Fear of Japan's nuclear crisis far exceeds actual risks, say scientists
Pop culture has long helped fuel an irrational fear of radiation, and dire warnings about Japan's embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are likely overblown, scientists say.
Radiation is all around us, varying with the number of miles we fly, the elevation of our towns, and the minerals in our environments, scientists point out. We live with it, and most of the time it is harmless.
“There is an increased level of anxiety disproportionate to the actual risk,” says Jerrold Bushberg, who directs programs in health physics at the University of California at Davis. “It’s the dose that makes the poison. It’s not a binary thing.”
Fear and hype surround radiation, which has become something of a bogeyman in part because of popular culture. A radioactive spider bit Peter Parker and turned him into Spiderman. Bruce Banner absorbed radiation in a bomb explosion and became The Incredible Hulk. Radiation from nuclear detonations morphed a small lizard into Godzilla.
“It gives you subliminal messages about the capacity of radiation to do harm,” Professor Bushberg says in a telephone interview.
'Crazy' for Americans to be worried
To be sure, the 1986 nuclear meltdown north of Ukraine’s capital was tragic. Dozens of first-responders died within months from what doctors said was a combination of high radiation, trauma, and burns. It also led to cancer in hundreds of children, says Bushberg, who did environmental studies around Chernobyl in the late 1980s.
But the extent of devastation from Chernobyl is hotly debated.
“After more than 20 years of extensive study, there is no consistent evidence of increased birth defects, leukemia, or most other radiation-related diseases,” journalist Peter Hessler wrote in a 2010 article for The New Yorker. He said the only public epidemic consists of high rates of cancer in children, who tend to be more sensitive to radiation.
Even those incidences of cancer could have been prevented, scientists say, if the Soviet government had warned locals against feeding contaminated milk to their children.
Despite the scale of Chernobyl, none of that radioactivity spread to the United States, according to Bushberg, and it is very unlikely that any significant amount will spread to the US from the unfolding nuclear crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant (also known as Fukushima I).
A buy-up of potassium iodide tablets, which some say guard against some effects of radiation exposure, is “premature” in America, he says, and concerns over contaminated Japanese exports are also alarmist.
“That’s crazy, absolutely crazy,” agrees Shan Nair, a former nuclear physicist who was one of two UK experts assisting the European Commission in the post-accident Chernobyl response. “It’s important to have a sense of proportion here.”