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We should stop running away from radiation

By Wade Allison - posted Thursday, 7 April 2011


More than 10,000 people have died in the Japanese tsunami and the survivors are cold and hungry. But the media concentrate on nuclear radiation from which no-one has died - and is unlikely to.

Nuclear radiation at very high levels is dangerous, but the scale of concern that it evokes is misplaced. Nuclear technology cures countless cancer patients every day - and a radiation dose given for radiotherapy in hospital is no different in principle to a similar dose received in the environment.

What of Three Mile Island? There were no known deaths there.

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And Chernobyl? The latest UN report published on 28 February confirms the known death toll - 28 fatalities among emergency workers, plus 15 fatal cases of child thyroid cancer - which would have been avoided if iodine tablets had been taken (as they have now in Japan). And in each case the numbers are minute compared with the 3,800 at Bhopal in 1984, who died as a result of a leak of chemicals from the Union Carbide pesticide plant.

So what of the radioactivity released at Fukushima? How does it compare with that at Chernobyl? Let's look at the measured count rates. The highest rate reported, at 1900 on 22 March, for any Japanese prefecture was 12 kBq per sq m (for the radioactive isotope of caesium, caesium-137).

A map of Chernobyl in the UN report shows regions shaded according to rate, up to 3,700 kBq per sq m - areas with less than 37 kBq per sq m are not shaded at all. In round terms, this suggests that the radioactive fallout at Fukushima is less than 1% of that at Chernobyl.

The other important radioisotope in fallout is iodine, which can cause child thyroid cancer.

This is only produced when the reactor is on and quickly decays once the reactor shuts down (it has a half life of eight days). The old fuel rods in storage at Fukushima, though radioactive, contain no iodine.

But at Chernobyl the full inventory of iodine and caesium was released in the initial explosion, so that at Fukushima any release of iodine should be much less than 1% of that at Chernobyl - with an effect reduced still further by iodine tablets.

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Unfortunately, public authorities react by providing over-cautious guidance - and this simply escalates public concern.

Over-reaction

On the 16th anniversary of Chernobyl, the Swedish radiation authorities, writing in the Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter, admitted over-reacting by setting the safety level too low and condemning 78% of all reindeer meat unnecessarily, and at great cost.

Unfortunately, the Japanese seem to be repeating the mistake. On 23 March they advised that children should not drink tap water in Tokyo, where an activity of 200 Bq per litre had been measured the day before. Let's put this in perspective. The natural radioactivity in every human body is 50 Bq per litre - 200 Bq per litre is really not going to do much harm.

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This article was first published on Viewpoint on March 26, 2011. H/T John Ridd.



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About the Author

Professor Wade Allison MA DPhil is an Emeritus Fellow of Keble College, Oxford and the author of Radiation and Reason and Fundamental Physics for Probing and Imaging.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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