Unwarranted fear of radiation can paralyze and prevent beneficial activity

by Rod Adams

During the past few days, I have been blessed with the opportunity to eavesdrop on an intriguing e-mail exchange involving Ted Rockwell, one of my technical heroes. Rockwell is a man whose involvement in nuclear technology dates back to the Manhattan Project, where he served as a member of a “Tiger Team” of young engineers who were assigned the task of making process improvements at Y-12.


He developed an interest in protecting people from harmful radiation and became such an expert in arranging simple materials in layers that he was chosen to edit the Atomic Energy Commission’s Reactor Shield Design Manual, which is still considered to be the basic reference for this important engineering discipline.

Rockwell is a plain speaking man with a self assigned task to do everything he can to help people recognize that radiation is something to understand, not something to blindly fear. Rockwell’s philosophy as a confident, linear-thinking, rational problem-solver can be expressed by a quote that he used to see hanging on the wall in Adm. Rickover’s office.

Our doubts are traitors
and make us lose the good we oft might win
by fearing to attempt

Aside: Among his career accomplishments, Rockwell served as Rickover’s technical director during the period when Naval Reactors created the first atomic engine for the USS Nautilus and led the engineering effort to build the first commercial atomic power plant in the United States at Shippingport, Pa. He is the author of The Rickover Effect: How One Man Made a Difference and Creating the New World: Stories and Images from the Dawn of the Atomic Age End Aside.

That quote about doubts and fears is not meant to inspire a “damn the torpedoes” casualness toward real dangers, but instead to inspire a knowledge-based confidence that allows action in the face of a small amount of uncertainty.

Rockwell is convinced—as am I—that the world is at risk of turning its back on an important tool because of unwarranted fear of radiation. He does not place all of the blame on the professional opposition to nuclear energy; he reserves some of his sharpest words for radiation protection professionals who have convinced the world to put radiation, even at levels that do no harm, at the top of the list of items that require expensive action.

In the below quote from the correspondence that I mentioned, Ted is referring to the forced evacuation orders that drew circles around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station and moved people out with little regard to the other physical conditions that resulted from the earthquake and tsunami. Those orders remain in effect today and are compounding the very real and expensive damage done by the sustained population relocation, not by the events at the power plant.

My suggestion is, that by insisting that the most important issue is to prevent even harmless doses of radiation, and by also insisting that evacuation is the most “conservative” way to respond to radioactivity, they subjected people to some pretty unhealthy conditions. Why should the radiation protection people have unquestioned priority over everyone else?

I believe that the data show we all live in a sub-optimal radiation field. Certainly 100 mSv (10 Rem), and probably 1000 mSv (100 Rem) does us more good than harm. And even a little radiation damage is probably less harmful than being forced to wander aimlessly through the devastated, polluted landscape. The floodwaters washed over pig farms, electroplating facilities, solar panels, pesticide factories, and other hazards more dangerous to human health than small quantities of radioactivity. We should face up to that situation. Like a lot of people in Chernobyl, I would prefer to be in my own home, even if everyone is telling me that that will kill me.

My plea is that we treat radiation as just another hazard, and not as some supernatural bogeyman.

Helping the public to overcome its irrational fear of radiation will require sustained effort, especially in the face of dedicated opposition that refuses to allow people to be reassured by our developing knowledge. On July 29, 2011, Matt Wald broke a story about a multi-year project to use state-of-the-art probabilistic risk assessment (PRA) models to reevaluate the potential consequences of worst case accidents at a nuclear power station. His article is titled N.R.C. Lowers Estimate of How Many Would Die in Meltdown.

One of the scenarios considered during the project was virtually identical to the initiating event at Fukushima—an earthquake-induced station blackout with no mitigating restoration of power before core damage and hydrogen explosions. The realism of the model assumptions can be validated by comparing them to the actual events—the analysts should be rightfully proud of their effort. The modeled timeline and the actual timeline are startlingly similar.

Here are words from the conclusion of the main report; they should reassure the public that the defense-in-depth approach to reactor engineering protects them from harm.

  • Individual early fatality risk is essentially zero
  • Individual latent cancer risk from the selected specific, important scenarios is thousands of times lower than the NRC Safety Goal and millions of times lower than all other cancer risks, even assuming the Linear No-threshold Theory dose response model.

(Emphasis added.)

Not surprisingly, the professional opposition to nuclear energy is working hard to spin the study results their own way. Ed Lyman, the often-quoted worrier from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), provided his organization’s response in a July 29, 2011, post titled NRC Study Shows the Serious Consequences of a Fukushima- Type Accident in the US. There is little doubt that UCS will publicize its pessimistic interpretation, but it should not be allowed to stand without some direct commentary by people with more understanding and confidence in the good news of the analysis.


Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.


5 thoughts on “Unwarranted fear of radiation can paralyze and prevent beneficial activity

  1. Pingback: Weekly Digest for August 8th » NA-YGN Southeast Region

  2. Jerry Cuttler

    I thought you might like to read and share my recent articles on fear of radiation and the LNT assumption, so I pasted the links below.

    Nuclear Energy and Health: And the Benefits of Low-Dose Radiation Hormesis,
    Jerry M. Cuttler and Myron Pollycove,
    Dose Response. 2009; 7(1): 52-89.

    Commentary on Using LNT for Radiation Protection and Risk Assessment
    Jerry M. Cuttler
    Dose Response. 2010; 8(3): 378-383.

    Editorial: Is Airport Body-Scan Radiation a Health Risk?
    Jerry M. Cuttler
    Dose Response. 2011; 9(1): 1-5.

  3. B.Dey

    I am very much in agreement with Mr. Rod Adam article. I have not read any of his publication and not aware that that he is one of pionneer in Shielding design. I am a Nuclear operator worked for 37 years in operation of nuclear power plants in India. I and many of my colleagues have worked with in 2 Rem/year permissible dose limit and some of them have received the removal category also. I know most of them that they are and including me are healthy and hearty and leading a retired life. No problem. I too feel this phobia of radiation from Fukushima is just bull-sheet. We at nuclear industry are well protected with the Radition Protection Procedures & Practices. I am grateful for this article as since some time I wanted to write such an artical but lack of will delayed me. Thanks Sir. I have been motivated.

  4. Dennis Mosebey

    I am a Rockwell fan. I have read both his books and I agree with him. The myths and costs of the linear non-threshold theory are amazing to me and are second only to global warming in their “bad science.” Yet the NRC hangs on. INPO hangs on. At the present time at my plant if we go over our weekly dose goal which is already in the order of millirem, respective managers must speak to it at the morning meeting!!!
    We call our yearly dose goals, radiation “safety” goals—when in reality they have nothing to do with safety. INPO continues to hold as an annual goal driving the dose goals for all plants lower and lower and intermnable ALARA meetings ensue where work groups agonize over cutting back on “millirem.”

    We do need to take counsel of Admiral Rickover’s sign. Thanks for the article about Mr. Rockwell–he has done his best to help us understand.

    Dennis Mosebey

  5. Susan

    Interestingly, Rockwell’s mentor – Admiral Rickover – in his final testimony to Congress said that he thought we’ll probably all die from atomic radiation caused by accidents.

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