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Year : 2011  |  Volume : 34  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 213-214  

On improving public perception of nuclear power

Ex BARC and IAEA, Member KKNPP Expert Group, India

Date of Web Publication27-Sep-2012

Correspondence Address:
M R Iyer
Ex BARC and IAEA, Member KKNPP Expert Group
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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How to cite this article:
Iyer M R. On improving public perception of nuclear power. Radiat Prot Environ 2011;34:213-4

How to cite this URL:
Iyer M R. On improving public perception of nuclear power. Radiat Prot Environ [serial online] 2011 [cited 2021 Aug 5];34:213-4. Available from: https://www.rpe.org.in/text.asp?2011/34/3/213/101728

The anti-nuclear agitation particularly at Kudankulam, was going on in an illogical and unscientific manner and this was spreading fears in the minds of the public. This needs to be challenged on a rational, consistent and persistent manner. The scare created in the public in a sensational manner carried the attention of the media. The concerns covered a wide range of improbable fears - from earthquake, Tsunami, volcanic eruptions that was never experienced in the region, effect of a sunspot activity knocking out emergency power, concern about fishing when there is near zero discharge of radioactivity, the thermal pollution which is common to any power station which is meticulously controlled, neutrinos from the reactor increasing the background (clearly a ridiculous proposition) and all sort of impossible factors. The idea seemed to be to find any stick to beat nuclear power! And make catastrophic prediction that if not all at least one would create havoc with the safety of the reactor. The activists even suggested converting the power station to a fossil fuelled station, conveniently forgetting the basic difference between the two systems and ignoring the effect of green- house gas emissions from fossil fuel. It was little concern for them about the effect of green-house gas emissions threatening life on the earth but dangled the imaginary scare of nuclear power before the public. At the same time, an agitation going on in a neighboring state against a coal fired station requiring the disposal of 300 tons of coal ash daily never deterred them.

Unfortunately, the fear about radiation is historical - it dawned on mankind in a wrong way. Another challenge with public relations is psychological, that anything sensational sells in the media well. Activists have developed methodologies to systematically twist statistics, misrepresented scientific facts and to my surprise were well organized often driven by personal motivations; it had become a profitable vocation. The nuclear bodies should be more proactive and prompt in placing the facts in the media in the absence of which sometimes even well meaning knowledgeable section of the public starts doubting the facts. The purpose of this article is not only to draw the attention of the nuclear industry to effectively and imaginatively counteract those scares but also to point out the need for removing the scope for the activists creating scare of radiation in the public by correcting certain safety notions in the nuclear industry.

The philosophy, jargons and concepts in radiation protection have been to some extent responsible in creating confusion in the minds of the people. The fear of the unknown is psychological and can be easily exploited. The radiation protection concepts give the common man a feeling of ambiguity. This easily provides a fertile ground to create a specter of fear. Statements like: it can create genetic mutation even at low levels, there is no threshold, the limits are OK nevertheless it is better to keep it as low as reasonably achievable, are noble ideas, scientifically correct, but hardly can be conveyed to allay the fears. Particularly, in a country like India where public emotions are volatile and explosive, and often, more lucid facts of science and logic are thrown to the wind. The radiation protection community can do a lot in setting this right and to develop matched frequency of communication to the public. Unfortunately we don't see much effort in this direction. This should be based on modern management and public communication techniques. Often the people who put the message across have no idea of these subtle intricacies.

In Fukushima some reports said that the activity level in sea water was 1250 times more than permitted level. However, it should be noted that the concept of permissible levels involves continued exposure at that level for the whole year to exceed the dose limit. What they should convey is the dose in terms of the dose commitment. We should develop a comprehensible jargon to convey to the people the real impact of minor incidences in terms of dose commitment.

