New Point of Inquiry Episode: Nuclear Risk and Reason

By Chris Mooney | April 12, 2011 7:29 am

The latest show (certainly timely, in light of the new wave of fear coming out of Japan this morning over an upgrade in scale for the Fukushima disaster) has just gone up–it features not one but two guests:

When the devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan last month, it left behind not only mass destruction, but also a nuclear crisis that was covered 24-7 by the international media.

Since then, we’ve been embroiled in a huge debate about nuclear policy—should there be a “Nuclear Renaissance” in the United States, or should we put it on hold?

A central issue underlying all this is the scientific question of risk. How dangerous is radiation, anyway? Do we overreact to reactors?

To tackle that question, we turned to two different guests. One is one of the world’s foremost experts on radiation exposure and its health consequences; the other is a journalist who’s done a new book about why we often misperceive risk, to our own detriment.

David Brenner is the director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University. His research focuses on understanding the effects of radiation, at both high and low doses, on living systems, and he has published more than 200 papers in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. Dr. Brenner was the recipient of the 1991 Radiation Research Society Annual Research Award, and the 1992 National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements Award for Radiation Protection in Medicine.

David Ropeik is an author, consultant, and speaker on phorisk communication and risk perception, and an instructor in the Harvard University School of Education, Environmental Management program. He’s the author of the 2010 book How Risky is it Really? Why Our Fears Don’t Always Match the Facts.

Again, you can listen here. I learned a lot doing this one. I’ll say more on this, but 1) George Monbiot is going too far in his dismissal of low dose radiation risk (which doesn’t make Helen Caldicott right, either); 2) the current news that Fukushima is now a “Level 7” release, like Chernobyl was, needs to be considered in careful context–Chernobyl was still a vastly larger release and isn’t really comparable. For all this and much more, listen to the show.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Announcements, Nuclear Power

Comments (3)

  1. Balancing quantifiable risk versus public fears has long been an issue in the nuclear world. Should you order an evacuation if you are fairly confident injuries can result (car wrecks), but you are preventing citizens from increasing their cancer risk over 20 years by 1%?

    I’ve worked in the US nuclear industry over twenty years. One perspective that’s absent in the media is an insider’s take on how a nuclear power plant really operates day to day. It’s a far different world, both good and bad, from what people normally perceive. It is not The Simpsons and not Star Trek. Current media conversations sometimes remind me of casual drivers discussing with great confidence what it’s like to compete in the Daytona 500.

    My book “Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power” provides a needed portrait of the industrial nuclear power world. It also happens to culminate in an accident very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) Rad Decision is currently available free online at . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments – there are plenty of them. There is also a paperback version available and a PDF download.

    Rad Decision shouldn’t convince any reader that nuclear is perfectly safe or horribly unsafe. Instead it provides the reader with some background and perspective so they can make more informed judgements. Unfortunately, my media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I’m not an acknowledged “expert”. Sorry about that. I just happen to do the nuclear stuff for a living.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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