Why is there irrational fear of radiation?

Improvements are needed in explaining the significance of the numbers to the public

Editor for this multi-author blog post: Dan Yurman

The Fukushima reactor complex, before March 11, 2011, provided 10% of Japan’s nuclear generated electricity.

The crisis at the Fukushima nuclear reactor complex in Japan, caused by a record earthquake and equally record shattering tsunami, has created a maelstrom of fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) when it comes to radiation measurements.

For instance, the importance of distinctions between fast and slow decaying isotopes of iodine and cesium are sometimes lost on media and the public.

Worse, the differences between accounting for the sheer amount of radiation and giving an assessment of the potential health effects of uncontrolled releases takes place using different sets of measurement units. Is it any wonder that mainstream news media editors get headaches when their reporters file stories about radiation?

It hasn’t helped that Japanese and American nuclear experts have called for different distances for evacuation zones around the plant site. Can we fault the public for concluding that any report about radiation at a nuclear reactor is bad news?

Organizations with agendas that call for removing nuclear reactors from the energy mix have been known to exploit public fears of radiation. In doing so, they’ve sometimes failed to understand the scientific basis for the measurements.

In one case, a critic of a reactor relicensing application, writing in a political news magazine, said that a tritium release was 500 times more than expected, which was none. What he failed to realize is that the measured quantity was still 500 times less than the EPA drinking water standard.

Calling this type of mistake “junk science” misses an important point. What the public thinks is that regardless of how much radiation you are talking about, it is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. FUD fosters fear.

On the other hand, people in the nuclear energy field, who routinely work with some of the most dangerous radioactive materials in the universe, are quite calm about it, citing and practicing the principles of time, distance, and shielding. In fact, some can’t understand what all the panic is about because they know, by the numbers, that the risk isn’t commensurate with the noise level.

Is it time for a change in the way radiation measurements are communicated and explained to the public? At the ANS Social Media list, I asked four contributors to share their views on this question.

These four people have deep insights into the world of nuclear energy, but they also have very different takes on the current systems of radiation measurement and how they are used to explain risk to the public and the press.  In this multi-author guest blog post, an ecologist, a chemist, an energy expert, and a public affairs consultant offer ideas about what to do about making radiation numbers more understandable and, in doing so, foster better public understanding about what they mean.

Is obfuscation deliberate?
~ Stewart Brand

Stewart Brand

The aversion to nuclear would be due to aversion to the uncertainty of radiation risk, itself a product of lack of familiarity with the weird units of measurement.

NO KIDDING! Sieverts, rems, rads, grays, becquerels, curies, and roentgens are reported in their densely confusable forms of milli, micro, and mega. None of them are calibrated around dimensions that might make intuitive sense concerning human safety, and they all obfuscate each other.

Listening to engineers debate about how many microcuries can dance on the head of a megabecquerel all by itself introduces profound dread in anyone listening in.

With its Babel of measurements, the nuclear power industry has guaranteed that all of its communications with the public are maddeningly confusing and frightening.

It is such conspicuously incompetent social engineering that observers understandably suspect that the nuclear engineering behind it is equally incompetent, and that nuclear engineers must hate people.

Stewart Brand, an ecologist, is the author of many books including, most recently, “The Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto” (Amazon) or see his home page.

Stick with health effects measurements
~ Cheryl Rofer

Cheryl Rofer

What people want to know about radiation is whether it’s a danger to them. What they get is numbers with funny units attached. These numbers may be presented as multiples of some standard. But that doesn’t say what the health risks are. Recent changes in the units themselves have provided more confusion, along with the prefixes indicating powers of ten.

Each unit has a use:

  • Monitoring instruments count disintegrations (counts per second, becquerel, curie); roentgens,
  • Rads and grays measure the absorbed energy from those disintegrations; and
  • Rems and sieverts measure the biological dose.

All of which moves toward health effects. But there is a big step missing.

That step is how the biological dose translates into disease, cancer in particular. That translation depends on many factors: the age and sex of the person exposed, the rapidity of the exposure, which part of the body is irradiated, and very likely the basic health of the person exposed and his or her genetic makeup. Even when all that is combined for an individual person, the result is a probability, not a certainty.

