One of the unfortunate and inevitable realities of watching the news on television is that the newscasters too often are just pretty people who read well; they are not experts in much of anything else.
They are no brighter, no better informed, no better read than most of the people who are watching them. When they speak about issues of science, politics, economics or history, their background knowledge is no more than what they can see on their teleprompter.
Sadly, the purpose of television news is not actually to inform the public. The purpose is to sell soap. Or cars. Or paper towels. If the news is not sensationalistic and frightening, the owners of the television stations are fearful that the audience will evaporate, and with it, their advertising dollars.
That one region of Japan, a nation of almost 128 million, covering 145,925 square miles, suffered a devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011 was apparently not horrible enough. Given that an electric power plant that generated electricity by nuclear fission was also damaged, the newscasters felt that they needed to hype that minor fact on top of the 300 million dollars of damage and the deaths of 27,000 people from the tsunami and earthquake.
They must try to make us fear that radiation (cue scary music) is going to get us.
The problem, of course, is that neither they nor the average viewer know anything about radiation, except the notion that it is deadly, that it causes cancer, and that it comes from atomic stuff.
Unfortunately, most of the fear mongering is unwarranted.
A coal powered electric generating plant releases more than three times the amount of radiation annually as a nuclear power plant. In fact, you receive more radiation from eating a single banana than you receive from living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant for a year. Of course, the amount of ionizing radiation being released from a coal fired plant is only about three times the amount of radiation you get from eating a single banana. On a single airplane ride from New York to Los Angeles you will receive more than 400 times the amount of radiation you would get from living within fifty miles of that nuclear plant over a full year.
Of course, simply being alive for a year gives you ten times the radiation dosage of that single plane ride from New York to LA. It comes from the natural potassium in your body.
A dosage of radiation that a person who works in a nuclear plant is allowed to be exposed to in a year is more than 100 times what you get naturally from your own body. And it would take double the amount that a nuclear worker is allowed to get in a year to see any increase in your risk of cancer. And it would take ten times even that radiation dosage to get severe radiation poisoning that might, in some cases, prove fatal.
And how much radiation has been released from the power plant in Japan that was damaged in the earthquake and tsunami? If you were living next to the plant, you’d daily get about the amount of radiation you’d get from eating 35 bananas—or about one tenth of what you’d get from that trip from New York to Los Angeles. So in ten days, you’d get the equivalent radiation of a single flight from New York to LA.
Nuclear power generation is not the most dangerous form of energy production. Joseph Romm, an energy expert at the Center for American Progress in Washington DC is quoted as commenting. “Nothing is worse than fossil fuels for killing people.” Fine particles from coal power plants kill an estimated 13,200 people each year just in the United States according to the Clean Air Task Force. Additional fatalities come from mining and transporting the coal. In contrast, most deaths from nuclear power generation come from accidents involving those who mine the uranium—and those deaths are but a tiny fraction of the annual deaths from coal mining.
People fear that a nuclear power plant disaster is going to result in a massive death toll. That simply isn’t the case. Chernobyl was the worst power plant disaster ever, involving an old, poorly designed plant nothing like power plants anywhere else in the world. Yet the number who died in the actual disaster, plus those who died earlier than they otherwise might have, during the twenty-five years since the accident, is barely 9000. In contrast, when thirty hydroelectric dams failed in central China in 1975, 230,000 people died. In fact, the total number of fatalities from hydroelectric power is far greater than the numbers of deaths from all other energy sources combined.
What about the problem of nuclear waste? It has been estimated that if all the nuclear waste that has been produced by all the power plants around the world since nuclear power plants first began producing power in 1956 were put in one place, the waste would only fill a football field thirty feet high. On the other hand, the burning of coal for electricity creates monumentally more waste each and every year.