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Radiation Safety: Is Radiation Ever Really Safe?

Growing public concern about possible radiation exposure during the 2011 nuclear crisis in Japan raised questions about radiation safety:
  • What is the relative safety of radiation at various levels?
  • How much radiation is safe?
  • How much radiation is dangerous or, potentially, lethal?

Such concerns about radiation safety and public health prompted officials in many countries to quickly offer assurances that the radiation exposure experienced by people in the United States and other countries, and most parts of Japan, is "safe" and poses no health risk.

In their eagerness to calm public fears about the safety of radiation and the short-term health risks of radiation exposure from the damaged nuclear reactors in Japan, however, government officials may have ignored or glossed over the potential long-term health risks and cumulative effects of radiation.

Radiation is Never Safe
"There is no safe level of radiation," said Dr. Jeff Patterson, immediate past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a radiation exposure expert, and a practicing family doctor in Madison, Wisconsin. "Every dose of radiation has the potential to cause cancers, and we know that there are other damaging effects of radiation as well. The history of the radiation industry, all the way back [to] the discovery of X-rays . . . is one of understanding that principle."

Radiation Damage is Cumulative
"We know that radiation is not safe. The damage is cumulative, and so we try and limit how much radiation exposure we get," Patterson said, noting that even during medical procedures, such as dental or orthopedic X-rays, patients wear thyroid shields and lead aprons to protect them from radiation.

Radiologists may add to their protective wardrobe lead-lined gloves and special glasses to protect their corneas "because you can get cataracts from radiation."

Patterson made his remarks to reporters during a panel discussion about the Japan nuclear crisis at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on March 18, 2011. The event was hosted by Friends of the Earth and featured two other nuclear experts: Peter Bradford, who was a member of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 and is a former chair of the Maine and New York utility commissions; and Robert Alvarez, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and former senior policy adviser for six years to the U.S. Energy Secretary and the Deputy Assistant Secretary for National Security and the Environment.

To support his statements, Patterson cited a National Academy of Sciences report, The Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation, which concluded "that radiation is a direct linear relationship [of] dose to damage, and that every dose of radiation has the potential to cause cancers."

Radiation Effects Last Forever
Patterson also addressed the difficulty of managing the risks of nuclear energy, and assessing the health and environmental damage caused by nuclear accidents such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the earthquake-and-tsunami-generated crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear complex in Japan.

"Most accidents [and] natural [disasters], like Hurricane Katrina, have a beginning, a middle, and an end," Patterson said. "We pack up, we repair things, and we carry on. But nuclear accidents are much, much different . . . They have a beginning, and . . . the middle may go on for some time . . . but the end never comes. This just goes on forever. Because the effects of radiation go on forever.

"How many of these incidents can we tolerate before we realize that this is absolutely the wrong path to be taking? It’s an attempt to manage the unmanageable," Patterson said. "There’s no way to be sure that this won’t happen again. In fact, it will happen again. History repeats itself."

More Honesty About Radiation Safety Needed
And speaking of history, "the history of the nuclear industry has been one of minimization and cover up . . . in regard to the effects of radiation [and] what has happened in these accidents," Patterson said. "And that really has to change. Our government has to be open and honest with us about what’s happening there. Otherwise the fear, the concerns, just get greater."

Radiation Safety and Damage Cannot Be Assessed Short-Term
Asked by a reporter to explain reports that the Chernobyl nuclear accident has had no serious lasting effects on people or wildlife in the area, Patterson said the official reports on Chernobyl don't match the scientific data.

Documented effects of radiation released during the Chernobyl accident include thousands of deaths due to thyroid cancer, studies showing genetic defects in many insect species around Chernobyl, and animals hundreds of miles from Chernobyl that still can't be slaughtered for meat because of the radioactive Cesium in their bodies.

Yet Patterson pointed out that even those assessments are inevitably premature and incomplete.

Twenty-five years after the Chernobyl accident, "the people in Belarus are still eating radiation from the mushrooms and things that they gather in the forest that are high in Cesium," Patterson said. "And so this does, indeed, go on and on. It’s one thing to say in a brief picture that there’s no damage. It’s another thing to look at this over 60 or 70 or 100 years, which is the time length we have to follow this.

"Most of us are not going to be around for the end of that experiment," he said. "We’re putting it on our children and grandchildren."

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