Nuclear Power, Radioactive Fallout And The Issue Of Informed Consent

Radioactive fallout from the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear accident has awakened debate about nuclear power's invisible emissions, and familiar camps have assembled along familiar lines:
Critics of nuclear power are outraged by radioactive isotopes appearing an ocean away, defenders of nuclear power counter that there's more radiation exposure during a transcontinental flight—to use the most popular example.
But there is a fundamental difference between ingesting radionuclides—no matter how tiny the exposure—and flying in an airplane—no matter how great—and that difference is informed consent.
The issue of informed consent has occasionally emerged in the debate on this page and others, but more often it fuels the anger invisibly, an unarticulated difference between those willing to accept hazards and those who are not.
When industry, government, academics and some journalists try to calm public emotions by downplaying radiation risks, they often cause greater offense by disregarding the issue of informed consent. Have a look, for example, at this story by William Cole, well-intentioned reporter for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, who tries to calm his readers as he breaks the bad news. And then look at the reader comments. They're not willing to be calmed, and the effort just loses their trust.
I don't believe you—is a common response to such efforts—but behind disbelief is unwillingness to believe because behind the technical argument is an ethical one: I am not willing to wash down tiny amounts of radiation with great volumes of reassurance because I did not give consent.
And it's too late now to ask.
It was with remarkable prescience—or guilt—that Manhattan Project scientists founded the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1945, with the mission to warn humanity about the danger of nuclear technology. Prescient because they anticipated the debate would need credible professional critics who engage in rigorous science as well as rigorous argument.
One of those critics, University of Wisconsin Medical Center Professor Jeffrey Patterson, specializes in family medicine, in which informed consent plays a role in life-and-death decision making. In the Bulletin, he dives into the issue of informed consent, unravelling its troubled history with nuclear technology. Here's an excerpt:
There are some basic principles to consider when the impacts of radiation exposure are evaluated. First, there is no "safe" or non–harmful level of radiation. Second, we are all exposed to radiation: background radiation emitted by natural sources, with which we evolved; and medical radiation, which may be necessary and life-saving as decided and controlled by the patient and physician.
Finally, there is another form of exposure that has been thrust upon the world since the advent of the nuclear age: radiation released by the mining and processing of nuclear fuel, the testing and use of nuclear weapons, and the "controlled" and catastrophic releases of long-lived radionuclides by the nuclear power industry. This is quite a different issue, because the effects of these releases will continue for many years but will likely remain hidden or unknown. Worldwide, an unknowing and unsuspecting public is being randomly exposed to radiation without any opportunity for informed consent. People can choose whether or not to have x-rays, to reduce the radon exposure in their homes, or to fly. However, the public has no choice, and certainly inadequate knowledge, about radiation exposure from nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
In the end, Patterson opposes nuclear energy. But not everyone at the Bulletin agrees. Publisher Kennette Benedict directs withering critique at the nuclear industry but remains open to the possibility of safe nuclear energy. That's a rare complexity.
Whenever I see familiar camps forming along familiar lines, I doubt human progress. Worse when everyone is shoved toward one camp or another, as if we must choose between two absolutes, each with its own blinders.
That debate will never resolve, and promising technologies will never develop, as long as the issue of informed consent remains behind the curtain. What happens when we move it to center stage?
This will only ever be a hypothetical, but here it is:
How does it alter the debate about nuclear energy if everyone begins by agreeing to what seems a democratic principle—the principle of informed consent? Would nuclear power necessarily perish, as it does in Patterson's conclusion, if its developers had to secure the consent of all those it may affect? Can it ever be deployed with the world's permission?
What energy technologies survive that test?

Tip Jar: If you found value on this page, please consider tipping the author.