Society and Nuclear Energy: What Is the Role for Radiological Protection?

Posted by Wade Allison on 20 April 2024 in Articles

A critical assessment of the LNT model, as discussed in SONE Newsletter 296, April 2024. Health Physics doi 10.1097HP.0000000000001795.


The harm that society expects from ionizing radiation does not match experience. Evidently there is some basic error in this assumption. A reconsideration based on scientific principles shows how simple misunderstandings have exaggerated dangers. The consequences for society are far-reaching. The immediate impact of ionizing radiation on living tissue is destructive. However, this oxidative damage is similar to that produced during normal metabolic activity where the subsequent biological reaction is not only protective but also stimulates enhanced protection. This adaptation means that the response to oxidative damage depends on past experience. Similarly, social reaction to a radiological accident depends on the regulations and attitudes generated by the perception of previous instances. These shape whether nuclear technology and ionizing radiation are viewed as beneficial or as matters to avoid. Evidence of the spurious damage to society caused by such persistent fear in the second half of the 20th century suggests that these laws and attitudes should be rebased on evidence. The three stages of radiological impact—the initial physical damage, the subsequent biological response, and the personal and social reaction—call on quite different logic and understanding. When these are confused, they lead to regulations and public policy decisions that are often inept, dangerous, and expensive. One example is when the mathematical rigor of physics, appropriate to the immediate impact, is misapplied to the adaptive behavior of biology. Another, the tortured historical reputation of nuclear technology, is misinterpreted as justifying a radiological protection policy of extreme caution. Specialized education and closed groups of experts tend to lock in interdisciplinary misperceptions. In the case of nuclear technology, the resulting lack of independent political confidence endangers the adoption of nuclear power as the replacement for fossil fuels. In the long term, nuclear energy is the only viable source of large-scale primary energy, but this requires a re-working of public understanding.