By Chris Adams

As Timothy Jorgensen points out, conveying an old proverb: In the dark, all cats are jaguars.

That goes a long way to explaining people’s fear of radiation, and why they are inclined to shy away something that has power to do great harm – but also can provide significant benefits.

Jorgensen, a professor at Georgetown University and director of its Health Physics and Radiation Protection Program, is also author of “Strange Glow: The Risk and Realities of Radiation” (2016, Princeton University Press). His book details the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan, and it also provides journalists with the perspective necessary to properly weigh the risks of radiation.

If journalists do so, he said, the public might as well.

“We know more about radiation-induced cancer than any other carcinogen,” he said. But, he added, “In my experience, people have little understanding of radiation. … This fear of radiation pervades our society.”

Jorgensen said that much of the media’s coverage of radiation risks is shallow and rushed (although he did point out examples of excellent, balanced coverage, including this 2016 Washington Post story on the risks of undergoing CT scans).

For journalists, a few important points need to be kept in mind, he said:

  • Complete remediation is not possible after a Fukushima-like accident. Radiation levels can never be reduced to pre-accident levels, and some added risk must be accepted if the contaminated area is to be repopulated.
  • Different locations have very different dose rates, and the time people spend in those areas will determine their personal risk.

Jorgensen also pointed out the actual risk involved in some hot-button issues. In general, he said, the public needs to get a better grip on the true nature of the threat they may, or may not, face. Of those issues:

  • Radon is primarily a problem for smokers;
  • Diagnostic x-rays for disease symptoms are valuable, x-rays for screening purposes less so;
  • The evidence for cell phones causing cancer is extremely weak to nonexistent;
  •  Radioactivity in food is an easily avoided problem;
  • As for nuclear power plant accidents, the risk of radiation sickness is primarily an issue for plant workers. Other risks likely outweigh radiation-cancer risks for surrounding populations.