Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Scary Fairy Tales
The Irrational Fear of Radiation

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, March 22, 2011 --  

Public fear created by the Japanese nuclear accident will probably doom the renaissance of nuclear power.

A full week of steadily more alarming news from the tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant took a sharp turn over the weekend, when reporting shifted from overheating and igniting fuel rods to the detection of radiation in the Japanese food supply.

This turn of events is both good news and bad news. It is good news because the stabilization of the fuel temperature means the worst of the crisis is likely over. It is bad news because public hysteria has not lessened as the real danger has morphed into nonsense scare stories about the risk to the food supply. This is a bad omen for the much anticipated renaissance of the nuclear power industry.

The detection of radiation in milk, spinach, and other greens grown near the plant is no surprise, given the release of radioactive steam from the plant at several times over the past 10 days. The radioactive particles carried with the steam inevitably landed on surrounding farmland and dairies. Given the relatively low levels of radiation involved, and the likelihood that the levels will dissipate before long, the only reason it is news is because of a lack of more alarming reports from the plant itself.

But food scare stories will probably have great lasting power. When comparing this incident to the far more serious 1986 Chernobyl disaster, news reports often cite 4000 thyroid cancers that resulted -- largely from children who drank radioactive milk over an extended period. The source of this figure is a 2005 World Health Organization study of the long-term health effects of the accident. What is almost never quoted from this report however, is that the cases were the result of drinking milk many times more radioactive than that in Japan, that only nine people died from these easily treated cancers, and the cumulative death toll from the disaster, almost two decades later, was still only 50 people.1

This level of human impact is totally out of proportion to the level of fear that resulted from Chernobyl. Fear outstripping risk is even more true of the Fukushima Daiichi incident, which is far, far less serious. Consider the irrational panic that has ensued amongst people in California, who snatched up the entire stock of potassium iodide pills from a Los Angeles company, despite only trace elevation in natural background radiation from a plant thousands of miles away.2

While it is certainly unseemly that Americans were struggling to save themselves from an imaginary radiation risk, when tens of thousands of Japanese were actually dead (and some still buried alive) from a very real tsunami, the bigger problem is that this is a harbinger of things to come. These Californians may be crackpots, but many will be at the forefront of the coming movement to block America's new generation of nuclear power plants. And given the mysteriousness of the invisible property of radiation, their scary fairy tales will easily overpower any scientific reasoning. America's nuclear renaissance is probably doomed.

To be fair, this is not just the fault of a hysterical public. The problems at the Fukoshima Daiichi plant are not fairy tales. The plant came very close to a meltdown that would have made the surrounding area uninhabitable for many decades. This is no trivial matter.

Further, while it is easy to blame the earthquake and tsunami, plenty more blame must be given to plant operators, who were slow to respond with strong measures until a meltdown was a very real possibility. And the design of the plant itself -- which relies on functional power grid rather than a passive system like gravity-driven river to cool its fuel rods -- is inappropriate, especially for an earthquake and tsunami prone area. Consider that the spent fuel storage pool is irresponsibly located on a second story where it is highly vulnerable to cracks and loss of water. The absence of a passive failsafe design in the four-decade-old plant is nothing short of hubris. It was a disaster waiting to happen, and never should have been allowed.

This could be food for thought for the next generation of nuclear power plants -- if there ever are any. Without a forceful public education campaign to combat the irrational fear of radiation, nuclear power has a bleak future in the developed world.

Related Web Columns:

Breaking the Logjam
The Russian Alternative for Nuclear Waste
, July 11, 2006

Bury the Waste, Not the Debate, December 21, 2004

Atomic Capitalism
The End of Government's Nuclear Monopoly
, June 30, 1998


1. World Health Organization, Chernobyl: The True Scale of the Accident, September 5, 2005

2. New York Daily News, Radiation from Japan's Fukoshima Daiichi Nuclear Plant Reaches California; Experts Expect No Risk, March 18, 2011