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Talking About Radiation

Over the past several weeks I've been tackling a vexing topic: How to find a way to communicate effectively with the public about radiation and our environment. It was radiation pioneer Marie Curie who said, "Nothing in life is to be feared, it is to be understood."

Unfortunately, most of the anti-nukes don't do much more than obscure honest public debate with bad science and outlandish claims (many of which are easily debunked).

To get a better understanding of the sort of challenge we're taking on, read the following passage from Back of the Envelope -- a blog written by an ex-pat New Zealander now living in Scotland. New Zealand has been a "nuclear free zone," since late Prime Minister David Lange banned nuclear arms and nuclear powered ships from the country in 1985.

Though the author of the blog isn't a supporter of using nuclear energy for power production in New Zealand, he thinks it's far passed time for the country to shake off its anti-nuclear phobia:
I do find it strange however that 'nuclear' always means bombs. NZ has become irrational over the peaceful use of nuclear for medicine, research and power generation. . .

The NZ public has been conditioned to think nuclear-free is an absence of all 'nuclear' applications. This is stupid, radioactives are used every day in every hospital to cure people of cancer, you don't see many Greenpeace demonstrations outside cancer wards do you?

The nuclear-free stance is deep in the pysche's of NZers and i wonder if even we know what it means, its wrapped up in so much of how we see the world and ourselves, so i dispair of ever trying to explain to someone else...
Some other pertinent facts from NEI:

Measuring radiation dosage. Radiation dose is measured in rem, which is based on the effect of radiation on the human body. It takes into account both the amount of radiation deposited in body tissues and the type of radiation. A millirem is a thousandth of a rem.

Your average radiation dose. In all, the average person in the United States receives about 360 millirem of radiation per year. About 300 millirem comes from natural sources and 60 millirem from manmade sources...

Because of their advanced design and sophisticated containment structures, U.S. nuclear plants emit a negligible amount of radiation. In fact, even if you lived right next door to a nuclear power plant, you would still receive less radiation each year than you would receive in just one round-trip flight from New York to Los Angeles. A 1990 National Cancer Institute study, the broadest ever conducted, found no evidence of any increase in cancer mortality including childhood leukemia among people living in 107 counties that host, or are adjacent to, 62 major nuclear facilities in the United States.

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Paul Gunter said…
Didn't Madame Curie die of radiation poisoning?
I knew somebody was going to say that.

Could you comment on the actual facts presented?
As for the challenge of communicating about radiation, you don't really even need to go into much detail about the effects. Most people don't know that there is such a thing as natural radiation. They certainly don't know how much radiation is released by a nuclear power plant vs. a coal-fired plant or the background. The public perception is that radiation is a phenomenon unique to nuclear power plants and that there is a lot of it. Once we get that message out, we can start telling people about the effects.
Paul Gunter said…
Would you characterize the BEIR VII report as some of those "anti-nuke" folk?

Paul, NIRS
Mike said…
Hormesis, hormesis, hormesis

Afraid of Radiation? Low Doses are Good for You
by Donald W. Miller, Jr., MD

Is Chronic Radiation an Effective Prophylaxis Against Cancer?

Radiation, Science, and Health
>>Would you characterize the BEIR VII report as some of those "anti-nuke" folk?

No. I suggest you read it. It says that although the balance of evidence favors a proportional linear relationship between dose and cancer, there is no evidence for any cancer effects below 5000-10000 millirem.
Paul Gunter said…
Hi Stewart,

We have read BEIR VII:

Curious that contrary to what you claim, the National Academy of Sciences panel concluded: "it is unlikely that a threshold exists for the induction of cancer" for low dose ionizing radiation.They also conclude that"there is extensive data on radiation-induced transmissible mutations in mice and other organisms. There is therefore no reason to believe that humans would be immune to this sort of harm."

In other words, the children of parents exposed to low dose radiation are at higher risk without a threshold dose.

Can you cite me some context (perhaps a page number) in the BEIR VII for your attribution that there is no evidence for any cancer effects below 5000-10000 millirem.

Your claim doesnt square with BEIR VII conclusions.

Paul, NIRS
"Experiments that quantified DNA breakage, chromosomal aberrations, or gene mutations induced by low total doses or low doses per fraction suggest that the dose response over the range of 20 to 100 mGy [2000-10000 millirem] is linear. Limited data indicate that the dose response for DNA breakage is linear down to one mGy [100 millirem], and biophysical arguments suggest that the response should be linear between zero and five mGy [zero and 500 millirem]."
—BEIR VII, p.553

They can't find evidence for a linear response under 2000 millirem and the evidence between 2000 and 10000 is inconclusive. Theoretically, they can't see why it shouldn't go down to zero but are going to have to hunt for actual data.

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