The risk from radiation is exaggerated. Worst-case scenario fantasies are used to justify wars that cause many more deaths
Some books are written to be read, others to be put in a cannon and blasted at the seat of power. Two such blasts have just crossed my desk, from academics on either side of the Atlantic. Both are on the same subject, the consequence of the irrational fear of radiation.
The first book, Radiation and Reason, is by an Oxford professor of physics, Wade Allison. It narrates the history and nature of nuclear radiation, culminating in an attack on the obsessive safety levels governing nuclear energy. These overstate the true risk, in Allison's view, by up to 500 times, thus rendering nuclear prohibitively expensive and endangering the combat of global warming.
The second is Atomic Obsession by John Mueller, professor of political science at Ohio State University. Mueller describes the toxic fear associated with radiation from nuclear weapons. It distorts the balance of international relations and senselessly makes enemies of friends. The books jointly undermine conventional wisdom on the two greatest political challenges of the day, in the fields of energy and defence. As such, they are sensational.
Radiation, says Allison, is nothing like as dangerous as the anti-nuclear lobby and its paranoid regulators claim. The permitted radiation level in the waste storage hall at Sellafield is so low (1 mSv per hour) as to be negligible, a figure achieved at vast cost in construction and inspection. This compares with the 100 mSv threshold for even remote cancer risk and 5,500 for radiation sickness. According to Allison, someone would have to live for a million hours in Sellafield to absorb the same radiation as is administered in a hospital radiotherapy suite. Higher doses are permitted in food processing and even in medicinal resorts, with supposed beneficial or at least harmless effects. Only yesterday research suggested that mobile phone radiation may relieve Alzheimer's.
Allison analyses successive studies into the only serious nuclear accident since Hiroshima, the Chernobyl fire, which killed no more than 60 people, all in close contact with the fire. Other than some thyroid cancers caused chiefly by a failure to distribute iodine tablets, long-term cancers in survivors were below the regional average. The truth is that low-dose radiation effects wear off quickly. In some parts of India and Brazil people live happily with ambient radiation of 200-300 mSv.
Yet the mere word, Chernobyl, induces such terror in regulators as to lead to the unnecessary sterilisation of thousands of acres (with now thriving wildlife) and the continued slaughter of Cumbrian sheep, despite the risk to lamb-eaters being negligible. The trouble is that nobody makes money by downplaying risk. Nuclear inspectors need work, and contractors can claim astronomical safety costs, assuming that governments will pay. The losers are the public and life on earth.
Meanwhile, over in Ohio, Mueller describes the same terror infecting reaction to nuclear weapons. He points out that nuclear bombs are extremely hard to make, let alone deploy, and their destructive power and radiological aftermath are grossly overstated. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was largely the result of the buildings bombed being made of wood. Numbers killed were similar to those dying in conventional bomb attacks at the time. Yet we memorialise Hiroshima but not Tokyo, where 100,000 were killed in March 1945. Subsequent diseases from exposure to low-level radiation were harder to detect. Modern nuclear weapons are obviously more powerful, but again their blast areas would remain limited and their likely contamination, says Mueller, much exaggerated.
I used to believe that, for all their horror, atom bombs brought an end to the war in Japan – which other bombs had failed to do. After that war, they stabilised the nervous confrontation between east and west, deterring Soviets and Americans from going jointly berserk at such flashpoints as Berlin, Hungary or Cuba. Deterrence sort of worked.
History may be moot on those points, but what is surely clear is that nuclear weapons are now virtually useless. Like Allison, Mueller goes beyond the two iconic incidents of Hiroshima and Chernobyl to show how special interests have hijacked the nuclear mystique to exploit public fear.
The risk of anyone exploding a nuclear weapon, even in politically charged regions such as the Middle East, is infinitesimally small. Whoever did so would be too mad to be deterred by an enemy possessing nuclear weapons, any more than Ho Chi Minh's Vietnam, Argentina's Galtieri or Iraq's Saddam Hussein were deterred by America and Britain. Nor, says Mueller, would the consequence of even a serious bomb attack be as horrible as is claimed. Cities recover with remarkable alacrity, as even Hiroshima did from contamination. The second world war and many American bombing campaigns since have shown that human settlements are resilient to aerial bombardment.
As for the much-vaunted risk of a terrorist getting a nuclear weapon – the "1% chance" that kept poor Dick Cheney awake at night – Mueller points out that the chance must be not one in a hundred but one in millions. Cheney would have done better worrying about the proliferation of AK47s. Even were a "dirty" bomb somehow to be assembled and deployed, its radiological contamination is exaggerated by defence contractors and lobbyists frantic for contracts.
The billions of dollars being devoted to countering "cataclysmic" terrorism, in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Yemen, and to confronting such proto-nuclear states as Iran or North Korea, is not just disproportionate to the risk. The money would be better spent on other ways of reducing terrorism. In a futile pursuit of nuclear non-proliferation, America and Britain are combing the world accusing states of threatening somehow to destroy their civilisations when the risk of this happening is near meaningless.
As Mueller notes, it is not only ghoulish science and ghoulish journalism that sells, ghoulish politics does too. He has nothing against negotiating nuclear non-proliferation, but pleads "to avoid policies that can lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people under the obsessive sway of worst-case scenario fantasies", as is the case in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is these fantasies that line the streets of Wootton Bassett each week.
It is a monumental irony that rightwing politicians who rearm against the tiny risk to humanity from nuclear weapons are often the same as deny the risk to humanity from global warming. Both are risks. Both may be improbable, but the risk from radiation is minimal and containable, while the worst-case scenario from global warming is truly cataclysmic. Nor is such hypocrisy confined to the right. Many of those who claim global warming as the "greatest threat to the planet" tend also to be those who oppose nuclear energy as "too risky", or even too expensive.
This is all a massive failure of science to pierce the carapace of public ignorance. As Allison and Mueller argue, nothing is as potent as the politics of fear, and there is no fear as blind as that which comes from a bomb and a death ray. So what is science doing? The world is in the grip of a prejudice from which nothing seems able to free it. At least these books try.
Copyright Speakers Corner 2017