Risk perception and energy infrastructure

Written evidence submitted by Professor Wade Allison (Risk 04)

My name is Wade Allison. I am Emeritus Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Keble College. I believe that my knowledge and experience would be useful and of interest to the Committee.

A. Executive Summary

The public fears nuclear energy because of what the radiation might do. The safety of radiation should be distinguished from the engineering problems of reactor control -- all nuclear accidents have concerned the latter. The impact of radiation on people has been minimal. The public accepts moderate to high doses of radiation when used for health, but in other contexts the public perception has been shaped by history and politics, not science. Non-medical international safety standards have been established to appease popular concerns by specifying levels found in nature, As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA). Modern biology has demonstrated that no harm comes to people from radiation levels up to 1000 times higher, As High As Relatively Safe (AHARS). The local damage to public health and the economy at Chernobyl and Fukushima by ALARA regulations has been extremely serious and without benefit of any kind. The global damage done to future prospects for nuclear power in democracies is threatening.

It is recommended that

1. public trust in nuclear energy should be built on the existing acceptance of medical radiation dose levels through a programme of open and explanatory public education in schools and other fora;

2. the UK, through academic and other channels, should bring every influence to bear on ICRP and IAEA to ensure that internationally recommended ALARA "safety" levels are replaced by real safety levels (AHARS) without delay, so as to ensure that the world does not continue to be "spooked" by the one major energy source that could support future economic stability without damage to the environment.

B. Brief Introduction and Background

1. My name is Wade Allison. I am Emeritus Professor of Physics at Oxford and Fellow of Keble College. I have researched and taught a number of courses in Medical Physics, Nuclear Physics and Radiation Physics in the past 40 years at Oxford. After writing an advanced text book "Fundamental Physics for Probing and Imaging" (Oxford, 2006), I became concerned about the actual safety of ionising radiation and how it related to regulations and public perceptions. In particular, misunderstandings seemed, and still seem, likely to encourage decisions on future energy supply to be made that would not be in the best interest, scientifically, climatically and economically.

2. The population at large knows little about radiation, and few in the scientific community straddle the disciplines from nuclear physics to clinical medicine. It is not in the career interest of a young scientist to enter this important area, riven by popular misconceptions and public angst. It seemed like a useful and important matter for me to take on, given my scientific background. The science is straightforward but the educational task is harder.

3. In 2009 I published a popular book, "Radiation and Reason, The Impact of Science on a Culture of Fear", aimed at a non-scientific audience but supported with real scientific arguments and data so that people can understand -- that is feel some ownership of the ideas. I am told that I have succeeded. It seems that the book and the related website have attracted attention around the world.

4. Whenever invited (about once a week) I give public lectures and Q&A sessions at discussion clubs, formal lectures, schools, hospitals, professional bodies, universities, etc. I have also visited Australia for this purpose. I have written invited articles for the media (eg BBC, The European) and for professional journals (eg British Journal of Radiology).

5. Fukushima created worldwide interest in the science-based reassurance in my book. In Japan, as elsewhere, few people have any understanding of radiation and its effects, and so they are easily frightened -- and the press even more so. At the time of the accident the rush of foreign nationals to leave Japan was little short of international panic. But on 28 March I wrote of the effect of the radiation "no-one has died - and is unlikely to". The Japanese authorities have been blamed in the press for the way the accident has been handled, but that is not appropriate, as I explained in a video interview recorded in Japan.

6. I visited Fukushima in early October and spoke with schoolteachers, doctors and community leaders in the affected area. They confirmed what I had anticipated: that fear and distrust are having a destructive effect on communities; that food restrictions and evacuations are inflicting great stress on public health, all without apparent benefit. I gave public lectures, Q&A sessions and press interviews in Tokyo. There were no heated arguments, just opportunities for reasoned reassurance.

7. In five years of work on this subject I have reached many conclusions. Details may be found in the book. Text files and more are downloadable, including the Conclusion and Fukushima Epilogue. My invited paper due to be delivered to the British Institute of Radiology on 12 December 2011 is very relevant and includes technical data.

C. Factual points and details.

These are summarised as a series of numbered points. A more relaxed and discursive treatment is to be found in my book. (I can make a number of extra copies available on request.)

1 Nuclear safety is two separate subjects, risks to reactors and risks to people. These do not overlap although few people make the separation.

1.1 In an accident the nuclear reactor(s) usually destroy themselves, eg Windscale, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, Fukushima. Controlling and stabilising a nuclear reactor is an engineering problem that is expensive but well regulated. It should not need to be a matter for global concern.

