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[cdn-nucl-l] FW: Article on radiation fear and disaster response.
FYI, forwarded from Radsafe.....
Sent: Tuesday, September 16, 2003 11:57 AM
To: radsafe; know_nukes
Subject: Article on radiation fear and disaster response.
The following editorial appeared in today's Washington Post.
It is excellent reading, and Ted should commended for taking the time to
As Ted mentions NRC Chairman Nils Diaz is also asking for a realistic
analysis to emergency responses. I hope that others in the regulatory
agencies will be more forthcoming in their professional opinions.
Radiation Chicken Little
By Theodore Rockwell
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
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.
The writer has many years' experience in nuclear
engineering. He is a member of the National Academy of
Engineering and a founding officer of the engineering
firm MPR Associates.