Confronting fears of radioactivity

While the fears of people living in Japan are justified, the level of anxiety in the rest of the world has been quite disproportionate to the actual threat.

April 08, 2011 11:45 pm | Updated April 11, 2011 12:41 pm IST

This image made available from Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Kyodo News, shows the damaged No. 4 unit of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okumamachi, northeastern Japan, on Tuesday March 15, 2011. White smoke billows from the No. 3 unit.  (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power  Co. via Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO LICENSING IN CHINA, HONG KONG, JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA AND FRANCE

This image made available from Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Kyodo News, shows the damaged No. 4 unit of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex in Okumamachi, northeastern Japan, on Tuesday March 15, 2011. White smoke billows from the No. 3 unit. (AP Photo/Tokyo Electric Power Co. via Kyodo News) JAPAN OUT, MANDATORY CREDIT, NO LICENSING IN CHINA, HONG KONG, JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA AND FRANCE

It is almost a month since multiple disaster struck Japan. Yet not a single member of the public has been reported killed by radioactivity from the nuclear reactor complex in Fukushima. Meanwhile, estimates of the death toll due to the direct onslaught of the tsunami and the earthquake have long crossed 10,000 with many more injured and rendered homeless. Despite this, the radioactivity leaking out from Fukushima has received as much attention from the news media, the public and the governments of the world as the plight of the quake-tsunami victims. Such is the grip of the fear of radioactivity on the public! Is this level of fear warranted by objective facts?

Well, there is no denying that radioactivity can be extremely hazardous. A large dose of 10,000 milli-sieverts or more will kill you in days, and even a tenth of that dose can lead to acute radiation sickness of various ghastly forms. Even much smaller doses can increase the chances of your getting cancer. Therefore, whenever there is any mishap involving things nuclear, one can well understand the public's anxiety.

If the anxiety has often been excessive, one must try to understand why, rather than blame the public. There is a scary mysteriousness to nuclear radiation. It can penetrate the body, destroy internal organs, cause cancer and induce grotesque birth defects. Yet it is invisible, has no smell or colour. There are few immediate signs, apart from skin burns, of the terrible damage done to the interior of the body. The inability to detect nuclear radiation with the human senses, and the possibility of dreadful after-effects developing years later, has created an almost irrational dread in people's minds.

Adding to the mystification is the genuine difficulty in determining, in quantitative scientific terms, how much damage small radiation doses can do. Fatalities due to high doses are less in dispute, although fewer in reactor accidents. In the worst reactor explosion in history, at Chernobyl, altogether 62 people died from high doses in the vicinity. Astonishingly, these 62 (which include 34 workers sent into the reactor to control the damage) were the only fatalities that could be unambiguously attributed to radiation from Chernobyl. Undoubtedly Chernobyl killed many more people, but most would have died of cancer due to smaller doses farther away. The difficulty lies in estimating how many. A U.N. Chernobyl Forum study estimated about 4000 deaths over the years worldwide due to the fallout from Chernobyl. But this has been hotly disputed by others, some with estimates in the lakhs. Such disparities arise because low-dose induced cancers can develop slowly over years, and cannot be empirically distinguished from the much larger background of total cancer deaths due to other factors — various natural causes, tobacco, pesticides etc. Theoretically too, the no-threshold linear model, which would predict a larger death toll, is not universally accepted by all biologists. Unfortunately, this vast uncertainty is a fertile ground for unsubstantiated wild claims.

The response to Fukushima illustrates this. While the fears of people living in Japan about radioactive contamination are well justified, the level of anxiety in the rest of the world has been quite disproportionate to the actual threat. In Delhi, SMS messages were circulated warning people not to go out in the rain lest they be showered by radioactivity coming from Japan. In China, people started consuming iodised salt in large and potentially harmful quantities. Eventually, the WHO was compelled to call for calm on its Twitter page. Much farther away, drug stores in Russia's Far East and British Columbia have reported shortages of iodine pills. Californians, always game for health paranoia, also joined in stocking up with iodine pills. The news media, while reporting traces of fallout at various distant places, typically fail to mention how small those doses are. In fact the fallout from Fukushima in California was minuscule, as could have been predicted in advance. The Chernobyl fallout has been studied extensively and what fell on the U.K. was less dangerous, cancer-wise, than smoking a cigarette a year. In the Fukushima case, the radiation measured even as near as 50 km from the plant was 0.1 to 0.7 micro-seiverts/ hour. Continued exposure to that dosage even for a whole year would be less radiation than one CT scan.

The public is not expected to have expertise in radiation hazards, and cannot be blamed if it fears radiation dangers excessively. But governments and others who shape public opinion can be blamed. Unfortunately, sometimes they too pander to populist fears. For example, the German Foreign Minister described Fukushima, even as it was unfolding, as an “Apocalypse”. This was clearly an extreme assessment. Not even the Chernobyl disaster, much worse than Fukushima, could be termed an Apocalypse. The Germans promptly shut down seven of their older reactors despite having earlier decided to extend their lifetimes, which they must have no doubt done after a full review of their condition and safety features. Nothing happened at Fukushima to warrant reversing their own decision.

The Fukushima reactor explosions were caused, not by their age, condition or poor maintenance, but from a failure outside the reactor system — a disruption, due to the quake, of electric supply needed to pump water to cool the fuel rods. In fact the physical structures of all six reactors at Fukushima seem to have survived the direct onslaught of an 8.9 level earthquake followed by a giant Tsunami — a testimony to their sturdiness.

There is also much speculation that the Fukushima disaster will, or should, stop the emerging nuclear renaissance. That again would be a retrograde step. We are not blindly advocating nuclear energy here, as against wind, solar and other renewable sources, nor claiming that it will substantially mitigate global warming. Admittedly, these are all debatable. Public discussion on them has been going on for years. And the pros and cons are well known. Countries like India and China have decided, in the face of those pros and cons, to expand the nuclear sector to meet their energy requirements. The point is that, as we have argued already, the events in Fukushima do not fundamentally alter those arguments and do not call for changing that decision.

This is not to say that there are no lessons to be learnt from Fukushima. Indeed there are several. Criteria for locating reactors in areas prone to natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and hurricanes should be made even more stringent. In designing backup systems, as for instance in cooling the reactor, one should try to ensure that the different layers of back-up are not vulnerable to the same external disaster. Their utility as backups then fails, as happened in Fukushima. The problem of over-pressurisation in containment vessels and the resultant need to vent radioactive gases has to be addressed more stringently.

Turning to India, the Fukushima explosions should be taken as an opportunity to review and tighten up safety measures at all nuclear facilities. This our government is doing. We have to specially double-check the quake-resistance of the Narora plant and perhaps consider shifting the Jaitapur plant to a less earthquake prone zone. We should ensure that in the government's desire to rapidly expand our nuclear capacity, matters of safety are not compromised.

Finally, this is a good opportunity to demand greater transparency from nuclear establishments all over the world. This is overdue. The Fukushima disaster demonstrates the lack of credibility of nuclear agencies in the public's mind, as evidenced by the latter's lack of faith in official assurances. This is not an easy problem to solve. We live in an age where people want the benefits of extremely complex technology, but are also suspicious of it. In India our government as well as social activists must be proactive in educating the public about nuclear hazards, but in a responsible and balanced manner. Neither bland assurances nor the stoking of hysterical fears will serve the public good.

(R. Rajaraman is Emeritus Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and Co-Chair, International Panel on Fissile Materials.)

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