Me stating that radiation is scary for most people would likely be as revolutionary as

me claiming that heating water will eventually make it boil. Equally, most of us have

at some point enjoyed the sun a bit too much and suffered the consequences the

day after. Similarly, most of us know that getting too much radiation can give you

cancer or even kill you. However, if we ask 100 people on the street about how much

radiation it would take to result in cancers, you will probably get as conflicting a

collection of views as a group of politicians trying to decide how to get off a deserted


Jokes aside, I have now spent more than five years trying to get to the bottom of

what is a seemingly easy and, indeed, straightforward question – “how dangerous is

radiation, really?”. The price has been paid in grey hairs and many lonely hours

trying to make heads or tails of what I was reading, but throughout the process of

going numerous rabbit holes, I’ve also had the opportunity to learn from some of the

sharpest minds in the field. What I found was a highly politicised area of science, but

where the debate was not really about the big questions I thought it would be, but

rather, a small war about what, to the general public, are inconsequential details.

So, over the next two weeks, I shall act as a guide through the often confusing,

seemingly impregnable and jargon-ridden world that is radiation research. This will

hopefully help shed some light on a fascinating, well-researched, yet very poorly

understood area of science. Together, we shall endeavour to find out what are the

facts and, indeed, the misconceptions around all sorts of radiation-related questions,

from the “will any radiation dose give me cancer?” to “what’s the deal with nuclear


- John Lindberg

Unknown to me at the time, radiophobia was probably introduced to me at a very early age, and in a less dramatic fashion than most. No bombs, no shambling zombies, no fluorescent bunnies. Instead, my introduction to radiophobia was by way of giant fish in a local pond. For the majority of my childhood years, I lived in the small village of Skultorp, a rather undistinguished and sleepy place in the rural heart of Sweden. However, I also did, figuratively speaking at least, grow up on top of a uranium mine.

The disused Ranstad mine, initially earmarked for the production of uranium to the Swedish nuclear weapons programme, is found a few kilometres from my childhood home. The mine only operated for a few years and by the time I was born, the pit had become a lake, where trout had been introduced which, according to playground lore, had grown tremendously – all thanks to the radiation. Whilst I now know it was all gibberish, it nevertheless served as an unlikely first exposure to radiophobia.

Radiophobia as a phenomenon is a rather curious one. In the nuclear debate it is frequently used, usually by proponents of nuclear energy as a catch-all phrase to respond to anything related to people’s fears of nuclear. According to the Harvard Medical School, a phobia is defined accordingly:

“A phobia is a persistent, excessive, unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity or situation. It is a type of anxiety disorder. A person with a phobia either tries to avoid the thing that triggers the fear, or endures it with great anxiety and distress.”

It is clear that radiophobia is somewhat of a misnomer, insofar that it isn’t a phobia in the clinical meaning of the word. Equally, the effects of radiophobia are very real, so simply claiming that radiophobia is merely an “emotional” and “irrational” response is not only incorrect, it is also counterproductive. After all, radiation from reactors are commonly associated with a raft of rather unpleasant risks, be it cancer, birth defect or gruesome death by way of radiation sickness. It would be rather curious if someone was not rather anxious about radiation, given that all of us have heard the horror stories about nuclear accidents. One in particular – and with thanks to HBO for the refresher – has caught the public imagination unlike any other human-made accident.

Enter, Chernobyl. A city in the rather swampy north of Ukraine, close to the border to Belarus, founded almost 1000 years ago. A city which endured pogroms, WWI, the Russian Civil War, Stalin’s Famine, occupation by the Nazis. Before April 26, 1986, very few would ever have heard of it, or the Vladimir Lenin Nuclear Power Plant which bore its name. Yet, as destiny would have it, at this particular nuclear plant a deadly combination of design flaws, human error and cultural factors came together to cause the world’s most serious nuclear accident to date (and likely, forever, due to a design philosophy long gone). Out of the two explosions and the persistent fire, the myth of Chernobyl rose alongside the radioactive smoke.

Several reports, often commissioned and conducted by anti-nuclear groups or individuals, claim that the death toll from Chernobyl are in the tens-, if not hundreds-, of thousands. As many of these reports rely on collective dose assessments, a widely discredited method for calculating health impacts due to radiation, and it is highly unlikely that these predictions are accurate. The latest report from the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) puts the total deaths resulting from Chernobyl at 62, alongside approximately 6000 successfully treated thyroid cancer cases.

