Why are people scared of radiation? Honestly, there are too many reasons to reliably and comprehensively list. There was the threat of nuclear war, there was rampant misinformation, a lack of education… But the part that I want to talk about was the contribution made by the regulators and organizations in charge of safety. Namely, the enshrining of the Linear No-Threshold (LNT) model of nuclear radiation dose safety as the absolute first and last word on how to work with radiation and radioactive materials.
The LNT model can be easily summed up by Greenpeace’s favourite catchphrase about radiation “There is no safe dose”. I’ll flesh this out a bit before I get into why it’s not true later. The idea is simply that every bit of radiation you are exposed to is enough to increase the chance that you will develop cancer in your lifetime. It is a highly overzealous method of prevention basically meant to minimize all possible exposure of anyone working with nuclear materials by any means necessary. Unfortunately, by not being replaced by a more accurate method of dose safety, this desire to protect those who were working to unlock this next stage of energy was co-opted into a “proof” that nuclear radiation was something too dangerous to use.
What’s something that you used to have as a kid that would be embarrassing for you to use now, but was necessary for you to learn how to be a functioning person. Training wheels on your bike? A training potty? Safety scissors? The dream of being the first Millionaire Astronaut President to win the Superbowl?
Training wheels are important, they let us build confidence in doing things that are more dangerous than we are used to. But there always comes a point where we have to take them off and start using our new capabilities while only relying on our own skills and knowledge to stop us from hurting ourselves.
I actually believe that for a time the LNT model was a good thing to have. When nuclear power was in its infancy the LNT model forced us to be careful in its exploration and utilization. I shudder to think what would have happened if we had charged ahead as unthinkingly with nuclear energy as we did with coal or oil. There is almost a whole genre of fiction and movies about the deprivations and degradation of our humanity in our treatment of others in the early days of chasing those new energy sources. But we are now a bit more experience in the field of nuclear science, the civilization version of being “a little older and a little wiser” and it’s time that we realize we can take off the training wheels and start being more confident in our ability to responsibly move forward with this knowledge and ability.
So what’s wrong with the LNT model? Well, the first thing is that everyone everywhere is constantly getting small doses of radiation. All the time. I’m sure you’ve heard that bananas are noticeably radioactive, but there are also other everyday things like potatoes, brazil nuts, granite counter tops, and the southwest coast of India. Here’s the thing though, even the most detailed study on low dose radiation exposure shows that working in a nuclear reactor for an average of 27 years raises the likelihood of leukemia by a whopping…. 0.01% and that doses below 50 mSv had no increased risk of leukemia. You do many things in a single day that raise your likelihood of dying by more than that. Things like driving, walking up or down stairs, bathing, cooking, and eating. But we do all these things because we acknowledge that the benefits of these things outweigh the risks.
There are a few groups that have been vocal about the need for a re-evaluation of the LNT safety model. I am not a biological scientist or a doctor of any kind so I have no ability to Professionally vouch for any change in radiation dose safety standard. I encourage everyone reading this to read up on the discussions and form your own opinions of the underlying arguments.
Growing up is a constant struggle of trying to do more for yourself and those around you. And in all societies, a lot of that involves taking risks with ourselves for an increased benefit, whether it’s going on a hunt for a large animal to feed a growing family, or getting in a car to drive through rush-hour traffic. If we scale this up to civilization it is only natural that as we improve our lives and our abilities that the things we choose to do will come with more and more risks that we need to learn to handle properly and safely without being paralyzed by fear. But also like growing up, it means that we need to give up the safety of the things we are comfortable with, otherwise we stay a child forever, never reaching our true potential.