The atomic bomb has left many fearing all things nuclear, even when it can help avert climate change. The real risks must be conveyed

Distrust of nuclear power is a post-Hiroshima hang-up we can fix

Its legacy still hangs over how we view civil nuclear applications (Image: UI/REX Shutterstock)

The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki 70 years ago ushered in the nuclear age in shocking fashion. From their shadow emerged the peaceful application of nuclear technology to generate electricity.

Nuclear power continues its slow spread today. New reactors are being built in 15 countries, a high-tech, low-carbon way to produce energy at a time when curbing greenhouse gas emissions is a global priority. And yet the degree of public anxiety over nuclear power seems frozen in time, owing more to the terrible events of August 1945 than anything since.

Public fears far outweigh the risks from civilian nuclear technology, which has seen only a handful of serious accidents in the intervening decades. Fear persists because of the long-term health effects that radiation exposure can cause, such as cancer, which is what concerns the public most.

Even though our knowledge in this area has greatly increased, one major gap remains, and it helps fuel this fear. There is a dose-response relationship for any toxic substance to which our bodies are exposed, and radiation is no different.

The problem in terms of protecting the public is the shape of that relationship. At present, we assume the effects of radiation scale linearly with the size of the dose, as we do not have, and may never have, the scientific evidence to disprove this.

Human responses

This results in the conclusion that no dose of radiation is safe and that we should aim to avoid even the smallest dose. However, one of a series of papers recently published in The Lancet suggests that the measures we put in place to protect against an indefinable health risk at low radiation doses may in fact be creating a greater health risk – one linked not to radiation exposure but to our human responses to the situation. The psychological harm and stresses of measures such as long-term evacuation do kill, with the elderly and infirm at highest risk.

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