I don’t see an easy way to make these units more understandable. But it would help if regulators, engineers, and reporters would stick with sieverts or millisieverts. These are the units and the range most relevant to health effects.

Cheryl Rofer, a chemist, worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory for 37 years on a variety of projects, many of them related to the nuclear fuel cycle. Her blog is The Phronesisaical, covering politics, philosophy, and fruit



No one has died from radiation at Fukushima
~ Steve Aplin

Steve Aplin

Why do we fear radiation? Throughout the Fukushima emergency, media stories have reported radiation in terms of picocuries, becquerels, rads, grays, millirems, microsieverts. Few of us know what these units represent; they sound ominous, uncontrollable. They scares us. In the 21st century, with our digital TVs and smart phones, we humans are still afraid of the dark.

There is one measurement, however, that almost nobody has mentioned in the coverage of Fukushima. It is a familiar number—zero. It represents the number of people who have died, so far, from radiation at the plant. That’s right: after five weeks, thousands of hours of broadcast airtime, and millions of newspaper column-inches, zero people have died.

The number zero may be familiar to us today, but it took thousands of years to enter our mathematical lexicon. That’s because as a concept, it is extremely elusive and complex.

Zero’s subtlety may be why “zero deaths by radiation” has so little effect on our gut-level imagination. Contrast that with lurid descriptions of something unknown, out beyond the edge of darkness, beyond our control: something measured in picocuries, microsieverts. That “something” grabs our imagination; its mystery scares us. “Zero deaths” does neither.

Well, when you step down into a dark basement, what’s the quickest way to turn off your fear? Turn on the light. Same with curies, rads, and microsieverts. The light of knowledge will help. Learn about radiation.

When you do, you’ll understand why there have been zero deaths because of radiation at Fukushima.

Steve Aplin is vice president of Energy and Environment at The HDP Group, an Ottawa-based management consultancy. He blogs at Canadian Energy Issues.

Say it simply and say it in English
~ Mimi Limbach


Mimi Limbach

The events at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant have brought many technical experts into contact with journalists who have little knowledge of nuclear energy, science, and technology.

Some of these experts are speaking a different language—jargon—than the journalists and the public. Environmentalist Stewart Brand said it better than anyone in a companion blog to this one. I showed his comment to a group attending last week’s ANS Student Conference, and it brought down the house with laughter. As my audience looked sheepishly at each other, it was clear that most people in the room were guilty of using jargon that would be incomprehensible to the public.

Risk communication research tells us that when people hear jargon, they believe the speaker is trying to mislead them. So when you use jargon, you’re also losing credibility with your audience.

Several years ago, I attended a community meeting in Jackson, Wyo., about a controversial facility that was to be built nearby. In the midst of a presentation, the woman sitting next to me said, “What are they hiding from us? Why can’t they just say it in simple English?” The facility was never built.

Jargon is a shortcut for technical professionals … or a very precise way of expressing concepts or measures. It works for technical audiences. But to most people, it is meaningless and insulting.

So, how should technical people make complex ideas meaningful to the public? Use examples and analogies that relate radiation measures to something we all live with in our everyday lives. Say it simply. And say it in English.

Mimi Limbach is a partner at Potomac Communications Group, Washington, DC. Her business blog is From the Potomac.

Last word from blog post editor

All four contributors, coming at the problem from very different perspectives, nevertheless find fault with the way current radiation measurement systems explain their results. The fault finding is not with the internationally accepted scientific measurement units, but rather in communication of the numbers to a skeptical and fearful public.

Until risk communication practice by nuclear regulatory agencies catches up with the public’s needs for understanding, the nuclear industry may paradoxically continue to find itself sliced and diced in the news media by its own measurement precision.


Dan Yurman

Dan Yurman publishes Idaho Samizdat, a blog about nuclear energy. From 1994 to 1999 he served as a citizen member of a Federal Advisory Committee to the Centers for Disease Control on radiation health effects studies at Department of Energy sites.

14 thoughts on “Why is there irrational fear of radiation?

