Paranoia about radiation from nuclear plants unwarranted

The nuclear accident in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has led to the larger question of safety of nuclear power as a safe source of energy. It is argued in some quarters that the radioactive materials released by the damaged Fukushima plant pose little threat beyond Japan’s borders when other radiation sources are taken into considerations. The truism is that the nuclear disaster in Japan sent waves of radiation and dread around the globe. This prompted people scurrying for buying radiation detectors and potassium iodine to fend thyroid cancer. As a result, supplies quickly ran out. Was this appropriate?

Is the fear warranted? According to experts and nuclear scientists, people living in the vicinity of the damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima may have reason to worry about the consequence of radiation leaks. Outside of Japan, the risk of radiation would be minimal.

It is argued that human population is constantly exposed to radiation. During the cold war, people around the globe were continuously exposed to radioactive fallout from hundreds of nuclear bomb text explosions that were spread into the earth’s atmosphere.

Similarly, millions of X-rays and CT scans undertaken by medical patients render millions exposed to regular doses of radiation. Also radioactive wastes released to the world’s oceans pose bigger dangers than the relatively small amounts of radioactive water released from the Fukushima Daiichi plant. According to experts, natural radiation from rocks, cosmic rays and other aspects of the environment represent bigger than man-made emissions. In comparison, therefore, the current increase of radiation from the crippled Japanese reactors is small, so it is argued by experts. The six reactors-Fukushima facility severely damaged by the 9.0-magnitude earthquake and devastating tsunami that hit Japan on March 11 and the subsequent radiation leaks has led to question the safety of nuclear power as a source of energy for the future. Given the dynamics of international economics and economic development in countries around the world, no single country in the world can afford to abandon nuclear as a source of energy as alternative sources of energy are in short supply.

Princeton University nuclear physicist Frank von Hippel who advised the Clinton administration says that “nuclear things get stigmatised relative to their statistical risks”. After the disaster struck Japan and radiation leakages were reported from the Fukushima facility, public interests groups sounded alarms and started pointing fingers at the Japanese government that it was hiding information. Japanese government was also charged of discharging contaminated water into the ocean waters, raising protests from Russia and South Korea. Comparisons were made with the Chernobyl incident, forgetting the fact that Chernobyl case was that an industrial accident while Fukushima was because of natural disaster.

Spark public speculation

The stigma attached with ‘nuclear’ was such that the Fukushima incident sparked public speculation that countries were minimising the threat posed by radiation from the Fukushima plant. The truism is that people are generally unaware of the magnitude of the sources of radiation and therefore unable to assess risks correctly. Even the scientific community remained affected by the alarm noise made by the media hype.  For example, as soon as the news of radiation leaks started spreading like wild fire as early as March 15, even doctors in the US started stockpiling iodine pills until president Obama announced that there is no need to take protective measures.  When people lack knowledge about the radiation exposure that patients are subjected to through X-rays, CT scans, MRIs and other such tests, people become tolerant of exposure as they strongly believe in the benefit of technology and therefore their sense of risk remains depressed. Similarly, when nations see nuclear power as a safe source of electricity, they see reactors as beneficial. However, when the Japan-like disaster occurs, debates on concerns get heightened. In 1955, the UN General Assembly voted to set up a scientific committee that regularly assesses and reports on radiation dangers. These reports help to compare the magnitude of different sources of radiation. If the risk element is to be examined in perspective, one notices that more than 500 detonations during the cold war pumped the global atmosphere full of deadly radioactive materials. Some of these are still emitting radiation.

A recent report cited figures of the UN that puts the total bomb radiation from decades of atmospheric testing at almost 70 billion curies. In contrast, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant released about 100 million curies of the most dangerous materials. In comparison, as per information available, the Fukushima Daiichi reactor complex had released about 10 million curies and the reactor accident in 1979 at Three Mile Island released about 50 million curies into the environment.

There is no need to get unnecessarily paranoid about the radiation leaks in the absence of complete and accurate information. Given the relatively small size of the radiation release and the precautions Japanese officials have taken to evacuate the danger zone, the result of suspected cases of cancer will be small. Also it needs to be kept in mind that unlike the radioactive fallout from the cold war and the Chernobyl accident, most of the radiation is believed to have blown out to sea on the prevailing wind and therefore the probability of threat to the Japanese people could be low. 
(The writer is senior fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi)

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