Another thing is that radiation protection professionals internationally have a knack for making units very small such as Bq (the earlier limit of Curies was more comprehensible) and then to make it more frightening make it Bq per Liter not being satisfied with Bq/ml! Recently, I saw in display of environmental dose that the external dose to a member of the public from natural radiation 200,000 nSv. Why are they anxious to tell the public a number of 200,000 to make them more bewildered? Who will look at or understand what the suffixes of units mean but the number makes me apprehensive. It looks as if they found that the display of 0.2 mSv not enough dramatic!! Or is it they are more anxious to show that their measurements are so sensitive?

In my experience for addressing the public concerns, it is necessary to differentiate the two sources of concern - normal operation and possible emergencies. Though radiation risk is basic to both there is a difference in the public mind at least to the more logical minded among them. The normal operation of nuclear power stations can be straightaway assured to be safe and the subject of LNT hypothesis is more relevant to this type of fear.

The second aspect of public concern is on the possibility of accidents and the Fukushima, Chernobyl concerns are related to this. Though basically related to radiation safety that is not the only aspect. The radiation aspects here again would be related to assuring the public that there cannot be any adverse effect even up to 100 mSv and the disproving the LNT hypothesis would be helpful. The social aspect of disruption of large populations in case of an accident is slightly a different aspect. This has to be allayed by having a logical approach to the analysis of why these accidents happened and assuring the public such extreme cases are highly unlikely particularly if one takes care of appropriate engineered safeguards. Consider the pubic talk of earthquakes in this context, but then how many reactor accidents took place in the world due to earthquake alone. None, even in Fukushima, it was not earthquake alone that caused the accident. So, we can rule-out that possibility. The Tsunami factor was the bottom line in Fukushima and that is taken care of in the sites, there should not be any concern about accidents. It is a little known fact that the foresight of the safety experts in India was responsible for preempting the effect of 2004 Tsunami in Kalpakkam when not many have heard the word Tsunami!

Now, the lessons we have to learn about realistic assessment of the effects of radiation on man. Apart from cancer incidence another concern from radiation in the public mind is from the genetic effect which is often blown out of proportion. It has been found to be not manifested in real life in the macro level either in the progenies of Hiroshima Nagasaki Bomb victims or in the data from high background areas. Another set of data which is not much stressed but which is available in literature is the lack of such effects in the survivors of therapy treatments. A major part of the scare that is created in the public mind by the anti-nuke activists is using the genetic scare. If we can counteract that fear with facts, half the work is done!

The LNT theory on which radiation protection standards are based today is responsible for this. As the editorial in the previous issue of RPE points out this need to be discounted at low levels of radiation. Extrapolating the risk factors to very low levels of radiation to arrive at numbers when multiplied with huge amount of population, most of them may not have received any radiation from man-made sources. The variation in natural radiation exposure particularly in high background areas (which has not lead to any observable deleterious effects), is orders of magnitude higher than the dose estimated to be received by a member of the public from our nuclear operations. It is ridiculous to apply the ICRP risk factor and create a scare that so many deaths would take place in the future due to the exposure. It has been pointed out that to discern any effect in the public from public exposures it would take a few million person data since the effects are so small overriding on the effect from a variety of carcinogenic agents other than radiation present in the environment. The epidemiological surveys thus cannot prove anything deleterious from such low level of radiation, yet this scare continues. The cause-to-effect factor must be kept in mind while projecting the risk factors on low level of radiation. The dose limits should recognize the observation that no deleterious genetic effects could be established at low levels of exposure.

The regulatory organization and nuclear industry should be able to make use of the impressive amount of data that is available on occupational exposures, estimated public exposures due to the operation of NPPs, the data on HBRAs and should build-up a good data base on the effect of radiation on the radiation therapy of survival patients from cancer to home on to our own conclusions for the need to go away from the LNT hypothesis at low levels of radiation up to 100 mSv. The need for a centralized registry in India is never more keenly felt.

Only when we can state what is safe and what is not safe decisively we can resolve this problem. The radiation protection community has a heavy responsibility for ensuring this.


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