Facing Radiation Fears and Myths
Part of an independent supplement to the National Post, published November 2011
by Jeremy Whitlock
Your comments are welcome.
One of the biggest concerns that the public has with nuclear power is the thought of radiation releases. Most people would be surprised to learn that coal stations emit more radiation than nuclear stations, and that radiation itself is actually one of the most understood and easily controlled agents in our environment. It's also surprising to most people that radiation is a natural part of our world, and our own bodies.
Radiation, in this context, is the energy released when atoms rearrange their innards, often changing to other atoms in the process. This is a completely natural process, and the energy released can be harnessed to kill cancer cells, detect smoke in our homes, sterilize surgical equipment, measure the thickness of sheet metal, or tell doctors how our hearts are working. Most people are familiar with X-rays, a closely related form of radiation, and know how they benefit our lives every day.
So why do people fear radiation? As with most fears, misunderstanding is at the heart of it. Misunderstanding, in turn, is often caused by miscommunication. Following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, for example, there was widespread miscommunication about exactly how much radiation was released from the damaged Fukushima nuclear power plant, and what effect this would have on people. In fact it is not likely that anyone will be harmed by the radiation released from Fukushima.
Radiation is a fact of life. All around us, trillions of atoms are giving off energy, every second. In fact ten thousand atoms do this every second in each of our bodies. It's natural, safe, and very likely necessary for our good health: a growing body of evidence suggests that radiation at everyday levels has a stimulating effect on our immune systems, helping us fight the onslaught of chemical toxins and other challenges that our bodies encounter.
Just about everyone knows someone who has benefited from nuclear medicine. Every day thousands of people around the world undergo a heart stress test, or some other procedure using radioactive material injected into the body. This medical revolution was pioneered in Canada, which still supplies a sizable fraction of the world's radiopharmaceuticals.
But isn't radiation dangerous at high levels? Yes - at levels thousands of times higher than natural levels, and millions of times higher than what human activity introduces into the environment.
It's no surprise that we are highly adapted to our world, and yet we fear many parts of our world that we don't understand. Knowledge is the key.
©2011 Jeremy Whitlock