Radiation: More Terrifying Than Night Air?
Atomic fission can provide all the world’s people with emission-free electricity they need for prosperity, but the cost of nuclear energy has risen due to excessive regulations that have been enacted in reaction to the general public's excessive fear of radiation.
Many people fear radiation because they don't understand it. They think nothing of getting an X-ray or CT scan, but they panic at the mere mention of waste from nuclear power plants. There are several reasons for the psychology of fear. Radiation is invisible, its effects seem uncertain, dosage is not easily measured, and of course dentists must drop those heavy lead curtains on your lap when they X-ray your teeth.
Radiation fear was not the first myth to pervade public belief. Night Air is poisonous, thought Americans until the 20th century. Bad air (mal aria) from swamps and decaying matter was thought to be especially unhealthful at night. Going outdoors in the dark was dangerous, as was leaving the bedroom window open at night. Some people nailed their windows shut.
The myth persisted for a century and a half, though some scientists argued the truth. Benjamin Franklin was unable to persuade President-to-be John Adams, who wrote afterward “I am afraid of the Evening Air.” Not until the 20th century did people became persuaded that the disease malaria was not from “bad air” but mosquitos.
Modern Ben Franklins publish hundreds of scientific papers showing how low level radiation in medicine and nuclear power is harmless, but these scientists are ignored by fearful governments committed to radiation mythology.
Today’s public is terrified of Fukushima’s radiation. Japan’s radiophobic leaders killed two thousand people in a misguided evacuation, then spent hundreds of billions of dollars to scrub the land of the modern equivalent of Night Air.
Yet radiation from Fukushima fallout was less than radiation from 1953 atomic bomb test fallout on St. George city and Washington county, Utah, where no one was harmed and cancer rates remain very low.
President Biden's night-air-like fear of radiation has led him to appoint a new Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman who favors more impediments to nuclear power, and dismissal of all independent scientific advisors to the EPA, including the head of its radiation advisory council, who advises that low level radiation fears are unwarranted.
Radiation myths have intensified for a half century, as regulators try to appease fearful activists. Shall we wait another century, again? Or now follow published radiation science and reduce public fear, stultifying regulations, and fission power's elevated costs?
With efficient regulation new fission power plants can provide the US and other countries with the cheap, 24x7 electricity needed to economically replace fossil-fuel burning power plants and meet the increased electricity demands for decarbonized transportation.
Such low fission energy costs will also persuade developing nations to choose fission power instead of building ever more coal-fired plants, now the globe’s principal source of rising CO2 emissions.
Let's follow the science, quell radiation fear, fix the regulations, then build and export economic nuclear power plants that generate 24x7, CO2-free electricity to check climate change.
Dr. Hargraves teaches energy policy at Dartmouth’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and is a co-founder of ThorCon International, a nuclear-engineering company.