1.2 The direct effect of radiation on people, including site workers, is rather small, both in the immediate aftermath of an accident and in its long term impact (cancer). Except at Chernobyl where about 50 died, nuclear radiation and radioactivity from reactor accidents have caused no deaths, identifiable individually or statistically. [None are to be expected at Fukushima, even among the workers, even in the next 50 years.] Why have there been none? Modern radiobiology provides answers to this question, as I have tried to explain in simple terms.

2 Why are people worried about radiation? Two reasons:

2.1 Memories from the time of the Cold War. However, like "WMD" and "45 minutes" the scare stories do not survive proper scientific scrutiny in the 21st century. The blast, fire and immediate radiation effect of a nuclear weapon may kill many, but the "lingering radiation" kills very few survivors, as is now known from the study of survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (published figures give 1 in 200 within 50 years).

2.2 Radiation and radioactivity are invisible and cannot be felt. Two answers can be given to reassure:

2.2.1 Get a simple radiation detector. Today with modern electronics a detector should be cheap and easy to use. In fact a domestic smoke detector uses a radiation detector that could be redesigned for the task. Teenage students should learn about them in school and should take them home to explain to parents. Everyone should be able to see if there is any radiation -- it's as simple as burnt toast!

2.2.2 Modern radiobiology confirms that, although we do not consciously feel radiation, the cells of our body do so -- and are able to repair the damage it causes using a number of overlapping repair kits. Responsibility for protection against radiation damage has simply been devolved to a local level. The brain should relax!

3 Radiation used in clinical medicine for personal health. The various types of ionising radiation used in health care are similar to those used in nuclear technology, or otherwise found in the environment. The only difference is that the public trusts the medical profession to use these reasonably (and the media do not create alarmist news about such uses).

3.1 The public welcome moderate radiation levels, from both internal and external sources, for medical imaging (CT, PET, SPECT scans), with a single acute dose of about 5-10 millisievert.

3.2 In radiotherapy the public are thankful for doses greater than 20,000 millisievert spread over a month inflicted on normal healthy parts of the body near the treated tumour that then recover. Everyone knows someone who has benefited from such treatment.

4 Current radiation "safety" levels for the environment

4.1 These are recommended by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) with support from the IAEA. National regulations then follow such advice, more or less -- it is difficult for them to do otherwise without raising public ire.

4.2 To allay historic public fears of radiation, these recommendations are set As Low As Reasonably Achievable (ALARA), that is close to levels in nature, about 1 millisievert per year. This is a level of appeasement, not safety. A recoverable peripheral radiotherapy monthly dose is more than 20,000 years of ALARA-level dose-rate!

4.3 This ALARA-based level is unreasonable as a safety level.

5 Damage to the public interest from current ALARA-based "safety" regulations

5.1 At Chernobyl, as reported by UN, WHO and others, aside from 50 deaths and the successfully treated child thyroid cancer cases, the major health effects were caused by stress as a result of evacuation, poor information and a "victim" culture.

5.2 At Fukushima the evacuation zone and clean up level has been based on 20 millisievert per year. Suicides, fatal disruption of old people, destruction of businesses and breakup of communities is the result. Two comparisons:

5.2.1 this annual dose is the same as two harmless scans in a year;

5.2.2 this annual dose is so low that it would take 1000 years to accumulate what the radiotherapy patient gets in one month -- and then says "thank you" for further years of life in most cases.

Meanwhile, fear of radiation in Japan is such that parents march in the belief that 20 millisievert per year is too high and that the Japanese Government is not to be trusted.

5.3 Food destruction based on ALARA has significant economic consequences that outweigh any possible benefit. The radiation authorities, later, publicly regretted the meat destruction in Norway and Sweden after Chernobyl. Yet the same error has been repeated at Fukushima. Specifically, it would be necessary to eat one tonne of condemned Japanese meat in 4 months to receive the same dose as a (harmless) radiation scan (this statement is based on personally checked officially published numbers).

6 Suggested new conservative radiation safety levels for the environment, in everyone's best interest

6.1 Safety of radiation should be As High As Relatively Safe (AHARS), mindful of other dangers, local and global.

6.2 Suggested conservative levels based on scientific study have four parts

6.2.1 max 100 millisievert in any single acute dose

6.2.2 max 100 millisievert total in any month, that is 200 times less than accepted by the radiotherapy patient

6.2.3 max 5000 millisievert in a lifetime

6.2.4 in the future these levels should be allowed to increase in the light of advances in radiobiology

6.3 Comment: broadly these AHARS levels are 1000 times greater than current ALARA, that is relaxed by 1000 times.

6.4 A full written scientific review has been invited by the British Institute of Radiology (BIR). Accordingly, an academic paper in support of these levels has been submitted to the British Journal of Radiology with the title "Radiation and Public Trust; The case for a major relaxation of environmental safety levels". It will be presented as an invited lecture at the Institute's open meeting, "Chernobyl 25 years on", on 12 Dec 2011.

