Jewish World Review Dec. 1, 2003 /6 Kislev, 5764

Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak

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The Dirty Radioactive Bomb: Rational Response or Fear Itself?


http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | Many years ago, Arne Naess, founder of the "Deep Ecology" movement, suggested that the only time we should trust scientific predictions is when scientists say they don't know what will happen.

He's also a big promoter of risk aversion, essentially admonishing that if the consequences of any action are less than totally predictable, "Just Don't Do It" - to borrow from a running shoe slogan.

Although most people are too busy staying alive to bother pursuing this weird sort of perfection, his advice is slowly becoming enshrined within our culture, politics, bureaucracy and courts. Known as the "Precautionary Principle," the concept has so permeated the American consciousness that we've grown accustomed to demanding impossible levels of "safety" as a matter of right.

As Aaron Wildavsky reminded us in his book of the same name, "searching for safety" requires expending resources and creates its own risks in the process.

And now the Precautionary Principle has seeped into the problem of homeland defense against Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD).

After 9/11, America has come to expect perfect protection from WMD. Government at all levels has been happy to oblige in the traditional manner. Pass laws, spend money, then (often via preplanned leaks to the media) use the inevitable public scares about how "We're Still Not Ready" to generate public pressure for more laws, more money, and of course more scares.

Hardly a day passes without some dire warning about the food supply, the ports, biowar and, most recently, a renewed concern over "dirty radioactive bombs" - conventional explosives used to spread radioactive materials.

According to NewsMax, earlier this month government investigators have documented "1,300 cases of lost, stolen or abandoned radioactive material inside the United States over the last five years and have concluded that that there is a significant risk that terrorists could cobble enough together for a dirty bomb."

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Rep. Jim Turner, D-Texas, the top Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee jumped on the statement and said, "I am alarmed at the government's inadequate response to this very real threat."

Sounds ominous, until you realize that most of the radioactive material was recovered and that the missing radioactive sources "would not add up to one highly radioactive source," according to Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokeswoman, Beth Hayden.

But the threat is real, not from dirty bombs but from overreactions or inappropriate responses that are many times worse than the threat itself.

As Theodore Rockwell, a nuclear engineer, member of the National Academy of Engineering and vice president of Radiation, Science and Health (RSH) [http://cnts.wpi.edu/rsh/], writes in the Washington Post, "The rules for radiological emergencies ... can change a relatively harmless incident into a life-threatening emergency." How? By escalating fear and panic instead of telling the truth about relatively small threats.

As Rockwell says "it is well documented by all our official agencies that the radioactivity in dirty bombs is unlikely to seriously hurt anyone. People not injured by the conventional explosion itself could walk away and be out of danger. If concerned about possible contamination, they could remove their clothes and take a shower."

When Rockwell provided this information to an employee of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission years ago, the official "replied in horror that if he bought my reasoning, he'd have to ask what he was there for," confirming the First Law of Bureaucracy: Self-Preservation.

T. Don Luckey, Ph.D., Professor and Chairman Emeritus, Dept of Biochemistry, U. Missouri-Columbia School of Medicine, and author of several books on low-level radiation, goes even further than Rockwell.

In the journal "Radiation Protection Management" Luckey writes, "Persons outside the blast/debris/dust area should walk away safely." Indeed, "They will benefit" from radiation up to ten cGy, almost 100 times more than average radiation exposure in the U.S. from natural radiation, about 0.13 cGy per year.

If you're unlucky enough to be caught within the blast or dust zone from a radioactive dirty bomb, your biggest problem could be that very few facilities have enough knowledge or experience to do an appropriate evaluation of radiation exposure, much less provide appropriate treatment.

Paraphrasing Franklin D. Roosevelt, the biggest thing we have to fear is fear itself - nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which is paralyzing a rational response to the radioactive dirty bomb threat.

Maybe it's time for us to toss out the Precautionary Principle which makes the government responsible for predicting and resolving every danger under (and now including) the sun to everyone all the time, or at least spending piles of our money while pretending to do so.

Analyzing the real nature of threats and preparing for them will not only cost us less, it will make us a lot safer. Let's stop buying into political and media fear mongering that robs us of our peace of mind, our resources and our ability to truly protect ourselves.

Editor's Note: Robert J. Cihak wrote this week's column.




Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments on medical-legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a Discovery Institute Senior Fellow and a past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists. Comment by clicking here.

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