  1. Marc de Piolenc

    The book that straightened me out about nuclear power years ago – long before I had any technical schooling – was Petr Beckman’s The Health Hazards of Not Going Nuclear. It really needs to be updated, reprinted and handed out at every nuclear-related event.

  2. Gerry

    If the weekly limit was 0.3 rem/week, that is not more than today’s (i.e., 5 rem) allowable annual dose as you wrote. “Jimmy was there for quite a few weeks, receiving more than today’s yearly allowed dose weekly.”

    You wrote, [QUOTE]1949 NCRP lowers basic “Maximum Permissible Dose” for radiation workers to 0.3 rem/week; risk-benefit philosophy introduced; limits for the general public set at 10% of the occupational limit.[/QUOTE]

    Jimmy was there for quite a few weeks, receiving more than today’s yearly allowed dose weekly.

  3. Pingback: Evening Fix | Progressive Fix

  4. Rod Adams

    Jeff – once again I need to point out that there is not really much of a “nuclear” industry. The companies who make some money from operating nuclear plants also operate coal and natural gas plants. The companies that make nuclear components or provide nuclear services often make more money in fossil related goods and services.

    There is a huge, concentrated industry that stands to lose if nuclear captures markets. There is a far larger, but less focused group – all of the rest of us – that would benefit from having abundant, clean, affordable energy.

    That is our challenge – how do we mobilized the people who will benefit a bit against the very powerful who might lose so much if energy becomes cheap and clean?

    I think we can do it, but it will never be easy.

  5. Jeff Schmidt

    Sorry for posting twice, but I’ve had another thought. Something I think might add to the conversation here, I hope.

    There are starting to come out, today (4/22/2011), and over the past couple days, the first of what will probably be lots, of articles and op-eds about Chernobyl’s 25th Anniversary.

    It seems to me that the anti-nuclear organizations do a much, much better job of finding opportunities to get coverage presented from a negative angle in news media coverage, than pro-nuclear groups do. The coverage I’ve seen about Chernobyl so far, is nearly universally negative.

    If it’s true, and based on the agencies and science behind the claims, that there have been relatively few deaths from Chernobyl, and that the real, measurable health impacts have been much milder than was thought to be the case before Chernobyl happened, that’s good news, and needs to be covered, a lot. Over and over.

    But, what the public hears over and over is basically the litany of “tens of thousands of deaths across Europe and northern Asia (Belarus, Ukraine, etc)”, based largely on LNT models.

    I know a lot of the nuclear blogs and speakers/authors (Cravens, Brand, et. al), have been trying hard to get the word out that the real consequences of Chernobyl have been much less than previously assumed, and could have been even smaller if the Soviet government had enacted proper responses in a timely fashion, but this, the 25th Anniversary of Chernobyl would be the perfect time to have orchestrated a media campaign to try to get that reported all over the world.

    It seems to me that the nuclear industry and nuclear advocates have facts and science on their side, but have done a terrible job of getting their message out to the public ( I should mention that I realize that many of the bloggers, with the limited resources and platforms you have, are making heroic efforts at public communications, and I don’t want anyone to take this as personal, individual criticism).

    On the other hand, you have Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, NIRS, UCS, etc which don’t, mostly, have the facts and science on their side, but they have done a great job of getting a lot of people to donate time and money to advance their causes, and have gotten the media to buy into their ‘experts’ *as* experts. They have large organizations with lots of volunteers who do fundraising, who go protest at events, and generate news on cycle – they have things all set for ‘events’ like the Chernobyl anniversary, etc.

    I tried finding a similar group, for someone who wants to be a proponent of nuclear power, and as far as I can tell, there’s nothing in the pro-nuclear camp that can be compared to Greenpeace, et al. in terms of something that does a lot of outreach to the public at the grassroots level, that I can join, and donate to, and help volunteer for.

    There’s an industry, but no grassroots organizations for nuclear advocacy. This is a big problem.

  6. harrywr2

    “Why do we fear radiation?”

    From the Pacifist Perspective –
    In order to make fighting wars with nuclear weapons unthinkable.

