Radiation and Reason: Q&A with Oxford’s Wade Allison

A simple question: How many radiation casualties have there been at Fukushima?
with a factual answer: None at all (and none are predicted in the next 50 years).”

Wade Allison, Oxford University

That excerpt from the website RadiationandReason.com captures the central tenet of the book Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear, written two years before Fukushima by Wade Allison, Professor of Physics at Oxford University. The book explains how radiation is quite safe at the levels we’ve been exposed to, despite what most people think. Forum on Energy caught up with Allison to get his take on myths and misconceptions about radiation; why radiation used in medicine is seen as safe while nuclear radiation is not; and how to shift thinking toward a more reasoned approach to radiation in all its forms.

Forum on Energy: Tell us a little bit about your book and what motivated you to write it?

Wade Allison: From my knowledge of nuclear physics and radiation, and also the course I give on medical physics at Oxford, I came to realize the complete mismatch between attitudes to radiation in medical matters and to radiation in the environment. For instance, in Japan people are now paying good money to receive radiation for their health using beneficial scans. At the same time others have been evacuated from their homes as a result of the accident at Fukishima, to escape radiation exposures far less than in many medical procedures. I think that people don’t realize that and I thought I should try to explain. I am a teacher and a researcher, and I like to make things simple—I hope that that I have done that successfully. For instance, I was persuaded to avoid equations in my book to make it easier to follow.

Forum on Energy: Can you tell us how and why your interest moved from particle physics into medical physics?

Wade Allison: I did my graduate study and most of my experiments over the years in particle physics, and they involved working with nuclear physics and electromagnetic radiation. About fifteen years ago I started a new course on medical physics that included the wonderful applications of mathematics and physical measurement that give us modern medical images and therapy treatment too. I talked to practising radiologists at the hospital and discussed with physics students how physics and mathematics work together in a medical setting and this was very exciting for the students, I think. However, nobody else was attacking the problem of radiation and the extent to which it is harmful. There is much expertise in science where people know all about a single discipline, a thin salami slice as it were, but few can put a case together on a broad interdisciplinary front in the way needed to examine the safety of radiation, for instance. So I thought that that is what I should try to do.

Forum on Energy: Who do you imagine reading your book and what do you hope they will take away from it?

Wade Allison: Oh yes, those are the questions! I want to speak to thoughtful people with a reasonable attention span. The subject is not too complicated but it is unfamiliar and does require a reader to concentrate a bit. They don’t have to be scientists, they don’t need mathematical expertise, they just have to be interested and have a good dose of common sense. You know people aren’t always as stupid as the press makes them out to be. In public lectures I have found that people are responsive and want to learn, as soon as they find that I do not have an agenda. They do not want to be lectured at or instructed what to think. I want them to understand for themselves and reach their own conclusions.

Forum on Energy: Do you think there are people who are neutral on nuclear energy or really just have an open mind and want to learn about it? Or do you think people come into it with a strong opinion one way or another?

Wade Allison: Some people are frightened, they are not neutral but they listen at least. Others find nuclear radiation distasteful and don’t want to know really. They imagine nuclear as something that happens in government bunkers far from sight. They have never thought about engaging with it and they believe it is complicated. The task is to interest them, “Oh, you mean me? I can learn about it?” It is all a legacy of the Cold War that nuclear is frightening and something to run away from. People need to realize that some of this politically inspired fear over nuclear radiation was overblown. The bang and fire of a nuclear bomb is very rare indeed and doesn’t happen in an accident; the radiation is harmless by comparison, with regards to exposure as a result of a nuclear accident. As in all human affairs there are those who encourage fear and seek the political influence that it brings, but their claims usually lack substance, even though they may not understand that themselves.

Forum on Energy: What do you think are some of the most common misperceptions about radiation out there?

Wade Allison: I don’t think people realize that radiation used in medicine (often treated with an amber warning sign, as it were) and radiation in the natural environment (often regarded as ‘green’ and safe) and the radiation that comes from nuclear accidents (regarded as red and dangerous)—all these forms of radiation are more or less the same, and their intensities don’t match what people would guess. Thus radiation doses in medicine are generally much higher than any received in an accident, and yet are beneficial to health. As for natural or ‘green’ radiation, it is the natural radioactivity inside the Earth that provides the heat, which is responsible for all volcanoes and earthquakes, including the tsunami that recently killed over 18,000 people in Japan. But radiation from the stricken reactors in Fukushima didn’t kill anybody. People really need to know that we live in a natural living world where radiation is everywhere about us—and in our own bodies too—and that natural radiation isn’t necessarily so weak, and that artificial man-made radiation isn’t necessarily so harmful either.

