Radiation Chicken Little

By Theodore Rockwell (*)

article published in The Washington Post, Tuesday, September 16, 2003, page A19

I was recently invited to observe and offer advice during a revealing drill, spearheaded by the National Academy of Engineering, that tested how well information might be communicated to the public if a "dirty bomb" exploded in Washington. As I watched the interaction of real-life government officials and media decision-makers, I was struck by a glaring discrepancy: The rules for radiological emergencies are wholly inappropriate for such an event. They can change a relatively harmless incident into a life-threatening emergency. These rules apply not only to dirty bombs but also to any casualties involving nuclear power plants or their fuel.

A few minutes into the simulated exercise, a leader of the drill pleaded for some action, warning that radiation was killing people and hospitals were being overwhelmed. This bothered me, because it is well documented by all our official agencies that the radioactivity in dirty bombs is unlikely to seriously hurt anyone. People not injured by the conventional explosion itself could walk away and be out of danger. If concerned about possible contamination, they could remove their clothes and take a shower.

I made this point publicly to the participants, but they said they're getting a different story from the regulators and their scientists. The rules require a hypothetical, squeaky-clean condition, scrubbing the ground and sidewalks down to far less than the natural radiation background of God's good green Earth -- less radiation than millions of people get each year from routine medical procedures. That's the kind of thinking behind statements that the city would have to be evacuated for years after such an attack and that cleanup would cost billions. But these requirements are inappropriate. We don't treat other spills and leaks so fearfully.

If your aim were to remove a public health hazard, you would flush any residual radioactivity down the drain with hoses and be done with it. Would that contaminate the Chesapeake Bay? Not in any practical sense. It would add insignificantly to the bay's overall natural radioactivity. Expensive instrumentation might detect it for a while, but it would not create a public health hazard.

Several participants objected that experts might agree on that, but that the public would panic nonetheless, and that's what we should plan for. At this point, an expert on human behavior got up and said flatly that if you tell people there is no danger, and they have no reason to disbelieve you, they will remain calm. (They did so during the recent blackout.) But if you keep telling them you expect them to panic, they will oblige you. And that's what we're doing.

When I raised this issue with a Nuclear Regulatory Commission official years ago, he replied in horror that if he bought my reasoning, he'd have to ask what he was there for. He should, and so should the contractors and scientists devoting their careers to detailing thousands of unrealistic "what-if" scenarios. When pressed, they justify their actions by saying, "We're just trying to ensure safety." But pushed to such extremes, we're not safer; we're just wrong. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman, Nils Diaz, has asked that more realistic premises be used to evaluate safety -- not looser, not lower, just more realistic. That's a good start. Real safety is based on realistic premises.

On that basis, we should ask why our emergency planning calls for evacuating millions of people around nuclear power plants. Certainly such a mass evacuation would be a mess. (If you really thought the air was full of fission products, would you want to order people to go mill around in it?) The question is, could any realistic damage to the plant warrant such evacuation? The answer, as described in the Sept. 20, 2002, issue of Science, is that one can do nothing to an American-type nuclear power plant or its fuel that would create a serious public health hazard. You might produce a meltdown, as occurred at Three Mile Island, but that event caused no human or environmental injury. Even if the containment structure were also compromised, physical tests and analyses of spent fuel show there would be little dispersion, so there would be few if any radiation injuries. By assuming otherwise, we create unwarranted terror, and the terrorists win.

All rights reserved - The original article can be viewed on The Washington Post's web site : http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A15666-2003Sep15.html

(*) Theodore Rockwell has many years' experience in the field of nuclear energy. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineering of the United States, and a founding member of the respected international engineering firm MPR Associates and of Radiation Science and Health. As early as the 1950's, he was a pioneer in the development of the world's first commercial nuclear power plant, and he is now a member of the Scientific Committee of EFN (Association of Environmentalists For Nuclear Energy).