Furthermore, and horror film directors in search for inspiration, there is no evidence pointing towards increased rates of congenital anomalies – entirely in line with the findings from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Imaginary and undoubtedly terrifying figures of hundreds of thousands of deaths, and countless deformed children are commonly depicted in the same breath as uttering Chernobyl, but the scientific evidence for those claims simply is not there. Its pale spectre - radiophobia - is the real culprit, often forgotten, but very real.

Chernobyl is the prime example where many lives have been detrimentally impacted because of radiophobia, rather than from the radiation itself. Due to this accident, 116,000 people were evacuated within months of the accident, with an additional 220,000 being evacuated the years that followed. The vast majority, however, did not require evacuation from a radiation protection perspective. The ensuring victimisation, social stigma and fatalism experienced by evacuees and rescue workers from Chernobyl showcase much higher rates of mental health problems, suicides and alcoholism. This is a direct consequence of radiophobia, where the secrecy around exposure levels by the Soviet authorities unleashed the radiant ghosts that mostly follow us, but also an effect of the breakup of the USSR and the socio-economic chaos which ensued.

Additionally, whilst it is impossible with certainty to pinpoint the exact number of abortions that took place due to radiophobia, there is evidence that Chernobyl did lead to an increase in elective abortions across Europe. Robert Gale, an American doctor who treated radiation victims after the accident, estimated that more than 1 million abortions were undertaken in the Soviet Union and Europe as a result of incorrect advice from their doctors about radiation exposure and birth defects following the accident. These abortions were not justified medically - but highlight the radiophobic response commonly seen when nuclear accidents take place. These are the real victims of Chernobyl - and of the radiation fear which is stoked by demagogues for ideological gains. Extensive reviews were undertaken after Chernobyl to avoid similar accidents (and responses). The United Nations and its agencies quickly established that the most detrimental outcome of the accident was not radiological in nature, but rather the severe mental effects of displacement and social stigmatisation. Many lessons were learnt after Chernobyl, yet perhaps the most important – and arguably the hardest – lesson was not. The fact we had not actually understood radiophobia became very evident in March 2011.

After the tsunamis hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, it quickly became evident that the world was witnessing a nuclear accident on live TV. Despite taking place almost 25 years later, the similarities between the responses to the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima disturbingly highlight that very few changes had taken place during the intervening time.

Shortly after the Fukushima accident began in earnest, buses came to evacuate the most vulnerable and sick patients of care facilities within the nearby area. The evacuations were hurried, and no medical staff travelled on the buses with the evacuees. The journeys themselves took up to 24 hours, where the patients had no access to food or water, let alone the medical care many depended upon. Consequently, many patients died during or shortly after the evacuations that were “justified” to minimise very low radiation exposure to these individuals. These evacuations were entirely unnecessary to protect people from the effects of radiation – the doses were so low that they did not pose a threat to their long-term health – and these deaths are therefore directly attributable to the radiophobic responses of the local authorities.

Another incarnation of radiophobia manifests itself in an especially cruel fashion - bullying. An eight-year old boy was evacuated from his home in Fukushima prefecture and joined a new school, where he was branded a ‘germ’, had his belongings stolen, and was physically abused by his classmates. They eventually extorted his family to pay 1.5 million yen (about 13,500$) for the physical abuse to stop. This is only one of hundreds of cases of bullying due to radiophobia. The detrimental long-term health effects of bullying are well-established.

Given the rich imagery and strong emotional responses which nuclear energy has acquired over the years, it is perhaps not too surprising that the general public has become radiophobic. In interviews conducted by noted psychologist Paul Slovic, he found that most people described the aftermath of a nuclear accident to look very similar to those of nuclear war. This, and the fact that there is a widespread belief that radiation from nuclear power plants causes birth defects, cancers and death – even though scientifically disproven – makes people’s fear for radiation completely rational. After all, after decades of fear conditioning, it would be stranger if they were not fearful.

Radiophobia has truly devastating effects, both in terms of its impacts on people impacted by nuclear accidents, and in terms of undermining the promise of the atom. But why have we developed radiophobia? Where does it come from? The next piece in the series – “The ghost of our minds: Why we fear radiation” – shall explore these topics.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and may not reflect on any of the institutions which the author is associated with.