7 How do people respond?

7.1 The media and public figures speak of a "nuclear debate" and the need to present both sides -- but a dialogue between fear and science should not be described in that way. Scientific understanding is not achieved through the cut and thrust of adversarial challenge. The science is not difficult to understand but changing minds on any topic is hard.

7.2 My experience from lecturing is that the public is interested and trusting when they feel that they are not being talked at. Currently, they are sensitive to whether a speaker is in the pocket of an interested or commercial party. Once reassured, they listen, ask questions and engage. The press, driven by a need to deliver copy, often do not. In 2 years of lecturing I have not encountered the strong "anti" opinions that many expect others to hold. Of course the press want to keep any confrontation alive, but any opposition is confined to:

7.2.1 the genuinely frightened (who usually listen, ask questions and respond);

7.2.2 a few dedicated frighteners (who run away when faced with real science);

7.2.3 some safety professionals (who see reputations and jobs at risk).

7.3 National reactions. These vary widely, often divided by recent national history, seldom brought together by science. Perhaps I should add that the following views are personal rather than scientific.

7.3.1 Germany is in the power of the Green vote. They suffered from being on both sides of the front line in the Cold War, so fear of radiation is deeply engrained. My contributions have been reported there as contributing positively to discussion. In 2011 there have been more than 3 times as many visitors to my website from Germany as from France. Perhaps there is more internal debate -- Germany may yet turn back to nuclear technology -- but in the meantime opportunities are available for UK PLC.

7.3.2 France. The French population at large are remarkable disengaged except for the educated elite. The opportunities for close cooperation with the UK are very positive. They need us politically and financially and we need their experience, but the lack of public interest is a concern.

7.3.3 Japan. History has given Japan a particularly fearful view of radiation. At Fukushima, the traumatised reaction to the tsunami (over which they were powerless) has been transferred, perhaps, to worries over radiation (on which they are engaged in recrimination). The UK has played a commendably constructive part in calming fears in Japan through the visit of Weightman.

7.3.4 Australia and New Zealand. Although there is a traditional opposition to nuclear technology, opinion encountered on the internet (and at lectures when I spoke in Australia in October 2010) is more positive.

7.3.5 United States. Opinion is heavily influenced by historical perceptions and rarely by understanding of the underlying science. Their concern over possible litigation often prevents them from asking the right questions. Radiation safety should be decided by science, not in the courts. US perspectives tend to carry disproportionate weight in the formation of international opinion.

8 Suggestions for future action

8.1 The ALARA safety regulation philosophy should be changed. The UK should make a major contribution by pressing for this through ICRP and IAEA. My review submitted to BIR ends with a warning

"To this end world authorities, such as ICRP and IAEA, should show leadership without delay. It would be unfortunate for the prosperity of Europe, USA and Japan, if they remained victims of scientifically out-dated fears, but even more unfortunate if some nations broke ranks by treating nuclear radiation safety more realistically on their own. It would be better for the nations of the world to move forward together with agreed standards into a new beneficial nuclear age."

The USA has contributed to excessive alarm over Fukushima and should do some serious thinking. It has been too ready to wield fear of radiation as an out-dated weapon of cultural influence. The results have been most unfortunate. The UK is in a good position to show leadership.

8.2 Education and trust. In the UK a vigorous but sympathetic educational programme is needed, building on popular experience of the benefits of radiation in clinical medicine to establish trust. Schools and Colleges should be offering more information and courses, from open public lectures that aim to reassure, to attracting young people into the industry to rebuild the UK skills base in this area. (This can be done -- the entire nuclear industry was built between 1940 and 1944 without any existing nuclear skills base at all.) Radiation detectors should be made available. School children should be invited to take them home with instructions to explain to their parents. Reassurance, discussed with friends or over a family meal, is the fastest word-of-mouth route to public understanding and acceptance. Visitor centres, where access is currently restricted on grounds of safety, should be more active in attracting the public. UK radiation safety education programmes that proved successful would have value worldwide as cultural exports, for example through the BBC.

8.3 New realistic safety regulations should bring large cost savings to any nuclear programme. While no corners should be cut in respect of the control of reactor stability, large parts of the cost of nuclear power would be reduced dramatically with more reasonable safety standards, whichever particular technology is used. Certainly no technology should be chosen, and no delay in the UK nuclear programme should be countenanced, purely on the grounds of the current unjustifiable safety standards.

Prepared 22nd December 2011