Today’s Opinion: A fresh perspective on radiation

POSTED: 03/19/11 8:43 PM

Here is an opinion that we really like – a piece that offers a fresh perspective to all those people who seem to think that the earthquake and the tsunami that hit Japan and in particular its nuclear power plants is as close as we’ll ever get to the end of the world before the lights go out forever.

The media hysteria about radiation levels is according to physicist Arnout Jaspers a gross exaggeration of what is really going on. In an inspired piece that was published in the Volkskrant – not exactly a rightwing scaremonger – Jaspers explains that the real effects will be rather limited.

We are not physicists ourselves, so we do no claim to have any expertise or specialized knowledge to judge the merits of the point Jaspers is making in his piece. But because it is so different from the hysterical reporting in the Telegraaf, to name just one example (Nuclear disaster threatens Japan, one of its headlines read earlier this week) it is worth considering his point of view and the information he brings to the table.

We understand that people are concerned when mega-disasters of this magnitude occur. Fear is a very humane condition, but it often gets in the way of rational thinking.

So what did Jaspers have to say about disaster-stricken Japan? First of all, he is also highly critical of the engineers who planned the nuclear power plants. How did they get it into their heads to build six nuclear reactors next to each other along the waterfront in an area where it is only a matter of time before an earthquake and a subsequent tsunami hits? If the reactors had been built two kilometers away from the shore on a hill, none of this would have happened, Jaspers observes. He concedes that nuclear reactors need lots of cooling water and remarks rather cynically that it must have been cheaper to build them close to the water. A clear case of penny wise and pound foolish.

Jaspers also fails to understand how it is possible that engineers were incapable to do something basic like filling the water basins that hold the nuclear fuel rods with water. “The engineers that ignored such a logical failure scenario ought to be deeply ashamed of themselves,” Jaspers wrote.

But his real criticism does not target the engineers, it targets the media. Newspapers and TV-stations throw themselves in a state of fearful psychoses as soon as they hear the word radiation, Jaspers wrote. The absurd effect is that the media reports suggest that the real disaster still has to happen, in spite of the thousands of deaths that resulted from the earthquake and the tsunami. That disaster is supposedly going to be caused by a possibly leaking nuclear reactor.

This is how Jaspers evaluates the situation: “The simple fact is that, because the neighbors were evacuated in a timely manner, even a complete meltdown will not cause a single acute radiation victim among the population.”

The physicist wrote that it is “completely ridiculous” that the NOS News and other broadcasters have withdrawn their teams from Japan. “Journalists who do not dare to stay in Tokyo in case of a meltdown in Fukushima are not worth their salt, because they have failed to inform themselves. No wonder that there have been speculations about the evacuation of 35 million people from the Tokyo-region. That, Jaspers wrote, is a brilliant piece of exaggeration. “Even if Chernobyl had been on the Fukushima location, this would not have been an issue.”

The term contamination that is always used in the context of radiation is most unfortunate, Jaspers wrote. Why? It makes people believe unconsciously that exposure to radiation is a matter of all or nothing, akin to an infection with a deadly virus. Jaspers acknowledges that people may become seriously ill from a high level of radiation, and that they may die from extremely high levels.

“But a little bit of radiation means absolutely nothing,” he points out. Jaspers accuses environmental organizations of decades of agitation and misinformation and that the result is that people are no longer able to understand that there is no fundamental difference between radiation-risks and the risks linked to for instance smoking, drinking alcohol or driving a motor bike. For smoking and drinking, the total dose determines the risk level, and this also applies to exposure to radiation.

Jaspers gives an interesting example to make his point. When the general radiation level in Tokyo reached levels that were 20 to 40 times higher than normal, this seemed very alarming. “But why is there not a single journalist to point out that in some populated areas in Brazil, China and India the natural radiation level is always twenty times higher than in Tokyo, and those people are not unhealthier that Tokyo’s residents.”

Jaspers holds that the irrational fear of radiation stems for the better part from the perceived disastrous effects of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Estimates about the number of victims from this disaster vary wildly, “into the hundreds of thousands if you prefer to believe Greenpeace.” Those victims would have caught cancer from the radio-active cloud that spread in 1986 from the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl across Russia and Europe. The incubation time of many of these cancers is between 20 and 40 years, Jaspers points out – and it is not possible to make a distinction between cancers caused by radiation and other cancers.

Jaspers concludes that many of the “Chernobyl-deaths” are still walking the earth. “It is possible that you, reader, are one of those Chernobyl-deaths.”

It is clear that Jaspers contests the estimates that assume astronomical numbers of victims. He points out in his opinion piece that there is only prove that a couple of dozen of people who worked at the Chernobyl plant after the explosion died of an overdose of radiation. Children in a wide area around Chernobyl “probably” attracted significantly more often thyroid cancer – “but practically all of them have been cured.”

In spite of extensive research, Jaspers wrote, there are no indications for further negative effects on the public health.

Jaspers ends his piece with a cynical address to TV-journalists that have opted out of Japan. He wrote that they have a 30 percent chance to attract cancer – like everybody else. To run a 5 percent higher risk, you have to absorb a radiation dose of 1,000 milliSievert. “Even the hundreds of thousands of laborers that cleaned up the mess around Chernobyl never reached those levels. You may therefore peacefully remain in Tokyo.”

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