Friday, April 11, 2008

The Conflict Between Nuclear Fears and Nuclear Facts

Mark Twain said "I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."

We worry about a lot of things in this threatening world, and as Twain suggested, sometimes our worries are based more on our perception of the facts than on the facts themselves. So what's a government to do when people think they have been harmed by something, and they want the government to compensate them, only the evidence says they're wrong.

Well the Japanese have just answered that question with a resounding "Pay them anyway."

This is about the survivors of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are known in Japan as the HIBAKUSHA, people who lived within about two and a quarter miles of ground zero or visited those areas in the days after the blasts. There are roughly 250,000 of them still alive. Their average age is 64.

HIBAKUSHA rightly get all sorts of special government benefits. Those who suffer from five diseases connected with radiation are also eligible for special medical benefits. In 2001 the government established science-based standards to determine who qualifies, since many HIBAKUSHA, who lived further from the center of the explosions, received practically no radiation dose at all. That science-based approach basically said that the further away from ground zero you lived, the less radiation you were exposed to, and the less likely it is that radiation caused your illness. (Remember, lots of elderly people get cancer, like skin cancer or prostate cancer, and radiation has nothing to do with it.) Under that standard 99 out of every hundred atomic bomb survivors who applied for special medical benefits were turned down.

300 of them sued the Japanese government, and those lawsuits got a lot of attention in the press. Political pressure built on the government. Then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was already in political trouble, so he promised a new system.

That new system was just announced and, basically, it says the faqcts don't matter as much as people's concerns. Now any HIBAKUSHA who is sick gets paid, no matter how far they lived from ground zero, no matter if they received any radiation at all. As one member of the government panel that wrote the new rules said "Fear is particularly high about radiation. It's more important to support the HIBAKUSHA regardless of the lack of scientific evidence."

That FEELS good, FEELS fair. But think about it. By that standard governments should be paying people who are worried about electric power lines, or artificial sweeteners, or silicone in their breast implants, or autism from vaccines, or brain tumors from cell phones…or any number of other risks which many of us fear, fears not supported by the facts.

Worrying too much can cause stress, and stress hurts our health. So unlike many of the things we fear, the risk from fear itself is real, and needs to be respected in government policy. But the Japanese policy goes so much further than that. They've basically said that emotions trump science, and in a world in which so many of us are worried about so many things, a policy like that could turn out to be a truly troubling thing.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Dear David, i was ur students in the IEAE's class in beijing china2008. i really appreciate you and your courses, benefiting me a lot. now i have a small request,could you sick more risk communication articles about the nuclear?thanks a ton.