1955 to study effects of atomic radiation. The primary source for their reports was data gathered by the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, which studied effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Though the article subtitle gives the impression that even low doses were found to be harmful, the article states that the specialists who wrote the report found that evidence of harm at low doses was “extremely tenuous” but harm could not be “excluded.”
By their definition, any dose less than 50 roentgens was considered to be low. The article reminds readers that a typical diagnostic X-ray would give a dose of 1 R or less, but also tells them that doses have been gradually lowered through technological improvements. Some readers who might have had X-rays while pregnant in the past are left wondering if they might have received higher doses.
The article did not mention that 50 R was 10 times the maximum allowed annual dose for trained radiation workers at a nuclear power plant. It substantially exceeded the amount of radiation that any member of the public might expect to receive, even if accumulated over a lifetime living at the fence line of a power plant.
The report was based on studying development of 1,613 children whose mothers were pregnant at the time of the atomic bombings.
Researchers binned the victims based on the calculated doses the mothers received from the explosion and its aftermath. It’s worth noting that virtually all of the radiation received was instantaneous. Those who received higher doses were highly likely to have been subjected to additional bomb effects including blast and heat.
Though there was a strong correlation between mental retardation and radiation doses above 200 R, the correlation was much lower at doses between 50 and 99 R. Below 50 R, the incidence of retardation was less than 1%.
There is no evidence presented indicating that the incidence of retardation among children exposed to less than 50 R is any different from the level that might be found any any randomly selected population.
Though the article provides accurate information that should be reassuring to anyone with critical reading skills, it was headlined, placed and structured in a way that creates fear and uncertainty.
In the emotionally charged topic of child development and the responsibility of mothers to provide protection, it provides reason to fear radiation – even at low doses – when there is no evidence indicating that fear is the correct response.
Of course, the editors at the New York Times didn’t create the report, and Ms. Teltsch probably didn’t write the headline, but both helped make this an effective component of the long-running campaign.
The article concludes with some hints about why the report was issued and why the Times chose to cover it in a way that would capture attention and perhaps stimulate action.
Even though the US, the UK and the Soviet Union had agreed to stop testing nuclear weapons in the open atmosphere by 1963, both France and Communist China were still engaged in atmospheric testing programs that still released uncontrolled fallout.
Underground testing was still seen to be somewhat risky because test sites still leaked.
Not stated in this article – but known to contemporary readers – is the fact that there were dozens of nuclear power plants under construction in the United States.
Though begun during a period of optimism about atomic energy and its potential for benefiting electricity customers, there was a growing level of concern about health effects of radiation from routine operation of those plants. People concerned about those effects were making their concerns known through active efforts to slow nuclear plant construction and add increasing layers of protection.
History students can also find numerous indications that the coal, oil, gas, freight and banking industries had always been worried about losing sales to nuclear power.
It’s not difficult to understand that they would be happy to buy ads in newspapers that published stories that might slow their atomic competitor.