Nuke-o-Noia. Excessive Fear of Radiation is a Bigger Risk Than the Radiation Itself!
I'm an Instructor at Harvard, a consultant in risk perception and risk communication, author of How Risky Is it, Really? Why Our Fears Don't Always Match the Facts, and principal co-author of RISK, A Practical Guide for Deciding What's Really Safe and What's Really Dangerous in the World Around You. I run a program called Improving Media Coverage of Risk. I was the Director of Risk Communication at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, part of the Harvard School of Public Health, for 4 years, prior to which I was a TV reporter, specializing in environmental issues, for a local station in Boston for 22 years.
Like its own self-sustaining chain reaction, the battle over nuclear power rages on. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has for the first time since 1978 approved construction of new nuclear reactors. Meanwhile, anti-nuclear advocates continue to release warnings about the risks. Nuclear Power Plants Threaten Drinking Water for 49 Million Americans warns a new report from Environment America. Be Afraid, Be VERY AFRAID, we are cautioned, because dozens of nuclear power plants in the United States are near water that Americans drink, and at any time these reactors, like the Fukushima Daiichi nukes in Japan, “might spew cancer-causing radioactive waste into our drinking water”. OMG!!!!!! The Sky Is Falling!!!!
This simplistic alarmism is a gross exaggeration of the threat of radioactive water from nuclear power plants getting into what we drink, on two counts. First, to suggest that what happened in Fukushima could happen here is ludicrous. Six reactors at Daiichi survived one of the 5 most violent earthquakes in modern human history, magnitude 9, the epicenter of which was just 40 miles from the plant. Emergency generators came on as planned, shutting down the 3 operating reactors, and maintaining control of the spent fuel cooling systems at all 6 reactors. The plants failed only after they were inundated by one of the largest tsunamis ever to hit Japan, that reached heights of 133 feet. Suggesting that such a combination of unprecedented violence could happen here may be great for scaring people, but it is excessive, and it harms society’s ability to think carefully about our energy choices.
Environment America also warns that in the normal course of affairs, nuclear plants in the United States sometimes leak water contaminated with slightly radioactive tritium. Indeed, these leaks happen a lot. The Associated Press last year reported that such leaks have occurred at 48 of America’s 65 nuclear power plant sites. But it is alarmist exaggeration to suggest this a serious threat, because the actual danger, if any, is tiny.
Tritium is only slightly radioactive. To give you an idea of how slightly, it is precisely because it is radioactive, but only slightly radioactive, that tritium is licensed as safe to use in self-luminous EXIT signs in public buildings, which save energy and stay brightly lit even when electric power is lost. If just one sign broke and all its gaseous tritium was released, that amount would equal only about half the dose of radiation the average American receives each year already, mostly from radon (which is natural, so it feels less scary) and medical exposures (which are voluntary, which makes that exposure feel less scary).
Still, nuclear plants aren’t supposed to leak, and exposure to any radiation may raise your risk of getting several different types of cancer. But only if you are exposed. None of the leaks reported by AP reached public drinking water supplies. A few of them did contaminate private local wells serving individuals, but if those people consumed any radioactive water, the doses of radioactivity were tiny, far below safety thresholds. How can that be? Isn’t all radiation carcinogenic? Yes, but even at high doses, for prolonged periods of exposure, nuclear/ionizing radiation is surprisingly weaker as a carcinogen than most people realize.
A series of studies has followed roughly 100,000 survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, known as the hibakusha, for more than two generations. Roughly 600 of the hibakusha, who were within 2 miles of those terrible atomic explosions, have died prematurely of cancer, from exposures to much higher doses, for much longer times, than anything produced by the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, and Chernobyl released at least ten times as much radioactive material as did the Fukushima-Daiichi disaster (and Fukushima released immensely more than is released by the tritium leaks). That’s a cancer death rate from high doses of radiation for prolonged periods of exposure of half of one percent! Ionizing radiation does cause cancer, but it’s not very good at it.
The World Health Organization estimates that out of the roughly 700,000 people exposed by Chernobyl to potentially dangerous doses, the lifetime death toll from cancer will be about 4,000, less than half of one percent. The nuclear watchdog Union of Concerned Scientists estimates the Chernobyl cancer death toll will be 25,000, six times higher than the WHO estimate. But the But the UCS research considered that anyone in the world, who might have been exposed to even the tiniest amounts of radiation, were at risk. The relative excess cancer death risk (actual deaths out of the whole at-risk population) from the worst nuclear power plant disaster ever, according to a thoughtful organization consistently skeptical of nuclear power, is a stunningly low 0.00007%. (When the UCS published it’s more worrying estimate of 25,000 total deaths, the absolute risk, they failed to include the reassuring relative risk data in their report.)
What about Fukushima? The Associated Press recently reported that several of the world’s top radiation biologists predict that the number of cancer deaths caused by Fukushima will be so low they won’t be detectable within the normal cancer mortality rate in Japan. The story did note, however, that radiation is already causing serious health damage. Not the radiation itself, however, but the fear of it, the kind of fear stoked by alarmist exaggeration regarding nuclear power by groups like Environment America. The AP reported “Japanese officials say mental health problems caused by excessive fear of radiation are prevalent and posing a bigger problem than actual risk of cancer caused by radiation (my emphasis).”
One last fact about the biological risk of nuclear radiation. It causes cataracts, and birth defects in newborns exposed in utero. We know from following the hibakusha through two generations that it does not cause long term genetic damage, Godzilla and Moth Ra and other post-war anti-nuke mutants notwithstanding. Sorry, Environment America. When you warn that tritium can “cause genetic effects”… that’s not just alarmist. It’s wrong.
And it’s harmful. In Japan, and around Chernobyl, nuke-o-noia continues to cause serious health damage from stress far in excess of the real but low radiation risk itself. And in nations around the world, the fear fueled by anti-nuclear advocates has contributed to energy policy that has favored coal for satisfying base load electricity demand. (Renewables are wonderful but can’t meet base load peak usage demands, at least not yet.) Burning coal instead of uranium creates particulate pollution that kills tens of thousands of people per year globally (several thousand just in the U.S.), and massive amounts of carbon dioxide, making the huge risk of climate change much worse.
All forms of energy have pros and cons, benefits and risks. Environmental advocates who claim to be interested in the greater good need to be more responsible, more thoughtful, more careful to keep their excessive fear of nuclear power from leading them to warn us that the Sky Is Falling, when it’s not. Otherwise, they bear at least some of the blame for the greater harm that comes when we live our lives according to false fears, and like the animals who followed Chicken Little into the cave for protection from a sky that wasn’t falling only to be eaten by Foxy Loxy, we make choices that feel safe, but really aren’t.
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