Wayne Biddle: Q&A on “A Field Guide to Radiation”

Wayne Biddle, Author of "A Field Guide to Radiation"

One of the goals of  Forum on Energy is to empower readers to make informed judgments about nuclear power and radiation. In light of that goal, we have compiled a Radiation Resource Guide and often write on the topic of radiation.

Today, in an effort to further expand our readers’ knowledge base on radiation, we’re posting an interview with Pulitzer Prize winning author and journalist Wayne Biddle. Biddle is the author of the forthcoming A Field Guide to Radiation, being released on July 31. The book is described as “an essential, engaging handbook that offers wisdom and common sense for today’s increasingly nuclear world.”

We chatted with Biddle to hear his thoughts on what he hopes his book will accomplish, why radiation is such a complex topic to understand, and much more.

Forum On Energy: For those of our readers who haven’t gotten their hands on the book yet, tell us a little bit about A Field Guide to Radiation. What was your motivation for writing it?

Wayne Biddle: Well, the title is obviously a bit tongue-in-cheek. This is not the kind of field guide where you can walk out in the woods and identify something, although it’s a serious title to me because field guides are a wonderful way of organizing a lot of potentially complex information. Even a bird guide categorizes a lot of things for lay readers, as well as experts, and I hope that that is what A Field Guide to Radiation will accomplish. It’s a sometimes complicated subject, but it’s amenable to the kind of language that we all speak.

As far as motivation, last year during the Fukushima disaster, I was struck immediately by its resemblance, as far as communication was concerned, with the Three Mile Island disaster way back in 1979. I dug out of my records a quotation, which I’m going to read quickly.

“The nuclear trade jargon, the statements of competing experts, and the gap between [local and national] government all made it quite easy to understand how five different stories could come out of a single press conference through no fault of the reporters involved. . . .The [utility] company issued statements in the early days that proved to be something less than accurate and its credibility as a reliable source of information eroded rather quickly. My office continued throughout the crisis to monitor what company officials were saying, but we began to look elsewhere to determine what really was happening.”

That’s not a Japanese official during Fukushima. That’s Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh testifying before a Presidential Commission after the Three Mile Island disaster. So, just an amazing resonance between those two events showing that in many ways nothing has changed. When that hit me, I decided it was time for me to write this book.

Forum On Energy: You write in your book that perhaps we’re not prepared to deal with radiation risks, and that resonated with the quote, “We live under a kind of duress for which we did not evolve.” How do you think we have adapted to this fear, and is there a way to move forward that takes risks into account, but also balances those with potential benefits?

Wayne Biddle: I’m not sure about adaptation. When I used that language about living under a kind of duress for which we did not evolve, I meant that as a species we didn’t evolve under conditions of the extent of radiation, the amount of exposure that we can have now. There is, of course, always has been, natural background radiation. But the acute exposures and the long term low level exposure that we now experience above and beyond natural background are what we didn’t evolve for.

Management of exposure becomes the crucial factor here. The medical profession has been progressing for more than 100 years now with how to manage radiation exposure and to reap benefits from it with careful analysis of risks. The rest of the world of industrial, occupational exposure to radiation is not nearly as far along. Maybe it can’t be because the sources are far more complex and subject to economic and political forces that are much more difficult to come to terms with. But if there’s a model out there somewhere, it’s probably in the medical profession.

Forum On Energy: Why is radiation such a complex subject to understand? You talked a bit about this in the book, that it’s so convoluted and potentially can complicate the communications around it. Why is that?

Wayne Biddle: I think for the non-expert, it has something to do with the fact that radiation can’t be detected by our senses. We can’t see or feel it, so that makes it more mysterious, of course. Also, the units that are used, the measurement units that are used are really confusing. And this is something that even the experts freely acknowledge. And so when a public event happens, such as Fukushima, Three Mile Island or Chernobyl, and media storm in to try to describe what’s happening, they inevitably fall into the swamp of scientific measuring units. And I have yet to see anybody really get it consistently right in the news media. Boy, you have to be really ready. I hope my book helps readers with that.

A third factor is probably that there are different types of radiation that have different biological effects. Some kinds of radiation consist of subatomic particles. Alpha and beta radiation, for example, are actually particles. Other kinds of radiation are electromagnetic waves, x-rays and gamma rays. So they all have different physical properties. When it comes time to judge the effect of radiation on us, on our bodies, on our health, it is not a straightforward subject. It requires a little bit of finesse. Again, I hope my book will help sort that out.

Forum On Energy: Do you think the dense nature of the material makes it easy to misconstrue the risk that’s associated with radiation, that there’s a fear of such an unknown? Does that play a role in communication about the risk?

Wayne Biddle: That’s sort of a generic question about any subject that requires a special language and a bit of expertise. Once even the non-expert acquires a bit of familiarity with the specialized language that’s used in talking about radiation and understands a little bit about the physical properties, a little bit of the science here, then the risks will not be misconstrued.

Back in 2006 the National Academy of Sciences published a very important report called “The Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation–Report Number 7” [BEIR VII]. The report’s principal conclusion was that there is no such thing as a risk-free exposure to radiation. It has a public summary that is written in very clear language that does a great job of talking about the risks from low level exposures to radiation occupationally, industrially, medically, et cetera. It represents a broad – the broadest consensus in the scientific community. It ought to be standard reading, especially for journalists who cover these catastrophes.

So it is possible with a little bit of preparation to get a firm grip on this subject. I’m optimistic about that. It’s another reason why I wrote this book, because I think it can be done.

Forum On Energy: Who do you imagine reading this book and what do you hope that they will come out of it with?

Wayne Biddle: My vision of readership is the same vision of readership that I would have for a field guide for birds: someone who is, first of all, interested in these natural phenomena, wants to organize a rather complicated subject in their minds. In this case, of course, we’re not talking about birds, we’re talking about something that’s been demonstrated to be dangerous. It’s something we’re all living with, whether we know it or not. Anybody who lives within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant I would hope would have this book on a shelf along with a few dosimeters.

Radiation is a fact of our existence now. It’s going to be that way even if all the nuclear power plants were shut down tomorrow and the nuclear weapons were dismantled. The amount of fuel that has been created since World War II to make power plants and weapons possible, that fuel is going to be around for tens of thousands of years. We don’t know what to do with it, don’t know how to put it away safely.

These issues are going to be around for a long time – for generations and generations. My book is aimed at the general public who is faced with living with these matters whether a crisis occurs or not.

Forum On Energy: You’ve mentioned the 2006 NAS report being a demonstration of scientific consensus. One of the reports that we’ve seen came from MIT, touching on low level radiation exposure. Are you familiar with that study and how would it impact what you view as the scientific community’s perspective on low level radiation?

Wayne Biddle: Well, in the United States, we simply do not have a broader mechanism for scientific consensus than the National Academy of Sciences. That’s as high as it gets. And it takes years for them to put out these reports. They do it – they’ve been doing it on a regular basis since the early 1970s, I believe. So these reports are really the bible. And until the next one comes out, which, as always, will take into account the latest research, the strongest consensus we have on the subject of health risks and low level radiation exposure is the report 7 that I mentioned.

>>Read up on radiation using our Radiation Resource Guide.