Radioactivity, or ionizing radiation, is often seen as a central problem and risk of nuclear power. But we humans are, on average, poor at estimating and comparing risks. This is why it’s good to put the health effects of radiation, and especially radiation due to nuclear power, in proper context.
One in three Finns get cancer at some point in their life. Every year, around 30,000 Finns get cancer. Majority, about two thirds, of those cancers can be treated successfully, and so around 10,000 Finns die of cancer every year. Death due to cancer represents about a fifth of all mortality.1
Often people link radioactivity with cancer in their minds. However, about 90 percent of cancer cases are due to some other causes than ionizing radiation. And as I wrote in my previous article, over 99 percent of the radiation dose we get is due to other factors than nuclear power, or even nuclear accidents.
The average global additional dose people get annually from nuclear power plants is in the order of 0.0001 mSv, and the whole nuclear industry (including mining etc.) is responsible of a total dose of around 0.0002 mSv 2. These numbers include the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear waste and so forth. The global average dose a person gets is 2.4 mSv, which is roughly 10,000 times more than we get from the whole nuclear power sector.
So, it is a bit weird to be afraid of radiation, while at the same time eating bacon3, smoking cigarettes or drinking alcohol all the while lying in the sun half naked and without sunscreen. All of these are known carcinogens, which means they cause cancer. It is even weirder to be afraid of radiation, sometimes hysterically, due to nuclear power plants, which represents a tiny, tiny part of the total radiation dose we get. It’s a bit like smoking a couple packs a day and then being hysterically worried about the health effects of some cigarette smoke coming one’s way from the other side of the street. But people are weird when it comes to assessing risks in their lives.
The net effect of the nuclear industry and radiation
All in all, a handful of cancer deaths can arguably be attributed to the nuclear industry4. People die all the time, and each death is caused by something.
On the other hand, modern medicine uses radiation and radioactive substances in many ways5. Many diagnostics use radioactivity, with Technium-99m being the most common isotope used. Diagnostics often give doses of a few millisieverts, going up to tens of millisieverts. They can multiply an annual dose by several times.
In radiotherapy, a cancer is bombarded with strong gamma radiation to destroy the cancerous cells. Local radioactive doses can climb to thousands of millisieverts 6. This gamma radiation is often produced from Cobolt-60, a radioactive isotope that in turn can be created in nuclear reactors suited for the task. Millions of different kinds of radiotherapies are administered around the world each year. Combined with modern diagnostics, these treatments help save millions of lives every year.
Even with nuclear accidents factored in, the net health effect of the nuclear industry is overwhelmingly positive. And even if nuclear medicine is not counted, nuclear power sector has saved up to 1.8 million lives by replacing burning fuels for energy production7. Not to mention the billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases not emitted.
And what about food irradiation?
These is one more way in which radiation helps us and saves lives8. Food can be irradiated, killing bacteria and germs in the food in order to prolong its shelf-life and improve its safety due to less chance of food poisoning caused by spoiling.
This is a very effective way to improve the quality of food in countries where it is allowed (and where the supply-chain is perhaps less meticulously supervised, as it is for example in Finland).
Obviously, irradiation doesn’t make the food itself radioactive, it just makes it store better9. It is likely that given people’s poor knowledge of radiation and the hysteria following from this, irradiation of food is not allowed or is severely limited in many countries. For example in Finland, only dried herbs and spices can be irradiated.
In the net, radiation is likely to save lives – whether one considers the matter from the point of view of nuclear medicine or nuclear power production. It is the scaremongering and the resulting fear of radiation that leads to unnecessary victims.
1. The largest single cause of mortality is a group of heart and blood vessel diseases such as coronary artery disease. Finnish statistics on causes of death: tinyurl.com/y7gf6vjy
2. See for example UNEP’s recent paper Radiation Effects and Sources (2016), page 41. tinyurl.com/y82x3rwn (pdf)
3. Bacon means in this context any processed/red meat that has been classified as carsinogenic when eaten. See for example: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/general-info/known-and-probable-human-carcinogens.html
4. Historically, uranium mining has increased radiation doses for the miners significantly, but advances in mining technology and radiation monitorin have helped to shrink these doses to very small. See my previous article on uranium mining
5. More about nuclear medicine for example from this fact sheet (pdf): tinyurl.com/ycaw9zty
6. Websites promoting alternative treatments have found this nugget of information, and are spreading it as some sort of proof to the dangers of radiotherapy. While it is not without risks, those risks are always carefully balanced with the potential benefits, such as curing the cancer.
7. Pushker A. Kharecha ja James E. Hansen, 2013, Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power. pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es3051197
8. Actually, there are more, as radiation is also used in many other industries, but I won’t go into those uses in this article
9. More information from for example FDA’s website: tinyurl.com/y9do4jus