    From the Warmongers Perspective –
    What good is a weapon that no one fears?

    Which country was on the front lines of the Cold War? Germany
    Which European country has the Greatest Fear of Radiation? Germany

  7. david ropeik

    Your column is interesting, the contributors all wise, the question you ask critical. But the whole discussion typifies a huge problem. You understandably come at the question from the lenses of the sciences you know, but are apparently unaware of what a vast amount of scientific research from other disciplines has taught us that quite specifically answers the question of why our fears so often don’t match the facts; about radiation, or vaccines, or fluoride, or lots of risks. And no, it’s not a lack of clear communication, or education.
    May I direct you to a couple resources;
    – Specifically re: fear of radiation, I wrote this blog for Scientific American;
    “Beware the fear of nuclear FEAR”
    – And I wrote an entire book summarizing what various disciplines have taught us about the perception of risk, which goes into great detail about radiation in several places; “How Risky Is It, Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts”, large excerpts of which are available free at my website, http://www.dropeik.com
    Given what you write about I hope you might find these materials enlightening and valuable.

  8. Jeff Schmidt

    Some great points by the authors. One thing I think pro-nuclear people miss is, when they make statements like, “No one has died from radiation at Fukushima”, is that this statement is present tense, but does not take into account future possibilities.

    That, I think, is part of the concern of the public, myself included, about nuclear plants. Can you really say that there will not be any deaths from Fukushima radiation over the next 30 years? In the case of Fukushima, it’s possible that some of the plant workers who were exposed to radiation may die from a cancer in the future. It’s also possible they would have gotten cancer *anyhow*. It’s equally possible that, since we are talking about statistical probabilities (and I don’t know what the actual probabilities are, but I know some of the workers were exposed to significantly high dosages), and a very small sample size, that *none* of them will get cancer despite their radiation exposures. Still, the point is, most of us in the public have some idea that radiation could kill you in the future, even if not right now, so bold assertions that nobody has died (yet; where the ‘yet’, is implied) sound a little bit like ‘spin’.

    One could fire a mortar or missile – some weapon that takes some time to reach its destination, and equally assert immediately after firing that nobody has died from you firing that weapon.

    On the one hand, you could argue that an industrial accident that kills you in 10 or 20 years is ‘less bad’ than an accident, like a gas explosion, for instance, which kills you instantly. But the flip side of that is, once radiation is leaked into the environment in an area, people will try to avoid living and working in that area unless they are *completely* satisfied that there is zero increased risk of cancer from the residual radiactive cesium or whatever. Even if they know the odds are only 1 in 100000 people will get a cancer from the contamination, they will not want to be in that area, because what *if* they or their child is that one in one hundred thousand?

    So, back to Japan – we have a situation where many people have been displaced from their homes and businesses in the evacuation zone around the Fukushima-1 Power Station. The government is saying it will take 6-9 months to achieve cold shutdown, and there is still measurements and study which needs to be done to determine the ultimate level of contamination in the zone, and whether it’s safe to return or not.

    Is it “irrational” to be afraid of nuclear power, even if, perhaps, no one *does* die from the Fukushima releases? Having the potential that a power plant will make hundreds or thousands of square miles of land basically uninhabitable (even if, in reality, only 1 in 100,000 people would die if they lived there because of the contamination, again, it’s human nature to try to avoid even small potential risks if you can).

    I do agree that getting a final, as-conclusive-as-possible determination about the Linear-No-Threshold hypothesis could be helpful in this regard. There seems to be reasonable arguments that LNT is false, and leads to bad conclusions like 1 in 100,000 getting cancer. But it would be re-assuring if it weren’t an argument of informed opinions, but a fairly solidly established fact.

    Additionally, I would point out that, to some extent, I’m re-assured by Fukushima, in that what is close to a worst-case scenario happened to an old plant and still the contamination has been fairly small, and seems, at least so far, from what I’ve read, to be in such small amounts and so diluted across large areas, that the expected health effects are probably going to be within that “LNT” debate zone, where *probably* it won’t harm anyone.

