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Public mistrust leads to overblown radiation fears

March 17, 2011 9:14:03 PM PDT
Many people continue to have concerns about dangerous radiation reaching California shores. The issue is one of mistrust. Not everyone believes what they hear from the government and experts.

Sales of radiation monitors have spiked on eBay, potassium iodide pills keep disappearing from store shelves, and while the public continues to hear that any fallout would be "diluted," there are skeptics who wonder if, instead, they're being "deluded."

"There's this old clich? about dilution is the solution to pollution," says nuclear industry analyst Paul Carroll. "The advantage we have from afar is both distance and time."

At the Ploughshares Fund in San Francisco Thursday morning, Connolly and the staff of the independent foundation that watches the nuclear industry pondered the misconceptions of this developing story. What we have here, they say, has become a classic failure to communicate on both sides of the Pacific.

"This is a complete failure of the U.S. administration to explain what is going on to people. We have not had straight talk from the Japanese industry on this or the Japanese government," says Joe Cirincione of the Ploughshares Fund. "You would expect more from the U.S. government."

Government sources have said, repeatedly, that these shores do not face a significant radioactive health threat. Academics have echoed that, although they do say Japan and parts of Asia are at risk.

"Well, tens of kilometers, hundreds of kilometers, something like that, depending on the wind out in the ocean," says UC Berkeley health researcher Kirk Smith, Ph.D. "Maybe if the wind reverses it might make it to Korea."

But radioactivity has a stigma. When you can't see, touch, or feel a threat, it becomes more ominous, especially when you can measure traces of it. But that's all we have coming our way, they say. Traces.

"The kinds of radiation we're likely to be exposed to on the West Coast are trivial," says Cirincione. "Much less than you would get during an x-ray, a high level airline flight. Nothing of serious health concern."

To a degree, the fear we're seeing provides a measure for how far we've come. Remember, from the end of World War II through the mid-1960s, dozens of nuclear bombs were tested in the Pacific. Much more potent radiation reached our shores from those tests than we will ever see from Japan.


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