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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.

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Chernobyl minor by some standards

“There’s a lack of objectivity sometimes in the responses of people,” he adds. “[The Fukushima crisis] needs to be viewed comparatively with other incidents much more deadly.”

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Consider other industrial disasters, such as the 1984 leak of methyl isocyanate at a Union Carbide plan in Bhopal, India that killed some 20,000 people. It is one of many industrial disasters known by doctors to have directly killed thousands of people.

“Chernobyl was bad,” says Bushberg. “[But] in the general category of industrial disasters… no, it wasn’t so bad. Certainly one could quickly find industrial accidents that have resulted in much more serious affects than Chernobyl.”

And even then, Chernobyl was a very different incident from what is now unfolding at Fukushima Daiichi. Chernobyl’s reactor lacked a containment facility, unlike the Fukushima plant, whose GE-made containment vessels have withstood both an earthquake, tsunami, and thus far, a partial meltdown.

“It is blown out of proportion in the US,” says Najmedin Meshkati, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, who has studied both Chernobyl and Japan’s nuclear industry.

“We shouldn’t make a comparison between this one and Chernobyl. Primarily because over there there was no containment vessel, and the reactor exploded. We have partial meltdowns and so far they have been contained,” adds Dr. Meshkati.

Radiation all around

While workers in protective jumpsuits and ominous three-pronged radiation warning symbols flashing across television screens evoke fear, it is important to keep in mind that we are exposed to radiation waves all the time, be it from mobile phones, medical devices, or mere sunlight.

The average American receives 2.95 millisieverts of radiation per year. Meanwhile, the Federal Aviation Administration’s recommended limit (pdf) for an aircrew member is a five-year average effective dose of 20 millisieverts per year, with no more than 50 millisieverts in a single year. According to the National Council on Radiation Protection Measurements, the average airline crew member is exposed to 1.5 times more work-related radiation than the average employee in the nuclear power industry.

And their exposure varies widely depending on their flight routes. Jetting from Seattle to Portland would expose someone to 0.00017 millisieverts. A flight from Athens to New York City would expose you to 0.0613 millisieverts, according to the FAA. None of these doses are harmful, the FAA says, despite popular fears.

When it comes to nuclear power, says Bushberg of the University of California, "there is a lot of misinformation."

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