The Environmental Spectator

Let the People of Fukushima Go Home and Get Back to Work

The science does not support the panic.

By 12.6.11

The front-page story in the Washington Post on Sunday November 20 vividly portrayed the horrors of the evacuated zones around Fukushima with unforgettable imagery. A natural reaction is to call for more restrictive safety measures. But one point was not made clear: No one, not one single person, has received a life-altering injury from radiation since the disaster started unfolding last March. The atrocities described are caused by the application of international radiation standards that are set at levels far below where science shows adverse health effects occur, and by the fear of radiation that policy creates and nurtures. Once again, fear of radiation does more harm that the radiation itself.

The reality is that, while some people in the Fukushima housing area are wearing cumbersome rad-con suits, filtered gas-masks, gloves and booties, and putting the same on their children, other people are living carefree in places like Norway, Brazil, Iran, India where folks have lived normal lives for countless generations with radiation levels as much as a hundred times greater than the forbidden areas of the Fukushima homes.

The use of inappropriate radiation standards is not an abstract issue. People around Fukushima are being told they cannot return home for an indeterminate period -- perhaps years. And efforts to decontaminate their home sites to these standards may include stripping off all the rich top-soil and calling it RadWaste. People who were evacuated have been reduced to economic poverty, clinical depression, and even suicide.

There is good scientific evidence that, except for some hot spots, the radiation levels at these home-sites are not life-threatening. The current restrictions are based on a misguided desire to be "prudent." No matter how well intended, this "prudence" is cruelly destructive. Many radiation protectionists, such as Myron Pollycove, MD, former special assistant to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Dr. Jerry Cuttler, former President of the Canadian Nuclear Society, and Abel Gonzales of Brazil, vice-chair of the International Commission on Radiological Protection, are beginning to feel unhappy about the harm their rules have caused and are joining in the cry for quick action as the Japanese head into winter.

In 2002, U.S. Regulatory Report NCRP-136 examined the question of establishing permissible radiation limits. After looking at the data, it concluded that most people who get a small dose of nuclear radiation are not harmed by it, and in fact are benefited. That's what the science said: Most people would benefit by receiving more radiation, within the hormetic range. "Benefit" means the incidence of cancer and genetic damage would be less than it would be without the additional radiation.

But curiously, the report's final conclusion was just the opposite. It recommended that our regulations should be based on the unsupported premise that any amount of radiation, no matter how small, should be considered harmful. It justified that recommendation as "conservative" or "prudent." Let's think about that. Why is it prudent do just the opposite of what the science indicates? Why is exaggerating a panicky situation considered prudent? I've never seen a good answer to that.

Last month, British radiation expert Wade Allison, author of Radiation and Reason, addressed the people on Japanese television. He proposed that radiation limits be set the same way other such limits are set -- not by seeing how little we can obtain, but what is the maximum we can tolerate, including a generous safety factor. The answer he gets is about 1,000 times the current "permissible limit."

Who gave the radiation police the right to give their particular concern priority over all other considerations? That question is not limited to Japan. A proposed European Community directive dated 17 Oct 2011 notes that the doses of radiation being regulated are small compared to doses people receive in the normal course of living. Instead of reaching the common-sense conclusion that they should therefore stop trying to regulate harmless doses of radiation, they decided they have to regulate Nature! They want us to wage an endless war against our naturally radioactive planet, when there is good evidence that without radiation, Life withers and dies.

Few if any people decide where to live, or how to live, on the basis of radiation level. There is no reason that they should start doing so now. Let the good people of Fukushima return home and get on with their lives! 

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About the Author

Dr. Theodore Rockwell is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, editor of the 1956 handbook, The Reactor Shielding Design Manual, now available on the Department of Energy's website, and the first recipient of the American Nuclear Society's Lifetime Achievement Award, now called Rockwell Award.