Radiation and risk

If you talk to anybody and you say the word ‘radiation‘, immediately you get a fear response.

Why this negative attitude towards radiation? Perhaps there is a gap in people’s minds between the perceived versus the real risk.  What actually is risk? Risk is a combination of both the probability of an outcome and the magnitude of this outcome. Nuclear is very safe because the probability of a fatality is extremely low, especially compared with fossil fuel industry, for example, in which mining activities are relatively risky.

Invisibility

By invisible threats we mean those that can’t be detected using any of our five senses. Because we can’t naturally detect radiation, we are instinctively nervous about it. Higher levels of fear are anticipated because of the associated uncertainty.

Fear and propaganda

In the decades of the Cold War that followed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fear of nuclear power was a useful political weapon internationally.  In truth, an explosion from a nuclear power station is A) extremely rare and B) chemical, not atomic.

In fact, of the tens of thousands killed as a result of the atomic bombs dropped at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was the explosion, fire and falling debris which killed a great many more than those who died from radiation sickness.

People think the Chernobyl reactor accident in Russia was equivalent to the atomic bombing in Japan which is absolutely false.   Also, since 1987, one lesson learnt among the myriad of issues surrounding nuclear power, is that the threat to human health posed by radiation has been grossly overstated.  None of the expected epidemics of leukaemia, solid cancers or birth defects has occurred as a result of exposure to low-level radiation.

Likewise, the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami killed in the region of 18,500 people, since which significant attention has turned to the nuclear power plant at Fukushima over the leakage of radioactively-contaminated water, some of which has gone into the sea.

Experts argue that another accident like Fukushima, somewhere, sometime, should be avoided, but would not represent a global disaster: the deaths in the wake of Fukishima were due to relocation issues and not related to radiation.

Lack of understanding: –

One proposal is that both attitudes and risk perceptions are a function of the values, beliefs, and trust in the institutions that influence nuclear policy.

When these institutions fail to communicate for whatever reasons their actions and intentions to the masses, a gap in knowledge can cause the imagination to run wild.  The greater the general number of people relying on the mis-informed opinion of others, the longer it takes to realise if something is wrong.

As an example, genetic mutation has been attributed to ionizing radiation in many Hollywood and television science fiction stories – this does not make it fact.     Research has shown that if genetic mutation could occur in humans, this would require doses larger than those actually required for it to be fatal. Likewise, inheritable human genetic mutation by the kind that people worry about has never been detected.

The bigger a blind spot in understanding, the greater the chance that basic questions go unasked and unanswered. For reasonable decision-making, it is essential that the truth underlying the fears of nuclear material and radiation are properly exposed and that the science is more widely understood.

Risk Perception

First of all we have to get our heads around and understand what risk actually is.  We normally contemplate the hazard aspect when we worry about things. However, risk is a combination, in equal measure, of the likelihood of an event (how often), and the consequence of that event occurring (hazard).

Civilian nuclear incidents tend to be well publicised, and things like the ‘nuclear event scale’ focus with huge bias towards hazard instead of the more rationally derived risk.

And so, when dealing with a subject we have little understanding of, our perception of risk can actually be very counter-intuitive, because that voice of emotion (consequence) is easily more powerful than that of reason (likelihood) regarding an outcome.

An example of this is air travel, which is statistically much safer than road travel , but has associated with it irrational fears, stemming from the feeling that we have no personal control over the outcome.  Additionally, because air disasters are so rare, they make headlines that increase the individual’s sense of insecurity.

Highly radioactive materials can be dangerous if handled irresponsibly.  However, modern nuclear practices are extremely safety conscious, and if anything, disabling in a practical sense.  Fail-safe system programming and the use of robotics ensure that chance of exposure to radiation is so extremely small that credible risks to workers, let alone the public, are negligible.

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