There is no need to be afraid of ionising radiation – even after Fukushima

Dr. Andrzej Strupczewski, Professor in NCBJ Dr. Andrzej Strupczewski, Professor in NCBJ

Fear is dominating practically every discussions on consequences of the Fukushima accident. The largest earthquake ever noted in Japan’s history followed by a disastrous tsunami hit on March 11, 2011. Both these calamites destroyed the entire province, moved Japan isles by 4 metres (!) and killed almost 20,000 people. All roads, communication lines, and power grids in the region were destroyed. Even if Fukushima nuclear power plant reactors did survive the quake, a 15-metres-high wall of water flooded the reactor hall, making the emergency Diesel power generators useless. The just switched-off reactors could not survive long without flow of coolant not pumped by dead electrical pumps. However, even if the reactors have been destroyed, the released ionising radiation has not killed anybody. Reports of UN agencies (including World Health Organization and the UNSCEAR Scientific Committee) unanimously state that no health consequences have been or will ever be detected – even within Fukushima neighbourhoods most exposed to the radiation.

Previous generation reactors operated in Fukushima were designed 50 years ago. Let us repeat that even if they have yielded to the unthinkably huge natural disaster, they have not killed anybody. 3rd generation reactors to be built in Poland will be protected by much better safety measures, designed with terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in mind. They are designed to withstand earthquakes and tsunami. Since Poland is much safer than Japan from the natural disaster point of view, the fears are really unjustifiable.

Japan authorities tried to eliminate all radiation hazards. Such actions have brought about much more social harm than possible consequences of the radiation itself. In particular big material losses and detrimental consequences for health were brought about by evacuation of inhabitants from areas only potentially contaminated with radioactive substances. Persons displaced from their houses to some rough-and-ready often unheated rooms/tents,  without sufficient food supplies (since the entire province was destroyed), suffered cold and damp. Displaced hospital patients were devoid of normal medical care. Fear against radiation combined with uncertainty of the future made people feel very depressed, in extreme cases leading them to suicide (an essential element of the Japanese culture).

External observers have pointed out that such large-scale evacuation was really unnecessary: if inhabitants remained in their houses, radiation doses absorbed by them would be similar to doses of background radiation normally absorbed by people living in many areas of the world. Those latter people are born, live, and die without any ionising-radiation-related prejudice to their health. Actions of the Japanese authorities were justified by regulations based on the assumption that every radiation dose may be harmful. The assumption was adopted in 1959 to stop testing nuclear weapons in Earth’s atmosphere. The tests have indeed been stopped, but unfortunately fear against radiation has remained and is still influencing social attitude to nuclear power.

On February 20, 2015 international Scientists Association for Reliable Information (SARI) petitioned US Nuclear Regulatory Commission to modify radiation protection regulations. SARI requested to recognize that small radiation doses stimulate immune defence mechanisms in living organisms and in fact reduce cancer incidence rate. Tens observed facts and results of numerous scientific studies were quoted to justify the petition. Diverse topics have been studied, from large human/animal populations to intra-cell reactions. The studied populations exposed to increased background radiation levels include people living in USA, Finland, France, Brazil, China, India and other countries. Studies conducted in NCBJ have also indicated that cancer incidence rate is lower among populations living in regions of Poland where background radiation levels are higher than the all-country average and among personnel professionally exposed to increased radiation levels than among populations exposed to smaller doses of radiation. Ms Maria Skłodowska-Curie (Polis-origin physicist of the 19th -20th century turn, twice Nobel prize winner) used to say: „You need not to fear radiation, you need to understand it.”

Understanding that small doses of ionising radiation not only make no harm but are helpful to health is important not only for Japanese and people living in neighbourhood of nuclear power plants, but also for all patients diagnosed/treated with the help of ionising radiation. The operated in Świerk MARIA reactor alone produces each year radioactive isotopes used to diagnose/treat more than one million patients all over the world. Formal recognition of the fact that small radiation doses may support natural defence mechanisms in living organisms would open up new avenues for research in nuclear medicine, give hope for many thousands of patients, and relieve persons possibly influenced by some nuclear emergencies from unnecessary stress and fear.


Dr. Andrzej Strupczewski, Professor in NCBJ