Today marks the fifth anniversary of the earthquake and tsunami that caused nearly 20,000 deaths and triggered a major emergency at Fukushima Dai-ichi Nuclear Power Station, Japan. In the days that followed, Japanese authorities evacuated around 100,000 people from the area as radiation was released into the atmosphere. But, asks Laura Leay, are policies around radiation risk and exposure based on fears or facts?
Five years on from Fukushima, few of those evacuated have been allowed to return to their homes, causing enormous misery and harm. This, despite the fact that the current radiation level is below that known to be harmful. This mirrors the response to the Chernobyl accident in the former Soviet Union, coming up to its 30 year anniversary next month; human habitation is still denied, whist wildlife is reported to be flourishing in the abandoned town of Pripyat.
Nuclear energy is a controversial topic and these incidents are often cited as supposed proof of the terrible danger it poses. The UK Government, however, has deemed nuclear energy a suitable, reliable and necessary power source and has set it to be part of our energy mix. It already provides around 20% of UK energy and, as a low carbon energy source, is seen by many as having a crucial role in addressing climate change.
So why is there such fear among the general public, despite government acceptance? Deaths from nuclear energy are dwarfed by those from other power sources. No radiation-induced deaths were caused during the Fukushima incident (the claim of increased thyroid cancer afterwards is discussed here).
Burning coal on the other hand is estimated to cause 1,600 UK deaths each year. And hydroelectricity accidents, like Banqiao in China in 1976 which killed around 171,000 people, don’t attract the same hyperbolic headlines.
Yet anxiety around radiation exposure is so great that the fear itself is a significant threat to public health.
Perhaps it’s something to do with the messages sent to the public about radiation safety?
It is suggested by some that, rather than the technology itself, it is the quality of information provided and the way we approach radiation safety that causes problems.
Imagine I were to ask you to carry a heavy box for me. You’d probably do it without question. Now imagine if I asked you to carry a similar heavy box but told you to be very, very careful. This may cause some concern and you may have a few questions for me, when all I’m trying to do is ensure you don’t strain something.
Now consider the industry and governmental approach to radiation safety in relation to nuclear energy. Nuclear power is treated with extreme caution. This gives the undeniable impression that a civil nuclear accident is more terrible than any other industrial accident and that the effects of radiation from the civil nuclear industry are to be particularly feared.
In a recent speech to the Nuclear Institute, the Strategy and Technology Director of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, Adrian Simper, talked about how, in his early days, when showing visitors into an area where radiation sources are handled, he took the topic so seriously that he’s now convinced he managed to scare the visitors more than reassure them.
In contrast, medical treatments such as MRI scans, X-rays and barium meals, which deliver a dose of radiation, are administered to the public without such fears for safety. In addition, there are areas of the world where exposures from natural sources of radiation are remarkably high.
So how dangerous is it?
The effect of radiation depends on the type someone is exposed to and is measured in units of Sieverts. The legal limit of exposure for someone working with radiation in any industry, including civil and medical, is 20 milliSieverts per year (20 mSv/yr). Below this limit there is no measurable effect of radiation.
To put this in context, a single transatlantic flight will give a dose of 0.08 mSv from cosmic rays; a CT scan will deliver 10 mSv in the form of X-rays; living in Ramsar in Iran, which has the highest known level of background radiation on Earth, for just five months, will give a dose of around 100 mSv. The average annual dose for people living in Cornwall is 7.8 mSv. The Japanese Government has set a limit of 20 mSv per year before the Fukushima exclusion order will be lifted.
Standing next to a large radiation source like used nuclear fuel would be lethal in a matter of minutes. This material is handled safely on a daily basis, however, using carefully planned facilities, robust procedures and a lot of shielding. Large radiation sources are used in research, industry and medicine and are designed in a way that they are inherently safe, and users are fully trained in operating procedures.
(Hear more about Fukushima and the effects of radiation in this interview with Dr Gerry Thomas).
Why the extreme caution?
The civil nuclear industry was born out of the race for nuclear arms. Amid the backdrop of war, immense time pressures led to the development of an industry with minimal consideration of the long term consequences. This has led not only to a legacy of hazardous sites but may also have given rise to a disproportionate level of caution where the dangers of radiation are concerned.
In addition, the devastation caused by nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and the threat of these same weapons during the Cold War, touched the public consciousness. Secrecy surrounding these events, which originally included the Manhattan project, combined with public information videos to “duck and cover” (as released by the US civil defense in the 1950s) has no doubt increased public fear.
Such is the need to protect us from this “invisible killer” that requirements for radiation protection may have become somewhat distorted over the intervening decades.
The Way Forward
Effectively communicating the benefits and risks of radiation is an increasingly important factor in making and implementing decisions on radiation protection in government, industry, medicine and academia.
The 2008 Climate Change Act set a legal obligation for us to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% from 1990 levels by 2050. 14 of the UK’s 15 nuclear reactors are due to be shut down by 2030 meaning we will gradually lose a significant source of low carbon electricity.
The Government hopes to build 13 new nuclear power plants over the coming decades, but gaining public acceptance will require them, universities and nuclear power companies to engage in a transparent and open dialogue with the public.
Documentaries such as the BBC’s “Britain’s Nuclear Secrets: Inside Sellafield” have given the public access to a previously unknown world. The participation of organisations such as Sellafield Limited, the Nuclear Institute and The University of Manchester’s Dalton Nuclear Institute at events like the Big Bang Fair helps to dispel myths through public engagement.
There’s a lot of information out there on radiation and nuclear energy. Not all of it portrays an accurate representation of reality. Continuing an honest and clear conversation is the best way to promote informed decision making.