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WILLIAM TUCKER: Questions at Canberra

By William Tucker

After I had finished giving my speech at the Canberra Users Group Convention in Nashville last week, I asked the audience for questions.  There weren’t more than a couple but I still had about five minutes of my time left.  I had just ended my speech with citations of several recent studies questioning the “no safe dose” hypothesis, plus the story of the Taiwan apartment complex where the accidental exposure of 10,000 residents to radiation at 20 times normal background levels had produced a 97 percent decrease in cancer incidence.  So I decided to ask my own question of the 100 or so radiation and health physics specialists assembled.  

“What is the general feeling among people in your line of work,” I asked, “about whether the dangers of nuclear radiation are being exaggerated?”  

There was a sullen silence until one volunteer finally put up his hand.  “We don’t really have any choice in the matter,” he said.  “We have to do what the regulators tell us.  The powers that be say there is no safe dose of radiation so we have to guard against any emissions whatever, no matter how small.”

A couple of other people gave dispirited seconds to his remarks, but one more outspoken audience member, a sales representative for the western United States, finally spoke out.  “You know,” he said, “we really ought to do something about this.  We know the dangers of radiation are highly exaggerated and we know that the public is being misled on this issue.  There ought to be some way we could reach the public on this issue.  We ought to put out a statement or something.”

There was a murmur of approval, but nobody volunteered to start any petitions or approach the leaders of the professional organizations about drafting a declaration of principles for the general public.

As one attendee explained to me at the cocktail hour afterwards, “Ever since the earliest days of nuclear power there’s been a general aura of fear surrounding the issue of radiation.  People are just scared of it and scientists in the field really don’t like to talk about it much.  That’s why we call ourselves `health physicists’ instead of `radiation specialists.’”  

It’s sad to see an entire profession so badly cowed, afraid to confront the public over something they firmly believe.  But of course the reaction is more than likely to be that the profession has been “bought by the nuclear industry” and that radiation specialists are callously willing to endanger the public “for profit.”

Some people in the press are starting to catch on.  One columnist recently commented, “The more you listen to the experts about nuclear radiation, the less concerned you become.  The more you listen to the experts on global warming, the more concerned you become.”

That’s an excellent observation.  There’s much more reason to be concerned that something really strange is happening to the climate than there is to believe that every little dose of radiation is a potential killer.  You’d think at a time when Kansas is scorching under 118-degree heat and the evidence is piling up that something unusual is happening to the weather that people would be willing to consider more rationally the only true power source that gives us any hope of reversing this process.  But so far fear continues to trump rationality.

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