Let’s imagine that you’ve learned Portuguese and have pursued a year-long career opportunity in the tropical Brazilian State of Espiritu Santo. The work is rewarding, the locals friendly, and you spend every weekend relaxing on beautiful Guarapari Beach.
Too soon, the year is over, and you move on to further opportunities with broadened experience, professional development, and an elevated annual radiation dose of at least 29 millisieverts (mSv).
This would be substantially more than the total dose reported for the Tepco worker who was recently diagnosed with leukemia (nearly 20 mSv). It would be from a combination of “shine” from the sand (naturally rich in uranium and thorium), windblown particles entering your mouth and radon decay products in the air you breathed.
But there will be no international agency recommending you limit your beach time, or environmental groups capitalising on your illness if you yourself later develop leukemia. Don’t expect outrage if your partner and children are with you the whole time, either. The unfortunate Japanese worker will receive compensation simply because his dose was higher than 5 mSv. The vast majority of his 16 000 coworkers received smaller, minimised doses. Both these things are appropriate.
It is completely inappropriate to desperately rekindle Fukushima hysteria on the back of a suffering man, without any context for the causal connection being implied – but not demonstrated! – here between radiation and cancer.
Is his condition directly linked to nuclear plant exposure? There’s no way to definitively know. It could well just be statistical. Could you get leukemia from a rewarding year of beachside work and relaxation? If it’s no concern whatsoever on the beach, why is treated differently at a plant? Such context for natural versus nuclear radiation dosage, and the ongoing control of occupational doses as part of industrial safety culture are surprisingly complimentary concepts, when you think about it. Just like we can all enjoy a barbecue in our back yard, but stringent workplace health and safety regulations apply at a gas-fired power plant. The monitoring of radiation, despite its typically low hazard, is and should be normal, good practice.
Similarly, the undeniable lack of chronic environmental impact from serious nuclear accidents will never extenuate the public’s justified expectation of exemplary safety culture at nuclear facilities. Just because the land around Chernobyl is a verdant wilderness reserve and bike track doesn’t mean such an accident should ever again be allowed.
Indeed, looking at Ontario, community support for continued nuclear operation is at its highest ever surveyed. Last month, an industry study was released detailing the expected, limited impacts of a hypothetical accident involving radiation release. Are these related? The lack of this kind of honest engagement contributed greatly to Japan’s ongoing nuclear energy dilemma. The walk-away safety of modern reactor designs combined with visible safety culture and lessons learned has everything going for it. And perhaps the most effective message isn’t “it’s safe“, but rather “this is everything we do to make it safer than the beach”.