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David Brenner - Countering Radiation Fears With Just the Facts
The News - Current Events
March 26, 2011
david brenner radiation

As soon as David J. Brenner heard about the undersea earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated northern Japan on March 11, he checked a map of the region’s nuclear power plants. One, because of its coastal location and reactor design, looked particularly vulnerable: Fukushima Daiichi. He hoped he was wrong.

Less than a day later, ominous reports of failed cooling systems and radiation leaks at that plant began to emerge. Dr. Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University — the oldest and largest such center in the world — found himself called on repeatedly to explain what was happening with the failed reactors and to assess the radiation risk to public health, both in Japan and around the world.

Dr. Brenner, 57, a native of Liverpool, England, is a physicist who has spent his career studying the effects of radiation on human health. He has published research showing that CT scans increase the cancer risk in children, and he recently testified before Congress, saying that the widespread use of whole-body X-ray scanners at airports would produce 100 extra cases of cancer each year in the United States. [ NYTIMES ]

He thinks CT scanners and the people who use them need more regulation to make sure the scans are medically needed and the doses of radiation as low as possible. He believes that even low doses increase the risk of cancer, and that there is no “safe” level or threshold below which the risk does not rise — even if that risk cannot be measured statistically.

But for all his concern about potential harm from radiation, he does not foresee a public health disaster resulting from the crisis at Fukushima Daiichi.

From the start, he has spoken with a scientist’s caution, respect for facts and numbers, and keen appreciation of how much is simply not known or, at this point, even knowable. The situation changes constantly, and the path to the truth can be dicey, twisting through parties with passionate agendas for or against nuclear power, information meted out by government and industry, and public fears of radiation that many scientists consider wildly exaggerated.

How to explain the facts without scaring people needlessly? How to reassure without seeming to sugar-coat or patronize? The last thing people want, Dr. Brenner said, is a guy like him in a white coat on TV smugly telling them everything is fine.

“People are very worried, which is not surprising,” he said. “We want people to be able to make some kind of realistic assessment.”

In the week or so after the earthquake, he did about 30 interviews with reporters, he said, “some good, some dreadful.”

Some interviewers tried to push him to say the danger was much greater than he believed it to be. He resisted, and canceled one appearance when he realized that the host group had a strong anti-nuclear agenda.

“I try to keep my political views separate from my academic life,” he said.

Asked whether he was for or against nuclear power, he paused, then said, “I think there is a role for safe nuclear power.”

From the beginning of the troubles at Fukushima Daiichi, he has said that the Japanese plant is not, and will not become, Chernobyl. The Soviet reactor, which had no real containment structure, blew up in 1986 and spewed its contents far and wide. The Japanese reactors, though damaged, do have containment vessels, and the government acted quickly to evacuate people from the areas around the plant.

But he thinks the events in Japan should be a call to action for the United States. “This country and Japan have a fleet of aging nuclear reactors,” he said.

Early on, Dr. Brenner said that Fukushima Daiichi would probably turn out to be similar to the 1979 Three Mile Island accident in the United States, which has never been found to have effects on public health. As conditions deteriorated at the Japanese plant, he said he thought the outcome would be somewhat worse than that at Three Mile Island, but not much worse.

But he expects cases of radiation sickness among the workers at the contaminated plant, and, he added, “I fear there will be fatalities.”

He said it was possible that there would be some cases of thyroid cancer — probably too few to prove a connection statistically — years from now among people exposed as children to milk, water or produce contaminated with radioactive iodine.

So far, it seems unlikely that the accident will create a vast uninhabitable zone in Japan like the one that Chernobyl left in what is now Ukraine, Dr. Brenner said. Extensive fallout of radioactive cesium occurred at Chernobyl, and it takes many years to decay to safe levels. That kind of fallout has not occurred in Japan.

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