Before I began my journey into the weird and wonderous world of the atom, I harboured aspirations to enter the equally weird, and equally wonderous, world of politics. I was fortunate to receive my political “schooling” as political adviser to Sir Jamie McGrigor, who was a Member of the Scottish Parliament for the Highlands and Islands. Jamie taught me a great number of things about the art of politics, but one lesson especially stuck with me – when in politics, it is our duty to serve all, both our friends as well as our critics. So, I hear you ask, how on Earth does this relate to nuclear power or climate change?

In many ways, nuclear energy is the bullied kid in the schoolyard of today’s electricity system. When nuclear energy as a power source was born in the 1950s, it found itself in a loving and supportive home - heralded as the stalwart for a brighter tomorrow, enabling anything from flying cars, the eradication of starvation and the colonisation of space. However, during its teenage years of the 1970s and 1980s, it became increasingly clear that public faith in that brighter tomorrow that nuclear energy promised started to fade, as our overall faith in science seemed to ebb away.

Nuclear energy, proud of the fact it will be able to better the lives of all, found itself increasingly cornered. Accusations were increasingly being flung at nuclear – be it that reactors were “baby-killers”, “atom bombs waiting to go off”, “mass murders”, and many more of such baseless accusations. Nevertheless, the public became swayed by these arguments. The courts of public opinion in many cases sentences nuclear energy to serve an ever-diminishing role, banished to the fringes of the world of energy – where it might be providing an essential service, but told to quiet down and await its inevitable demise.

But, despite all these years of bullying, underneath the surface, you will still find this quiet pride, based on the knowledge that each reactor’s servitude benefits humans, animals and the planet alike. This is where the connection between my political schooling and nuclear power emerges – nuclear reactors serves the whole community – both its supporters and critics - day in and day out, regardless of the whims of the weather, out of sight and silently providing them with clean and affordable electricity.

Few would dispute that climate change is one of the most crucial issues that humanity faces. In the climate change debate, nuclear energy should, if we follow the cold, hard facts be at the very heart of the debate. When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change compiled the best available evidence on the climatic footprint of every major electricity generator throughout its whole lifecycle, one thing became very evident – nuclear power has the lowest carbon dioxide footprint, alongside with wind power. However, the sad state of affairs is this: nuclear reactors are being closed around the world prematurely, and are in the majority of cases replaced by fossil energy.

There is another very clear piece of evidence about the importance of nuclear for the decarbonisation. On this map of Europe – a snapshot taken on the morning of 3rd June 2020 – one can easily tell that most countries are quite dirty. The greener the country, the lower the carbon footprint.

Some countries, like Norway, are simply lucky, endowed by Mother Nature with rivers suitable for hydroelectric power. Others, like France and Sweden, chose to pursue the path of the atom, with nuclear providing 75% of all electricity in France and about 45% in Sweden. These countries have essentially already met emissions reductions required to ensure climate change stays at safe levels. Countries like Germany, hailed as the wunderkind of the climate change movement, consistently produce electricity 6 times dirtier than its western or northern neighbour. In Germany, nuclear reactors have even been replaced by lignite, despite it being amongst the most polluting electricity sources known to humanity.

Whilst ensuring that we combat climate change in an effective way, it is crucial that we do so in a way which not only benefits those who already enjoy a high standard of living. Our track record of delivering sustainable solutions to unsustainable practises is not great. We often find that by solving one problem, we create multiple elsewhere, and round we go in a rather tragic hamster wheel.

But, to paraphrase Daenerys Targaryen from Game of Thrones, nuclear energy holds the potential not only to stop the wheel, but to break it. By utilising the astounding energy of the atom, we can once and for all build a more equitable, a fairer and a cleaner tomorrow, without having to sacrifice our fragile planet, our health, or any other living creature that we share our world with. By choosing nuclear, we don’t have to sacrifice our standards of living, but even more importantly, it enables us to help those who still live with little or no access to electricity, people who literally live in the dark. Whilst the wealthiest parts of the world can spend billions on power sources which only work certain times, many parts of the world do not have that luxury – they will need to find solutions which provide value for money which, many times means coal. However, nuclear provides a sustainable option, and giving into prejudices and fears around nuclear deprives people the right that is access to electricity.

Nuclear reactors are truly silent giants of many electricity systems, quietly work in the background, night and day, often out of sight and mind, regardless of weather or reason. However, they are also the unsung climate heroes, which are all too often being taken for granted. Fear has been allowed to poison our relationship with nuclear energy, and per extension robbing all of us the chance for a better tomorrow. In my next piece, we shall explore this fear, and why radiophobia is, perhaps, public enemy number 1.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and may not reflect on any of those institutions which the author is associated with.

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