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Fears About Radiation Bigger Than Actual Risk


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

There are times when it makes sense to be afraid, and there are times when fear can seem out of proportion with the threat. Take Japan's nuclear accident. Despite the fact that radiation levels around the plant are dropping, people as far away as Tokyo still seem at least nervous, if not genuinely fearful. As NPR's Joe Palca reports, the threat of radiation exposure does something to our sensibility that other threats just don't.

JOE PALCA: We live with a certain amount of radiation in our lives all the time - there's no way to avoid it, period.

Mr. STEVE SIMON (Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute): That's true.

PALCA: Of course, that's true. Steve Simon and I are sitting on a sofa, on the 24th floor of a hotel in Tokyo. Simon is with the National Cancer Institute. He's come to Tokyo because he's an expert on the effect of radiation on health. He spends a lot of time reassuring people.

Mr. SIMON: You get radiation from the ground, because of the natural minerals in the ground. You get some radiation from space, because of cosmic rays from the sun. There's even some radioactivity in food and water - very low amounts, and it's all natural. And we have lived with it for as long as man has been around.

PALCA: So no matter where you are, you're getting irradiated. Take Tokyo, for example. Shinichi Kawarada is a radiation adviser with the Japanese government.

Mr. SHINICHI KAWARADA (Deputy Director General, Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, Japan): (Through Translator) Normally, the average radiation level in Tokyo: .028 to .079 micro-si per hour.

PALCA: Point-zero-seven-nine microsieverts per hour is tiny - about a thousand times less than you get in a medical X-ray. Now, that's before the radiation release at the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Kawarada's agency has been providing daily briefings on radiation levels around Japan. He says earlier this week, the radiation in Tokyo had inched up to .089 microsieverts per hour.

Mr. KAWARADA: (Through Translator) So the levels for April 5th are just slightly, slightly above the normal average levels.

Mr. SIMON: It's true that some small amounts of contamination from that power plant accident reached Tokyo. But it's very small.

PALCA: And Steve Simon says it's still way below the variation you get just depending on where you live.

Mr. SIMON: If you live at high altitude in Denver, Colorado, or places where there's high mineral content in the ground, near uranium mining areas in the western United States, your exposure can be two, three, four, five, even 10 times higher than someone else that lives at sea level, in a sandy area.

PALCA: In other words, I'll get more radiation exposure when I spend two days in Denver next month than I got from the week I've spent in Tokyo. In fact, I received more exposure on the flight over to Japan. So why are people so worried about nuclear power? Why do people back in America ask me - mostly in jest, but still - if I'm going to return from Tokyo with a radioactive glow?

Nuclear engineer Michael Corradini thinks he knows the answer. Corradini is a professor at the University of Wisconsin. He says even though the likelihood of a major catastrophe is very small, the fact that he can't absolutely rule it out...

Professor MICHAEL CORRADINI (Nuclear Engineering, University of Wisconsin, Madison): Creates this rational, irrational reaction that nuclear power will always have. And that's simply a fact.

PALCA: So, even if people believe the reassurances that this accident will pose no health risk, anxiety will inevitably shoot up when the next accident occurs.

Joe Palca, NPR News, Tokyo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.