The hyperbole: maybe we should tone it down?

Several of the major media outlets are backing off the hyperbolic nuclear catastrophe talk somewhat. Perhaps they realize they went a bit too far and need to tone it down?

At CBS: Radiation from Japan: How big a risk for U.S.?.

the images of the stricken Japanese plant are disturbing. But the fear of a nuclear fallout in this country may be much greater than the threat. … “The people in California can rest easy. The amount of radiation that you’re getting now, or are liable to get in the near future from Japan, would be less than you would get in a TSA screening. It’s just not a hazard right now. I can’t see how that’s going to change in the immediate future.”

USA Today: Japan nuclear emergency workers to return to plant. What they don’t make clear is that the radiation dose a plant worker can receive is closely monitored to stay within a minimal health risk. The plant workers have not (yet) engaged in a suicide mission so rotation of workers illustrates that the radiation exposure, even at the plant itself, is manageable as far as health safety is concerned.

The nuclear crisis has triggered international alarm and partly overshadowed the human tragedy caused by Friday’s 9.0-magnitude earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, a blast of black seawater that pulverized Japan’s northeastern coastline. The quake was one of the strongest recorded in history.

Millions of people struggled for a fifth day with little food, water or heat, and already chilly temperatures turned to snow in many areas. Police say more than 452,000 people are staying in temporary shelters, often sleeping on the floor in school gymnasiums.

The Telegraph: The world shouldn’t panic about Japan’s nuclear problems. This one starts out with Germany’s over-reaction.

No doubt this panicky and unjustified decision was in large part prompted by the need to pander to Germany’s powerful Green movement. But it was gratuitous and unhelpful, doing no favours either to Japan or the rest of the world where nuclear generation is the only realistic source of long-term clean energy at our disposal. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the level of radioactivity at the Fukushima Daiichi power station dropped sharply in the course of yesterday, despite a third explosion. To put matters into perspective, the level of radiation directly over the reactor was lower than the post-Chernobyl level of radiation over the UK, whose health impact was the equivalent of smoking half a cigarette a year.

The San Francisco Chronicle: Japan nuclear health risks minimal, experts say. — (“experts say” is a caution and caveat so care is needed in interpreting the article)

From what they’ve seen so far, radiation experts said it’s unlikely that anyone outside the plant – including residents in nearby communities who have been evacuated in recent days – has been exposed to enough radiation to do long-term damage.

Public health and radiation experts stressed Tuesday that there is no need for people in the United States to stockpile potassium iodide tablets, much less take them. Radiation levels high enough to present health risks will not reach the West Coast, public health and radiation experts said.

The fact is that radiation can be measured in extremely small amounts and that can be analyzed to tell you exactly what material is involved. That, in turn, can be used to determine the source. Such information can be useful as it allows determining the age of fossils, for example. It is also possible to detect the residue from bomb testing from fifty years ago to determine age and other information for more current biological specimens as well.

Not only can very small amounts be detected, the health risks are fairly well understood. Where much of the panic comes from is in speculation about effects from levels that are in the ‘noise’ that is the typical environment in which people live. It is not known to any degree of accuracy just how much small amounts of radiation within the normal environmental variations will impact health not because of lack of effort in trying to figure it out but because, even after extensive study and experience, the signal of such an impact is not clearly evident. That is, once you get to very low levels, the health impact is indeterminate.

Another canard that has appeared in this cloud of hysteria is the ‘perfectly safe’ energy resource desire. There is no absence of risk in any human endeavor. The issue for society at large is, as always, the benefit against the risk and costs. The hyperbole that is evident after the Japan disaster isolates risks from any referent and escalates them to absurd levels. That results in self destructive behaviors such as in Germany and in public panics. It is quite likely that the risks due to the nuclear power plants is much less than the risks from the panic that results from ignorance and media hyperbole.

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