    But, what if Tepco had screwed up, could this situation have *possibly* been worse? What if there were no live operators left at the plant to take emergency action? Is there any chance, at all, that the predictions of folks like Caldicott and Gunderson, of large amounts of plutonium and other actinides being spread out into the local environment, could ever play out in reality? Just because it did not in this incident, doesn’t necessarily mean it *could not*? Is there any fact(s) which I missing, which prove that such a large release is just not possible (or at least, even remotely likely)?

  9. Bill Eaton

    As a 30 year nuclear (utility) engineering and operations guy, recently retired and consulting, I believe the timidity and lack of professional intellignece in industry communications killed the industry after TMI. Now we have the opportunity, in the shadow of Fukushima, to shine a bright light on the technology and its benefits to the average consumer. Whether we muster the courage is the big question.

  10. Gwyneth Cravens

    Perhaps in the discussion of better communication about radiation exposure, we need to think also about the points made by Denise Grady in her essay in the NY Times Science section on April 12:

    She ridicules the idea of the banana as a way to talk about radiation exposure and quotes some scientists she interviewed who were trying to explain the omnipresence of radioactivity. Either the scientists did not put the banana in perspective with the perceived risks from Fukushima or Grady ignored the comparisons. She felt she was the object of condescension.

    I often use the banana as an example. I have heard that one of the problems about tracking radioactive sources in cargo containers has to do with shipments of bananas setting off alarms. But it may be that talking about bananas and Brazil nuts sounds crazy to a person looking for information that radiation is deadly. In my case, as a nuclear skeptic, I benefited from explanations that put radiation exposure in context in everyday life, so I am biased in favor of food-based examples

  11. Charles Bell

    I worked around radiation at nuclear power plants since the mid 1970s. After seeing the movie about the SL-1 accident on my first day of Navy Nuclear Power School, I quickly gained a respect and rational fear of radiation. Education, training, and experience are key to removing the irrational fear from ones mind and replacing it with the rational kind.

  12. Gwyneth Cravens

    Three highly-credentialed radiation experts, Dr. David Brenner, Dr. Otto Raabe, and Dr. Leo Gomez, have come up with an approach that may yield results that could calm down the public about what is in fact low-dose radiation. Brenner is a proponent of the linear-nonthreshold hypothesis (LNT) whereas Raabe and Gomez subscribe to the idea that below a certain threshold of exposure risk is so tiny as to be irrelevant. In collaboration they have proposed the establishment of an Ultra Low Dose Level Radiation Effects research laboratory in order to get beyond hypotheses. After holding an international summit to address this plan, they wrote a report:


    “The Summit addressed the question of the need for a low-dose radiobiology research facility to study the biological effects of radiation in a “subnormal” radiation background that is present at the WIPP in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The consensus of the group was overwhelmingly in favor of this facility in order to establish a scientific basis for radiation protection standards at low doses. One of the principal justifications for such a facility is the economic impact of stringent radiation protection standards that are now based on the hypothetical linear, no-threshold (LNT) dose-response model of radiation-induced cancer which has not been tested at ultra-low radiation levels.”

    “The LNT model, upon which stringent clean-up standards for ionizing radiation are based, was developed for high doses and high dose rates. Without an ultra-low-level laboratory it has not been possible to adequately test the validity of the LNT at the low levels of radiation at which it is being applied. Information leading to the less stringent radiation protection environmental standards could result in a saving of as much as $200 billion dollars for clean-up of existing sites in the United States alone. With the renewed interest in nuclear energy, the impact of unnecessarily stringent radiation standards will have a major impact on the growth of this industry. The Summit findings included a very strong recommendation from the international group of attendees for the establishment of an Ultra-Low-Level Radiation Laboratory at WIPP. ”

    Experiments would be conducted on small mammals and micro-organisms half a mile underground, with control groups on the surface. In one survey of radiation experts, most of them believe that below a certain threshold there’s no need for concern about exposure. Populations living on geological formations with higher natural background radiation do not tend to have higher rates of cancer. But these same experts feel that they must apply the precautionary principle until more is known about, say, the effects of an exposure of 15 millirem from water at the boundary of a nuclear facility.

