Wade Allison's radiation essay in context

7 years ago by in All Japan news

People participate in the Melbourne Vigil for those in All Japan news suffering the effects of the Magnitude 9.0 Earthquake, Tsunamis, and an escalating nuclear crisis. Photo by Takver

Like many here in All Japan news, on Sunday I was pleased to read a refreshing essay on the BBC by Oxford University Professor Wade Allison argues that there is little to worry about from radiation.

The essay argues that over the years, excessive regulation and dramatic accidents covered heavily by the media have left us with a perception of radiation that is at odds with science and a governmental system that exacerbates fears through knee-jerk caution.

"A sea-change is needed in our attitude to radiation, starting with education and public information," Allison argues.

"Then fresh safety standards should be drawn up, based not on how radiation can be excluded from our lives, but on how much we can receive without harm – mindful of the other dangers that beset us, such as climate change and loss of electric power," the professor continues. "Perhaps a new acronym is needed to guide radiation safety – how about As High As Relatively Safe (AHARS)?"

As one person linking to the article commented on Facebook: “Finally, some sense from the western media”

While the essay was a surprising and welcome read, it is a little confusing as to why the BBC has given space for opinion to a scientist who is not considered flawless on such a controversial subject.

In a balanced piece in the Guardian in January, numerous scientists question Allison’s ideas.

One scientist says: “There is an international scientific consensus about the health effects of ionising radiation which is based on decades of research worldwide. This is the so-called linear hypothesis, by which you extrapolate health effects observed at high doses to calculate risks at low doses. There are scientists who disagree with this and clearly Professor Allison is one of them. However there are also some scientists who claim the linear hypothesis can underestimate risks.”

Another says: “I do not find [Allison’s] these arguments particularly convincing. I have to say, when I’ve reviewed the evidence, it is very difficult to detect the adverse effects of radiation at low levels because the predicted excess risk of cancer is small and is easily hidden in the noise of other factors like smoking and diet and drinking. All the people who hang on to these arguments are missing the point. If you take the evidence as a whole from radiation epidemiology, there’s probably a risk from cancer arising from small doses of radiation [and] they’re around about what you get from a linear no-threshold dose response.”

Of course, there are also less scientific and more political voices questioning Allison. As Greenpeace notes in a news release: “Nuclear power has had sixty years in which to prove itself. The questions asked about it way back then have never been answered. Unfortunately, Professor Allison’s attempts at reassurance just aren’t enough to rehabilitate this discredited power source.”

So what to make of the article? A significant number of scientists seem to believe Allison has good points to make when criticizing the current system of measuring the effects of radiation, but fails the probing of scientific inquiry when it comes to creating a new method for judgement.

And here in All Japan news, at a time when the are as many people urging calm as there are urging vigilance (despite accusations, nobody wants panic), it is sensible to check opinion on scientists from before March 11 before putting absolute faith in their ideas.