Special Report: Radiation fears may be greatly exaggerated

CHICAGO Fri Mar 18, 2011 4:08pm EDT

1 of 2. Members of the Indonesia Nuclear Energy Regulatory Agency (BAPETEN) scan passengers arriving from Japan for radiation exposure at the Sukarno-Hatta airport in Jakarta March 18, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Supri

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CHICAGO (Reuters) - As workers struggle to contain the fallout from the crippled nuclear plant in northeastern Japan, people as far away as Illinois are calling public health officials in a state of panic.

They are hoping to get their hands on potassium iodide pills to protect them from radiation -- despite warnings that, in the absence of a real nuclear threat, taking the medicine is riskier than doing nothing.

Sixty-six years after the first atomic bomb exploded over the city of Hiroshima, radiation spooks people everywhere. But the anxiety is largely disproportionate to the actual danger.

"People in general have an exaggerated fear of radiation. That is true in the United States, and it is probably even more so in Japan," said Jerrold Bushberg, director of health physics programs and clinical professor of radiology and radiation oncology at the University of California Davis.

Despite the Japanese government's assurances that the risk so far is minimal, residents of Tokyo have flooded out of the city and foreigners have fled the country, hoping to escape a threat they cannot see.

The fact is that everyone is exposed to small amounts of radiation every day just from living on earth or flying in an airplane. That all adds up to about 2.4 units, known as millisieverts, a year. This can vary widely, ranging from 1 to 10 millisieverts, depending on where you live.

Background radiation will cause 1 out of 100 people to die of cancer in their lifetimes, said Dr. Donald Bucklin, who spent 10 years as medical director for the Palo Verde nuclear plant in Arizona, the largest nuclear plant in the United States. Additional exposure increases this risk.

In Tokyo, 150 miles from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, people grew fearful when readings rose about 10 times above the normal reading. At that level, residents were exposed to 0.809 microsieverts per hour -- 1,000 times less than a millisievert, or about 10 times less than a chest X-ray.

"The levels of radiation experienced by the public at present should be no cause for concern," said Dr. Richard Wakeford, visiting professor of epidemiology at the Dalton Nuclear Institute at University of Manchester in Britain.

"To put radiation doses into context, many Japanese undergo CT scans for cancer screening purposes, and these scans produce radiation doses of about 10 millisieverts (10,000 microsieverts) -- much more than they are receiving from the Fukushima reactors."

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Comments (52)
cybernoelie wrote:
I went through your convoluted sign up procedure because I had to ask:

Doesn’t Reuters feel even the smallest particle [sic] of complicity and therefore guilt in helping cause the widespread panic even as far as the USA.

I refer you to your articles:
“West Coast radiation risk low, but fears persist” and
“Low radioactivity seen heading towards N.America”.

The constant race to deliver news re Fukushima has seen numerous conflicting and often completely technically inaccurate (re nuclear reactors) reports not to mention apocalyptic insinuations with constant references to TMI and Chernobyl despite experts from all over the planet stating categorically that this “catastrophe” was never going to be another Chernobyl.

I understand that you’re a commercial organisation but when so many other media outlets depend on you surely you must have some sense of responsibilty towards your ‘customers’, the ‘consumers’ of your products?

I’ve been battling against the apocalyptic hyperbole surrounding Fukushima for the last six days via Twitter and Facebook, I’m not a physicist nor a nuclear engineer yet I was able to do some basic research and I taught myself the basics of the technology in a few short hours so that I could have an informed viewpoint.

It’s the race to be first (and to be the most dramatic) that brought the USA and the UK into war with Iraq. Again, I educated myself with regards to WMD and read the freely available UN reports for myself and knew that there were no WMD in Iraq before a single shot had been fired. If I, a relatively simple man, can do this then I expect you can too.

Noel in Cork, Ireland.

Mar 18, 2011 2:46pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
NukerDoggie wrote:
Where do I start here to expose the smug complacency of most of the “experts” quoted in this article?

First of all, almost no one was interviewed who is not part of the nuclear establishment and who therefore is not already massively biased in favor of it. These people dread the prospect of that establishment taking a huge P/R hit, resulting is a great loss of business and funding due to the Japan crisis. Therefore, they significantly downplay the risks of radiation. They love to portray ANYONE who is concerned about radiation as uneducated, panic-prone buffoons.

One one point, let me say that the moron “expert” who is quoted as saying the crisis in Japan is nothing like Chernobyl because in Chernobyl you had no containment and the radiation was burning into the open air, shows by his statement that he is absolutely CLUELESS! What does he think the spent fuel rods are doing in Japan? They are burning and releasing high levels of radiation into the open air, because there is no containment left after the multiple hydrogen explosions there. And there are MULTIPLE spent fuel ponds in trouble with burning fuel rods there, whereas the was only one unit involved in Chernobyl.

This entire article smacks of Japan-style propaganda designed to avoid panic and to avoid a very deserved global black eye upon the nuclear power industry.

Sure, there are plenty of uneducated idiots who’ll panic at almost anything in the news. Unfortunately, they make it rough for the rest of us who are reasoned and logical but who don’t blindly trust what the “experts” say just because they are the experts.

One scientist in the article admits that 10% of persons will develop cancer in his lifetime due to background levels of radiation, and that the effects of radiation are cummulative during one’s lifetime. Now, just increase the amount of radiation above the normal background, due to a crisis like Chernobyl and Japan, and extrapolate the results. This usually isn’t like jumping of a high building because unlike that, the consequences of radiation exposure are delayed for years. That fact tends to make “experts” disconnect cause from effect and downplay the risks. If exposure to radiation in the U.S., for example, increases by 5 or 10 or more times the normal background levels, and does so for some months or perhaps a few years, we’re going to hear form these “experts” that it’s inconsequential. It most certainly is not inconsequential. Most studies on Chernobyl were done two decades ago before the longer-term effects had been visible – thus the number of deaths and cancers from that accident are unquestionably grossly understated. I’m not ready to blindly agree with the Russian experts who published a book on the 24th anniversary of Chernobyl and say that the number of deaths is 1 million, but I think it needs to be carefully looked at. Their conclusion is much more scientific than the ones that estimate only a few thousand deaths over the last 25 years.

People – think for yourselves and research it for yourselves, don’t put unjustifiable faith in these “experts” who most often than not have an agenda that severely minimizes your interests in favor of their own careers and livelihood in the nuclear industry.

Mar 18, 2011 2:59pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
cyberleptic wrote:
“At that level, residents were exposed to 0.809 microsieverts per hour — 1,000 times less than a millisievert, or about 10 times less than a chest X-ray.”

this means, it equals taking an x-ray every 10 hours, right? and thats no reason for concern?

Mar 18, 2011 3:15pm EDT  --  Report as abuse
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