Intended for healthcare professionals


Radiation risks

BMJ 1999; 319 doi: (Published 16 October 1999) Cite this as: BMJ 1999;319:1019

Appropriate decisions come from valid data, not inaccurate perceptions of risk

  1. Sarah Darby, professor of medical statistics
  1. Clinical Trial Service Unit and Epidemiological Studies Unit, University of Oxford, Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford OX2 6HE

    At a conversation with friends about last month's accident at the JCO uranium processing plant at Tokaimura, Japan,1 one of them said, “but nuclear power has a very safe record.” He was right, but in 20 years of studying radiation risks this was the first time I had heard anyone not involved in the nuclear industry or with radiation in some other way say anything nice about nuclear power.

    The origins of public mistrust of nuclear power are easy to understand Its beginnings are closely connected with nuclear weapons, undoubtedly terrible things. An atmosphere of secrecy and deception also existed in those early days: not even the cabinet was informed about the decision to build the British bomb.2 In addition there have been spectacular accidents such as Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and the 1957 Windscale fire. All have caused alarm disproportionate to their measurable harm, perhaps in the way that crashes of crowded commuter trains inspire more dread than a steady (and in total much larger) trickle of road deaths. This history, plus the fact that any risk associated with nuclear power is usually perceived as imposed rather than a matter of individual choice, provides ample explanation for the twinge of mistrust that often greets official …

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