For nuclear energy to flourish, we need a ‘mindset reversal’ about radiation

  • Date: 25/11/20
  • Robert Bryce, Forbes

The future of nuclear power projects in the UK and elsewhere hinges on disabusing the public of its excessive fear of radiation. 

Nuclear energy must grow – and grow rapidly – if the countries of the world are to have any hope of limiting the growth of carbon dioxide emissions. 

But the growth of nuclear is being hobbled by several factors including cost and the long licensing and construction schedules for new reactors. Those high costs and long schedules can largely be traced back to a single issue: the public’s excessive fear of radiation. That excessive fear of radiation is preventing nuclear energy from being deployed at scale here in the U.S. and around the world and in doing so, it is hindering low-income and wealthy countries alike from benefiting from the single best source of low-cost, zero-carbon, high-power-density electricity known to science. 

Despite this fear — and the mistaken belief that any radiation is dangerous — the truth is that we are constantly being hit with radiation from our surroundings. In fact, the radiation we get from flying in jetliners or having a CT scan is as great, or greater, than the radiation that is absorbed by the people who live close to Chernobyl or Fukushima.

Don’t take my word for it. Those are points that Dr. Geraldine Thomas, the director of the Chernobyl Tissue Bank, has been making for years. Gerry, as she prefers to be called, has a PhD. in pathology and is a faculty member at Imperial College London. Since the early 1990s, she has been overseeing the collection and banking of tissue samples from people who’ve had surgery after being exposed to radiation in the fallout area near the Chernobyl nuclear plant in northern Ukraine. Her work at Chernobyl and Fukushima makes her uniquely qualified to assess the risks from radiation. 

In 2011, She wrote a piece in The Guardian about the wrong-headed fear of radiation in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident. “The recent frenzy following the events in Japan suggests that the media are keen to feed our nuclear fears, by focusing on exposure to radiation that is extremely unlikely to result in a single death, compared with a natural catastrophe that has killed at least 20,000 people and displaced more than 100,000.” She continued, “Radiation risk must be put into context. The consequences for the most-exposed group of atomic bomb survivors was an average loss of life expectancy significantly lower than that caused by severe obesity or smoking.”

During a recent episode of the Power Hungry Podcast, Thomas told me that most people have difficulty making sense of radiation dosing and what constitutes a dangerous dose. The amount of radiation a person gets from a whole-body CT scan is about 10 millisieverts, which, she explained, is about the same dose incurred by people living near Chernobyl get “spread out over 20-odd years.” 

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see also GWPF report Dangers Of nuclear energy ‘much less than previously thought’

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