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WILLIAM TUCKER: The Tragedy of Radiation Phobia

By William Tucker 

This week there was an absolutely heartbreaking story in Business Week about Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ‘s trip to Fukushima.  His visit was intended to show the Japanese public that things are going well at the reactor.  Also on the agenda was a ceremony honoring the “Fukushima 50,” the brave Tepco workers who stayed on the job during the worst of the accident and risked intense doses of radiation to try to bring the reactor under control.

Now in any other country you’d think that this heroic bunch would be given a ticker-tape parade, appear on talk shows and be feted at the centers of government.  Here they’d be signing book contracts and negotiating with Hollywood about a movie.  When 33 miners were trapped for a week underground in Chile in 2010, the whole world held its breath and they were celebrated in New York after their rescue.

What happened in Japan instead is this.  Only a handful of the Fukushima 50 showed up and most of those who did stood with their backs to the cameras and refused to show their faces.  Why?  Because they were afraid their relatives would be shunned for somehow being indirectly exposed to the horrifying dangers of nuclear radiation.

This is the fruit of 50 years of the “no safe dose” hypothesis run wild.  Anti-nuclear activists have been so successful in preaching that even the minutest exposure to radiation is some kind of death ray that people are now afraid of anyone and anything that is even association with nuclear energy.  Radiation has become a kind of international cooties that not only infects a person but can be “passed along” by touch or contact with someone else who has been exposed.  The Fukushima 50 are afraid that children and grandchildren will be shunned by other young children at school simply because they are related to them.  Such is the power of the dreaded word “radiation.”

This is a contemporary tragedy and one that no one seems very inclined to do anything about.  All over Japan people who have been forced to evacuate from Fukushima are being denied basic services because they are “radioactive.”  Families have been denied admission to hotels, people are denied jobs, their children are shunned in school by their classmates.  The pattern actually goes back to people who were exposed to high doses of radiation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  They were given a special name – hibakusha – the explosion-covered people”and have spent most of their life trying to hide their identity.  In a recent NPR interview, one woman revealed to her sister for the first time that she had been affected by the blast in 1945.  The Fukushima 50 knew what they were talking about.  

Many of the commenters to the Business Week article blame the situation on Japanese culture. They talk about the Japanese sense of group identity and how individuals must always share the collective guilt of their families, or employers and other associations.  But the same shunning occurred after Chernobyl in a completely different cultural environment.  People who were forced to evacuate at that accident have led nomadic lives, shunned for others for fear of some kind of indirect contamination.  Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, a Reuters reporter who grew up in Belarus, recalls what happened when she was treated to a two-week stay in England as a “child of Chernobyl.”  

Sympathetic foreigners started organizations to help us. They brought children to Europe for several weeks each summer so that we could fix our teeth, eat healthier food and clean our lungs with fresh air. I was eight when I got to be among the lucky ones to visit England for a month. That was also when I realized it was shameful to admit I was a “child of Chernobyl.” Afraid of radiation in food, an English family refused the box of chocolates I brought from Belarus. “Chernobyl” was the only word they said to me pushing the box away as if it was poison.

Everyone in the field of radiation sciences knows these fears are wildly exaggerated.  In an article last August in The Wall Street Journal, Richard Muller, professor of physics at Berkeley and author of Physics for Future Presidents, pointed out that the levels of radiation in the evacuation zones around Fukushima are now around 2.5 rem, in the same range as many high-radiation regions around the world and only about three times the dose you get from living in Denver, Colorado.  Applying the strictest of no-safe-dose logic, some researchers have predicted there will be 1,500 extra cancer deaths over the next 70 years among the population of 62,000 people living within a 50 miles radius of Fukushima.  But if you apply the same logic to Denver, you would predict 5,500 extra cancers in the population of 600,000.  Yet cancer rates in Denver are lower than anywhere else in the United States.  Dr. Muller concludes:

In hindsight, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the policies enacted in the wake of the disaster in Japan—particularly the long-term evacuation of large areas and the virtual termination of the Japanese nuclear power industry—were expressions of panic.

All this applies to people directly exposed to the minimal amounts of radiation from the accident.  But most of the shunning going on is aimed at people who were only indirectly exposed or even related to someone who was exposed.  The absurdity of all this is an embarrassment to any modern society.


It is time for people in the field of health physics and radiation science to start speaking up.  If such innocent victims cannot be defended against the panic and phobias surrounding radiation exposure, then there is no hope there will ever be public acceptance of nuclear technology.

  • Charles Pennington

    Another timely article with good observations. But the situation is even more pronounced than you characterize. There are many (>>10) non-nuclear industries in the U.S. that annually expose workers and members of the public to much higher doses of ionizing radiation than those that lived near Chernobyl or Fukushima received in the worst (usually the first) year! There are millions of people in the U.S. that receive these comparatively high doses annually. The public doses from these industries are unregulated, unmonitored, uncontrolled, unreported, and undisputed. Lots of people in regulatory and oversight organizations know of these doses and industries. And they also know there are no health affects that are discernible over long periods, which makes sense because research has shown that doses in these ranges have not produced health effects in any such cases historically.
    Therefore, since these industries do not have their radiation dose impacts on the public regulated, it is pretty clear that the understanding of what is harmful and what is not is fairly well established and accepted. The problem, as you clearly say, is that the people in appropriate positions to do so will not come forward with clarity on the realities of the situation and confront the fear mongers with the courage of correctness. The fear mongers have a BIG business and will make it hard for those who push back.
    I have written on this topic for more than 10 years now, and nothing has changed. Neither the industry nor “the government” has stepped up to educate the public on the subject of radiation: not after TMI, not after Chernobyl, and not after Fukushima. So, what should one expect but what is happening? Until we conduct the aggressive, extensive, and necessary public education to neutralize public radiation fear, the restoration of the nuclear alternative (ReNuAl) does not have a bright future.

    • Charles, I’d be interested in reading what you have written. Where could I find some examples?

  • Radiation – or rather, the concept of radiation to many people – has taken on the qualities of a malevolent virus. There is no rational basis to this view, but they think of it as growing, spreading and seeking out targets. The truth is hard to get that scary and dramatic story – that spent fuel is a rather dull solid that is largely insoluble and produces only marginal amounts of radiation after say one human lifetime.

    Will the news that Fukushima Daiichi reactor 1 almost certainly kept its melted fuel inside the reactor vessel change any minds? The “evil radiation sprite” can be contained? I very much doubt it.

  • ZY

    I can’t find the link to article in “Business Week about Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda ‘s trip to Fukushima”. Can you please provide the link? thanks.

  • Charles Pennington

    Joffan (?) Here are some of the papers over the last half-dozen years. There’s a book chapter after these in 2011, but it expands on these. Pennington, C.W., 2006. Assessing Unregulated Ionizing Radiation Exposures of U. S. Populations From Conventional Industries. Science of the Total Environment. 367: p.139-155.Pennington, C.W., 2007. Exposing America: Comparative Assessments of Ionizing Radiation Doses to U.S. Populations From Nuclear and Non-Nuclear Industries. Progress in Nuclear Energy. 49 No. 6: p.473-485.Pennington, C.W., 2009. Comparative population dose risks from nuclear fuel cycle closure and renewal of the commercial nuclear energy alternative in the U.S. Progress in Nuclear Energy. 51 (2009): p.290 – 296.Pennington, C.W., 2010. A demonstration of the comparative radiological safety of commercial nuclear power generation in the USA. Int. J. Nuclear Governance, Economy and Ecology, Vol. 3, No. 1, pp.59–103.