In a recent op-ed in The New York Times, David Ropeik, Harvard professor and risk expert, contrasts the scientifically observed effects of ionizing radiation (the type produced by nuclear reactions) in the wake of the World War II, Chernobyl and Fukushima with the psychological effects of said radiation. Ropeik cites researchers who followed 112,600 Japanese people — 86,611 who had been within 10 kilometers of the center of the Hiroshima or Nagasaki nuclear detonations and 26,000 who were not exposed. Of those who were exposed, the cancer mortality rate increased by only two-thirds of one percent. Additionally, research has shown that ionizing radiation has no multi-generational effects on humans.
However, Ropeik does not deny the health effects of nuclear radiation. Instead of our popular conception of the damage caused by nuclear radiation, Ropeik cites a 20-year study done by the World Health Organization that found the psychological impacts of a nuclear radiation release did more damage to humans than the radiation itself, stating much of the damage was caused by “an exaggerated sense of dangers to health of exposure to radiation.” For instance, levels of obesity in Fukushima have spiked as schools have stopped sending children outside to play in areas that have been deemed safe by the Japanese government. This is on top of significantly elevated levels of stress, anxiety and depression that are connected to the nuclear accident, but not caused by any discernible effect of the radiation released.
Ropeik’s assertions add valuable insight into the conversation about nuclear accident recovery and emergency planning. He advocates an effort to help communities to understand and plan for the real risks of radiation, rather than the fear of radiation. Stating “without a much broader and persistent effort by various branches and levels of government to help the public understand the actual biological effects of radiation, we will continue to face the threat of deep historic nuclear fears that simply don’t match the facts.”
Read the full op-ed from The New York Times.
Bonus Link: Explore Forum on Energy’s Radiation Resource Guide.