    Some hard data from careful experiments could confirm whether or not radiation hormesis truly exists and whether or not low-dose exposure can initiate cancers.

    Without a sound scientific basis, information about the effects of low-dose radiation exposure can be manipulated in various ways to influence the public–usually in a negative way. One result is that big contractors get big bucks to build big barriers to protect the public from less excess radiation than they would receive if they vacationed in the Southwest or ate a banana a day.

  13. Rod Adams

    Dan – I am sorry that I did not have the time available in my schedule to participate in the group blog.

    It will probably come as no surprise to you that I believe that FUD is often purposely spread as a marketing strategy by competitive businesses. “Going negative” about your opposition is not just a political tactic; it is done by aluminum producers against plastic containers and car bumpers; it is done by sugar cane growers against corn growers whose crops produce competitive “high fructose corn syrup”, and it is done by fossil fuel producers against nuclear energy.

    The challenge that nuclear proponents have is that the energy business is so large that the number of zeros involved makes it almost mind boggling – the DAILY sales from ExxonMobil are in the neighborhood of $1.5 BILLION, and OPEC may reach the $1,000,000,000,000 (one trillion) mark this year.

    In just a relatively small area off of the coast of Australia, multinational petroleum companies have invested more than $200 billion in liquified natural gas projects which will be a far more profitable investment if the world does not build any more nuclear plants. It will be an amazing investment home run if more nations follow Germany’s lead and shut down already operating nuclear plants – the market shift will be almost immediate.

    Over on Atomic Insights, I have been publishing well researched and referenced articles about the poor science that is used to justify continued adherence to the Linear No-Threshold dose response ASSUMPTION. It is clear to me that the dose rates associated with nuclear energy production do not harm human health.

    Fukushima has shown that even in the most severe accident scenario, the areas with high doses are limited enough so that humans can be adequately protected by applying time, distance and shielding based techniques.

    Those protective measures are no different from the way that the oil and gas industry responds when one of their installations has a problem. Remember how BP kept people off of the Gulf beaches and how Cosmo simply let its refinery at Chiba burn while keeping people away? (That last was a 10 day long fire that took out a 220,000 barrel per day facility, but it was overshadowed by Fukushima and not even covered by the commercial media.)

    One more thing – part of the problem is that the “industry” that is the victim of the purposeful spreading of FUD by its competition has mixed emotions. Many of them make a lot more money selling fossil fuel related products and services. It is almost as if a guy named Steinbrenner was the starting pitcher for the Sox .

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

  14. Doris Pulaski

    Thanks for posting this interesting conversation.
    One suggestion: A very human approach to radiation can be used by citing the life of Jimmy Carter. Carter is from a family so genetically susceptible to pancreatic cancer that his parents and all his siblings died of it. Carter is 86, and very visibly healthy. Everybody knows everything about the health of ex-presidents and presidents, so people know you are not lying about Carter’s health or his family’s genetric predisposition. [QUOTE]1952 (Dec 12) Explosion and meltdown at NRX reactor Chalk River, Ontario, Canada. Future U.S. president Jimmy Carter, thru his involvement in the US Nuclear Submarine program, is one of the volunteer workers who participates in the cleanup, going in until he receives his Maximum Permissible Dose.[/QUOTE]
    This quote is from one of those Greenpeace lists of everything that ever went wrong in any nuclear facility anywhere. And so is this one:

    And that the limit for radiation workers at that time was:

    [QUOTE]1949 NCRP lowers basic “Maximum Permissible Dose” for radiation workers to 0.3 rem/week; risk-benefit philosophy introduced; limits for the general public set at 10% of the occupational limit.[/QUOTE]

    Jimmy was there for quite a few weeks, receiving more than today’s yearly allowed dose weekly. Afterwards, he discribes in his book Why Not The Best that his urine was radioactive for 6 months. Jimmy’s daughter Amy was born long after that in 1967, and is completely normal. The only long term health problem he has had that anyone knows about is hemorrhoids. He has not had cancer.

    An equally telling human linkage can be made to the doses given people in radiation therapy.

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