The RSIS Centre for Non-Traditional Security (NTS) Studies' Blog

Radiophobia – Fear That Kills

Posted in Energy and Human Security by NTSblog on December 8, 2011

In the latest issue of the NTS Alert I tried to critically examine the safety of nuclear power projects. I argued that available scientific and historical evidence overwhelmingly suggests that, for generating large amounts of electricity, nuclear energy is the safest currently available option. Some readers might find this surprising or even shocking and that is because of the dominant belief that any amount of radiation is dangerous, unhealthy and ultimately deadly. This assumption is radiophobia – an irrational fear of radiation that was born out of the frightening times of the Cold War when for various military, budgetary and propaganda reasons populations on both sides of the Iron Curtain were made panically afraid of anything nuclear. Apart from the geopolitical logic of that time, some scientists suspect other factors behind the creation of radiophobia such as the interests of the fossil fuel industries and the desire of the international media to profit from scare stories.

25 years after Chernobyl and 2 decades after the end of the Cold War it is evident that the threat of radiation has been grossly exaggerated and that by the linear non-threshold hypothesis (LNT) assumption that supported it had been wrong. One prominent commentator compared the LNT to “suggesting that because a temperature of 200 degrees Celsius would kill 100 per cent of human beings, so a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius should kill 10 per cent of them.“ Studies have demonstrated that small levels of radiation are not only harmless but may even be healthy to human being. What seems truly dangerous about low levels of radiation (such as the ones that followed the Chernobyl disaster) is the panic they create, as was demonstrated by research undertaken by the UN and WHO.

Yet, despite all the above, the world continues to suffer from radiophobia as it was evident in the case of Fukushima. As my Alert tried to demonstrate, this must change or else even the safest and accident-free nuclear power plants will cause deaths through stress, fear and anxiety that they may potentially generate. What is urgently needed today is courage on the side of politicians and people in positions of authority to communicate to their communities that nuclear power is ultimately safe, as it has been constantly demonstrated by our half a century of experience with it. An important action could be basing radiological protection on the principle of a practical threshold. According to one of the world’s most prominent radiologists, doing so “would be an important step taken towards dealing with radiation rationally and towards regaining the public’s acceptance of radioactivity and radiation as blessings for mankind.“

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