Book review - Radiation and Risk: Expert Perspectives

1 September 2014

A new collection of summary papers may overreach the abilities of its intended audience. By Chris Englefield

Members of the UK Society for Radiological Protection see the US Health Physics Society (HPS) as a benevolent progenitor that continues to support the public and the profession in their understanding of radiation effects on human health and the environment. This is exemplified by a visit to where it is immediately clear that the first button to click is radiation safety information for the public. This is a clear sign of commitment to effective communication to the audience that really matters - members of the public.

So it is no surprise to find that the HPS has published 'Radiation and Risk: Expert Perspectives', a new collection of papers. The authors are leading US scientists in their fields and encompass multiple fields and specialities, including engineering, medicine, health physics, environmental health, and public safety. The esteem in which the HPS is held in US circles is demonstrated by the foreword provided by Dr Joxel Garcia, former US Assistant Secretary for Health.

Howard Dickson sets the scene with a primer on ionising radiation. He briefly describes the realisation that the interaction of radiation with matter, and especially human tissue, can produce harmful effects. He then summarises the history and emerging philosophy of radiation protection and describes how regulation (using the US model) can protect public health while allowing beneficial uses. He even bravely mentions radiation hormesis (potentially beneficial effects of radiation exposure). The use of SI units throughout is appreciated by those outside the US, where this is not yet the usual practice.

Richard Vetter then describes the growing importance of nuclear technology in medicine and balances the harmful effects, usually demonstrated by epidemiological studies, with the beneficial uses of diagnosis and therapy.

The other eminent authors go on to look at use and overuse of nuclear technology in health; the benefits of nuclear energy; the central importance of safety to nuclear power design in the USA and some communication aspects of risk assessments. This is followed by other excellent articles including Robert Gale and Owen Hoffman, who discuss the uncertainty in our present risk estimates, which are based on our current knowledge, and how this uncertainty may change as our knowledge improves. They argue that this nuanced approach will better inform the public and allow for more intelligent decisionmaking, help build trust between scientists and the public and, more importantly, create more effective communication.

Last, but not least, Dr. Robert Emery eloquently describes how the past half-century has shown the great value of nuclear energy and the importance of regulatory protocols and effective communication with the public. He argues that efforts to evaluate and refine current regulations must be steeped in the lessons learned and scientific evidence drawn from past occurrences so as to ensure the safe and efficient use of radiation.
In reviewing all this excellent material from eminent specialists it is hard to be critical of what they have generously provided for the benefit of the public. And yet, the questions have to be asked: who is their "public" and how well are their needs for reliable information in this often contentious field being met? The reliability of this information is not being challenged; but its suitability for the audience could be.

Perhaps Richard Vetter's paper on medical uses of radiation would be the most digestible for the general public (and an excellent summary of the subject), but its content on risk is still quite low.

While it may be scientifically valid to combine a public education document on radiation risk with arguments supporting nuclear power, some readers may feel that this is not the most appropriate way to establish and maintain a relationship with an often anti-nuclear public. It seems to have the potential to open up public and media challenges about the scientific independence of this guidance to the public. This is ridiculous, of course, but why take the risk of compromising the HPS's high standing? All this material about the benefits of nuclear power is interesting but it focuses on benefits more than risk.

The USA and the UK were once famously described as "two peoples separated by a common language", but it is certain that the intended audience of the HPS with this document is much the same as that which radiation protection professionals in the UK strive to relate to and inform. If we want to overcome decades of bad press, crackpots who go unchallenged and media bias, then it is the younger people we need to reach. And it might be prudent for a professional society like HPS to focus on the skills its members hold to manage radiological risks - whether these arise from new build, routine operations, decommissioning or non-nuclear uses of radiation - rather than taking on the role of promoting nuclear power.

But the main criticism of 'Radiation and Risk: Expert Perspectives' has to be about how well it identifies and meets the needs of the intended audience.

The well-written and concise material in this document is presented at a level that is generally too high for the general public. It all makes very useful summaries for the radiation protection practitioner, and the very well-informed layman. It is pitched ideally at the level of an MSc student who needs to be reasonably well informed, although majoring in a different subject. But it does not address the needs of (for example) the high school student doing a project in radiation protection or nuclear energy, never mind the "man in the street". And it does seem that the publication also misses its title: the only paper that really addresses risk (in its content, not just the sub-title) is the most technically challenging for a "public" audience.

There is no intention to be chauvinistic here, but the document 'Living with Radiation' originally published by the UK's National Radiological Protection Board (now part of "Public Health England") is more accessible to the public. It provides well-marshalled facts in text and very graphical form and it is known to be digestible to well-motivated lay readers. Each item of the material in 'Radiation and Risk: Expert Perspectives' is of excellent quality, as can be taken for granted for anything that comes from the US HPS. But does it hang together as well as it might? And who is expected to read it?

About the author

Chris Englefield CRadP FSRP FSyI is editor-in-chief of journal Radiation Regulator,

Radiation and Risk: Expert Perspectives

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