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Radiation is everywhere. As a matter of fact, you live every second of your life constantly surrounded by it; indeed, we live in a sea of radiation. We are bombarded by radiation from space, from the very earth we tread, from the food we eat, the air we breathe, the water we drink – even from our very bones. It is as natural as it gets, yet, for some reason, we have come to fear it like no other. Here are some day-to-day scenarios of when you might come in contact with radiation (and don’t worry, medicine, nuclear waste and stuff like that will be coming in the next few days):

Bananas and nuts

Most of us enjoy bananas (well, not my brother growing up), and some of you know that bananas are full of potassium. However, what you might not know is that a small part of that potassium is naturally radioactive! The individual dose per banana is obviously not very high – you would theoretically have to eat something like 24,000 bananas to get the same radiation dose as the global average background radiation. Still, it is pretty bananas!

The award for the arguably “most radioactive food” goes to the Brazil nuts. The trees which grow these nuts can absorb small amounts of naturally occurring radium in the ground, and it gets concentrated in the nuts, making them the most radioactive food in the world. Nuts, isn’t it…

Flying high in the sky

Whenever the coronavirus pandemic goes away and we all can go back to flying back and forth, exploring our beautiful planet, you will find yourself bathing in some extra radiation. When flying at 10,000 meters above the sea, the atmosphere is much thinner and, thus, less protective of cosmic radiation which constantly bombards the planet. That also means that you will get an increased dose of cosmic radiation, the equivalent of about 800 bananas if you fly across the Atlantic. You might at this point wonder about the aircrews, and whether the fact they get quite a lot of radiation puts them in harm’s way? Well, there is some evidence of especially skin cancer being more common, but that’s first and foremost related to another type of radiation that many of them enjoy, lying on many exotic beaches around the world…

Sleeping next to another human

With everything radioactive, it should perhaps not come as too big a surprise that the human body itself is radioactive. Indeed, the same potassium that makes bananas radioactive is also found in our bones where, on average, some 6000 radioactive disintegrations take place every second. So, if you sleep next to another human for 8 hours a night for most nights of the year, you get way more radiation from this human than if you lived nearby a nuclear power plant – both doses being completely harmless! So the person sleeping next to you is literally some hot stuff, at least radioactively speaking…

Living near a nuclear power plant

Hollywood has done a great job at making nuclear power plants seem like rather scary places, and that the land surrounding it would somehow be full of wonky trees, two-headed cows and a general assortment of mutants, not to mention rather dangerous to human beings. However, with most thing’s Hollywood, taking a pinch (more often, a bucket) of salt to any such claims is a good idea. As a matter of fact, living nearby one of these atomic tea kettles – which job is to boil water – would give you a dose equivalent to eating two Brazil nuts. Yet, I somehow doubt that the horror film about the two Brazil nuts will be hitting the screen anytime soon…

- John Lindberg

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.

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