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Wall Street Journal and Fear

November 22, 2013

Recently, the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) did an expose’ about the dangers of radiation that opponents of nuclear power would have been hard pressed to improve upon.

Under the guise of performing a public service, the WSJ created a scare piece, partially based on science, but that was mostly hyperbole.

Considering the hype about Fukushima disseminated by those opposing nuclear power, the timing of the WSJ article can only lead to more confusion … and fear.

One reason the public is confused about radiation, is the different ways it’s measured and reported on.

For example, there’s millirem, microsievert, millirad, microgray, picocurie, becquerel, and all the various measurement levels associated with each measurement, i.e., milli, micro, etc.

Add to these different measurements the scientific notations frequently seen in articles or scientific papers, such as pCi, mrem, mSv, etc., and there’s no wonder people are confused1.

It would be helpful if everyone settled on a single measurement, but there are scientific distinctions, important to scientists, that make this difficult.

This graph from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) shows various radiation dosages in millirem.

Radiation Doses and Limits from NRC

Radiation Doses and Limits from NRC

Here are some key dosages:

  • The average annual dose for Americans is 620 millirem.
  • The average background dose is 310 millirem.
  • The average annual dosage limit for a nuclear worker is 5,000 millirem.

The WSJ used data from one site, an auto repair shop in New York City, to scare its readers: The site had once handled radioactive material for the nuclear program.

The WSJ warned that a worker at the repair shop could receive a dose of 41 to 5,400 millirem per year. In other words, an unknown number of workers might possibly receive the dosage that a worker in the nuclear industry would be limited to.

And, horrors of horrors, a person walking by the repair shop might receive a dosage of between 7 and 656 millirem per year; which, at 656 mrem, is less than a whole body CAT scan.

The WSJ article showed a picture of a Geiger counter, which the WSJ apparently felt was an oddity to most people.

And that’s unfortunate, because people should have some rudimentary understanding of radiation so they won’t be scared by fear mongering, such as was the case with the WSJ two-page spread on radiation and the former sites where nuclear materials were handled or stored.

The graphic used in the WSJ article is shown below, which, it seems to me, was designed to scare, not to educate. Note the heading, “Degrees of Danger”… inferring that all radiation is dangerous.

WSJ Radiation Table

Here are a few observations about this graphic.

  • First, it assumes that The Linear No Threshold (LNT) hypothesis hasn’t been questioned. (More on this in the next article.) It says that 1,000 millirem could result in one additional cancer among 1,000 people. It goes on to speculate, that with the average background dose of 310 millirem per year, that over 70 years there will be one additional cancer patient out of every 50 people receiving this lifetime dosage.

While there is some scientific backing for this statement, it’s counter to those scientists who don’t agree with the LNT hypothesis.

  In addition, annual background radiation in Denver is 1,100 mrem, inferring that cancer rates should be nearly three times greater in Denver than in most other places in the United States.

Whether true or not, people aren’t afraid to live in Denver because of the apparent higher risk from radiation.

  • Second, the 5 mrem found in the U.C. Berkeley laboratory, was 5 mrem/hour, which would equate to 43,600 mrem per year, which is an entirely different matter and completely inconsistent with the rest of the graphic.
  • Finally, the graphic indicates that the average dosage received by those exposed within 1.6 miles of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings was 20,000 mrem.

Including this statistic in the graphic was disingenuous at best, or at worst, intended to create fear. Equating normal doses of radiation, mostly spread over a year, with an instantaneous dose of 20 rem is journalism at its worst2.

If the WSJ publishes many more expose’ such as this, people will wonder whether articles on companies and businesses are equally contrived: If that were to happen, the WSJ will lose its credibility.

But, what about LNT and other aspects of radiation?

Those will be covered in the next article.

  1. Conversion tables can be found at and
  2. The graphic doesn’t indicate whether this was an instantaneous or short term dose or a dose spread over a period of time which, by itself, is bad journalism. The inference is instantaneous dose, but that’s not specified.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. donb permalink
    November 22, 2013 6:38 pm

    My whole professional career was as a research scientist working with radioactivity. The general US public has a fear of things radioactive far beyond other things in our environment that are just as dangerous. (I wonder if it began with all those 1950s movies where radioactivity made monsters?) The limit set on exposure, as you say, is based on the statistical possibility of a small increase in contracting cancer. Yet, many things in our environment can also increase the possibility of cancer, ranging from smoking, to many types of modern chemicals to which we are exposed, to medical tests, to many high altitude airplane flights, etc. etc. Modern and dangerous chemicals, in particular, are not nearly as well controlled, and most people use them in careless ways without thinking about their possible cancer dangers. The way we humans rank our fears and concerns are not always rational.

    • November 22, 2013 7:55 pm

      Thanks for your comments. The irrationality of fear of radiation was exacerbated by the WSJ expose, which is apparently continuing. The WSJ needs to reconsider its approach to this issue.

  2. November 24, 2013 9:33 pm

    It’s a shame that nuclear energy is so needlessly maligned. Understandably, convincing the public of its safety is difficult when it’s so easy to have a negative emotional response to something as nebulous and far removed from everyday life as energy produced by splitting the atom. In addition, the author of that article has written several pieces that show nuclear energy in a negative light, so it’s no surprise that this article got published as well.

    • November 25, 2013 9:50 am

      Thanks for your comment.
      It’s true that those opposed to nuclear have scared the average person with their scare stories, such as the one published in the Wall Street Journal.


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