Forum on Energy: What is the best way to go about shifting this thinking around these misconceptions?

Wade Allison: It is a question of public education and reassurance. In my book, instead of using equations, I have used analogies. One analogy I have used is ultraviolet (UV) in sunlight. Actually it is an example more than an analogy because UV is a form of the ionising radiation we are talking about. We all know it can be dangerous, can cause skin cancer, can be fatal and in the short term it can kill cells and cause inflammation and sunburn. But that doesn’t mean to say that when we go on holiday we choose a safe location six feet underground, where it is absolutely dark and we are guaranteed no sunlight for the whole of our summer vacation. Such holidays don’t sell very well! We are more sensible than that. We take advice and put on sun block. We are careful and tell children what to do. There are no international committees on it and we enjoy our summer vacations. Actually it is dangerous and many get skin cancer and die. But we wouldn’t stop the world and threaten the economy because of it. But that is what is happening in the name of radiation from nuclear accidents that kill no one.

Forum on Energy: In your book you speak a lot about how evolution and biology naturally protect us from any radiation effects. Can you explain this in a bit more detail?

Wade Allison: Sure. Why has nobody died at Fukushima? Nuclear is very powerful and we might expect that it would be very dangerous to life. But it isn’t! And the reason is biology. Biology has been working for hundreds of millions of years evolving ways to protect cells from radiation and indeed from other attacks by oxygen, smoking and anything else that disrupts the DNA. Evolution was working at this long before there were thinking human beings. The body’s natural radiation protection mechanisms happen without telling our brains—they were needed for the cells of plants and animals too. So we are all quite unconscious of the protection we are receiving from radiation, although the cells of our body certainly communicate with one another and help one another to overcome the effects of radiation. That is extremely good news.

Forum on Energy: What role do you envision for nuclear power in addressing climate change?

Wade Allison: I am impressed by the rapid loss of polar ice and the unprecedented rise in the concentration of atmospheric CO2. These are not fluctuations and if you look over periods of millions of years they have never changed as rapidly as they are now. I find that very alarming indeed. Nuclear power does not create CO2, but it will enable us to have more electric cars. We can also irradiate food and reduce the need for refrigeration. Nuclear power can be used for the large scale desalination of water in many parts of the world—drinking water is the major problem in world health. Nuclear power can only provide these benefits, if we can get over the unjustified fear.

Forum on Energy: Where should we go from here?

Wade Allison: The main thing we have to do, the most difficult thing, is to change the basis of present legislation, which is a thousand times too cautious. It was set up to reassure people about radiation. The politicians in the sixties and seventies were able to say to the electorate, “Don’t worry, we will ensure that radiation is kept as low as possible in your lives.” People liked that and they voted for it, in spite of the fact that radiation many thousands of times higher is given to healthy organs and tissue when oncologists use radiation to kill a cancerous tumour. This happens every day in every hospital, and most people know someone who has benefited from such treatment. So high levels of radiation are familiar and their effects are known. The kind of radiation doses people get in nuclear accidents is nowhere near the level used in medical treatment; which is why nobody died at Fukushima and why no one is going to. Of course you need to look at the numbers, but they are not difficult and can be found in my book or website with references to where they come from.

There are a lot of vested interests in maintaining the status quo. There are a lot of jobs for people in the safety industry who rely on and look to the continuation of this present regime of punitive safety that has blighted so many lives in Japan. It is very expensive for the nuclear industry to carry this enormous safety regime which brings no benefit at all. Nuclear technology could be much cheaper, perhaps half the price, without these severe restrictions. Nuclear waste has to be dealt with properly and transparently, but so should waste from coal mining and the oil industry. It is not a global problem.

Forum on Energy: Is there anything else you want to mention?

Wade Allison: The world needs an economic boost. The electronic and software boom has run out of steam. Nuclear power has the opportunity to provide jobs and opportunities that will be prizes for those economies that take it on board. At the moment those would be Russia, South Korea, China and India. Recently China built a reactor loaded with fuel inside four years. For the U.S., U.K., Europe and Japan to sit this out would be crazy. So I hope we will engage with it. Saving energy is not going to be enough and wind power is not going to be enough. Japan is clearly in a dilemma about what to do. But there is also the need for a big educational push. Education should come, not too much from the industry, not too much from government—it should be provided at arm’s length by academics, doctors and others in the medical profession to explain to people why they should not worry about radiation. I think we need to wake up. We were given brains—we should use them to learn about radiation clearly and rationally.

>>Find out more about the book, Radiation and Reason: The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear.
>>For more on radiation, check out our Radiation Resource Guide