AIHce: The Power (and Pitfalls) of Fear Surrounding Nuclear Incidents

On May 16, a radiation expert told attendees at the 2011 American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo (AIHce) that fears surrounding radiation, especially in light of Japan’s recent crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, largely are blown out of proportion and can do more harm than good.

“My heart goes out to the people of Japan who have suffered terrible consequences of an earthquake and tsunami with the loss of homes, communities, livelihoods and lives,” said Ray Johnson, MS, SE, PE, FHPS, CHP, in the standing-room only session. “And on top of that, they are hearing they may have been exposed to radiation. What a terrible burden to put on them in the face of everything they’ve had to deal with.”

Johnson, the vice president of training programs at Dade Moeller Radiation Safety Academy and director of the Radiation Safety Counseling Institute, explained that during Japan’s recent crisis, the media focused on the nuclear incident – which has had no radiation-related fatalities that he can determine – rather than the thousands of deaths and missing persons caused by the tsunami and earthquake. Despite the very real disaster created by these natural events, the public faced media coverage that often included graphic pictures; reports of tainted water and food; allegations of TEPCO withholding information; injured workers; huddled evacuees; comparisons to Chernobyl; and more.

“This is what the world was seeing – the world that doesn’t understand radiation the way some technical folks would,” he said.

While the images and stories surrounding Fukushima’s radiation releases were grim, Johnson said he expected that “it’s unlikely anyone will die as a result of radiation from Fukushima, whether among workers or in the members of the public.”

The Effect of Fear

The public’s radiation fears may linger long after the technical issues of the Fukushima crisis have been resolved, Johnson said. Already, people from the Fukushima precinct are being discriminated against – children are being turned away from schools, trucks from Fukushima are denied gas, hotels are turning away guests and more. On a larger scale, people are leaving Japan, tourism is down and there’s a stigma on Japanese products.

“Fear, anxiety and stress can kill people maybe even more so [than] radiation,” Johnson explained.

While fear itself is not inherently bad – it is a survival mechanism that encourages us to pay attention, take action and protect ourselves – the problem is when people (or the media) insist on asking the “what if” questions rather than focusing on “what is.” Imagining the worst-case scenario creates fear, but that fear is not based on reality.

It also feeds into what Johnson calls the culture of fear. “Fear sells,” he said. “Fear makes money. It’s a fantastic marketing tool … Stories promote fears. The media knows we’re very good about stories and very bad about numbers.”

Johnson stressed that it’s not helpful to simply tell people to not be afraid, especially since most fears about radiation stem from the fact that people don’t understand it and can’t physically see how it works or how it harms people. Not asking “what if” and approaching the risks from a logical, informed standpoint is more helpful.

Johnson outlined his tools for evaluating radiation risks, or the steps from cause to effect:

  • What are the properties (form and quantity) of RAM?
  • Where is it located?
  • How is it contained?
  • How will it move in the environment?
  • What are the exposure conditions?
  • How much energy is deposited in our body?
  • What doses are known to produce effects?

“It’s actually very difficult to seriously harm someone with radiation,” Johnson said. “That’s not a message you’re likely to hear through the media.”

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