The Chernobyl Conundrum: Is Radiation As Bad As We Thought?

The Chernobyl Conundrum: Is Radiation As Bad As We Thought? by Manfred Dworschak. Thirty years after the Chernobyl disaster, it has become clear that radioactivity might be less harmful than originally thought. Some researchers even believe it may be beneficial in small doses.

Most believers in the healing qualities of radiation are suffering from a chronic inflammatory disease: arthritis, asthma or psoriasis, for example. The gas, they argue, alleviates their problems for months, which is why they lay in bubbling radon water offered by some healing spas. In Bad Kreuznach, in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate, brave spa guests even trek into the tunnels of an abandoned mercury mine, attracted by the radon-filled air in the mountain. Are they crazy?

As has now become clear, these people are right: Radioactivity is good for them.

The evidence for radiation damage starts at fairly high doses:

Statistically, though, the effect of radiation only becomes apparent at a relatively high dosage — at about 100 millisieverts… “But society, of course, demands conclusions from us,” says Rühm. “So to be safe, we pretend to be able to calculate the danger down to the smallest dosage.”

The result is a purely mathematical value, good enough to extrapolate the rules and limits that are broadly seen as necessary. “In any case we have nothing better,” says Rühm.

But it makes no sense to project these kinds of abstract figures onto an entire population in the wake of nuclear disasters, as prophets of doom are wont to do. After Chernobyl, horrific victim projections made the rounds. A very small risk, multiplied by 600 million Europeans, resulted in hundreds of thousands additional cancer cases — a completely fictitious number. It could be that there wasn’t even a single case. We simply do not know.

Fukushima? No one died of radiation, but there was a large evacuation that caused deaths due to moving ill patients, suicides, etc:

A study conducted by the University of Stanford concluded that there were 600 victims of the evacuation, compared to the maybe 30 that would have died of radiation poisoning had they not been rescued.

Small doses of radiation may be beneficial:

But for one querulous group of researchers, there are no doubts. They believe that weak radiation doesn’t hurt the body, but in fact helps. They say the minor radioactive bombardment can be beneficial: Cells power up their repair systems and enter a state of increased vigilance and vitality.

This theory is called hormesis (the word comes from ancient Greek and means “stimulate”) by its proponents.