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Living Near a Nuclear Power Plant

January 31, 2011

Recently an email was sent to the Radiation Safety Counseling Institute that posed questions about living near a nuclear power plant. The sender indicated that she and her family are moving to a home located a couple miles from a nuclear power plant. She is concerned about her health and wrote, “I realize the chances are very remote, but I am a cancer survivor that had to go through I-131 treatment, so I will feel better if I am prepared and educated in this matter.”

  1. While you have offered to pay for counseling to be better prepared for a possible nuclear accident, I could not charge you for such guidance, because there is nothing that you need to do. Most people are automatically fearful about radiation, at least you are asking pertinent questions to determine whether such fears are justified. I hope you will find the following information helpful.

    While the media loves to dramatize potential radiation risks with nuclear energy, it is actually the safest source of energy. Not a single person has died as a result of exposure to radiation from nuclear energy in this country. In contrast, 100s of coal miners have died in the production of electricity from burning coal. Although 55 people have died as a result of the Chernobyl accident, there are no nuclear plants of that design in the US. The worst possible accident has already happened at Three Mile Island and the greatest radiation exposure anyone received from that accident is about equivalent to one chest x-ray (less than 10 mrem).

    All nuclear plants have very sophisticated emergency response plans which they test periodically. If an emergency occurred you would be notified as would all people in your area. While evacuation is often considered the best thing to do, actually staying in your house may be the best option.

    As you noted, the possibility of an accident at the nuclear plant is extremely remote. Furthermore, the possibility of your family getting radiation exposures from an accident are also remote, even if an accident occurs (the wind may be blowing the other way). Even more remote is the potential that if you received any radiation exposure that there would be any consequences.

    While the media would not tell you this, it is actually very difficult to harm someone with radiation. Your cancer treatment with I-131 is a good example. While cancer cells are more easily damaged by radiation than normal cells, it actually takes an incredibly large amount of radiation to kill cancer cells. Normal cells are much more resistant to harm from radiation than cancer cells. That is why we can treat the cancer without killing the patient. You were probably exposed to 1000s of times more radiation from I-131 (probably 3,000,000 to 4,000,000 mrem) than you would get from any nuclear plant accident (such as 10 mrem at Three Mile Island). Also, you probably had many x-ray or CT scans along with your cancer treatment. These x-ray procedures would have resulted in 100s to 1000s of mrem of additional radiation exposure.

    You might also be interested in knowing that the largest radiation exposure for most everyone in the US is from radon in homes (typically 200 mrem or more). Even nuclear plant workers will usually get more radon exposure at home than from radiation at the plant. North Carolina has some high radon areas.

    The bottom line is that there is nothing in particular that you need to know or do to prepare for a possible nuclear plant accident. If you are really concerned about protecting your family, the best thing you can do is to check your home for radon. You can get a radon test kit at a hardware store. If you test for radon and have questions about the results, I will be happy to counsel you on that matter also for free. I have been dealing with radon issues since 1972.

    I hope this information may give you some peace of mind. I have also attached an encyclopedia chapter which I wrote recently on the Psychology of
    Radiation Risks. In this chapter you will see that much of people’s concerns for radiation are based on mythology perpetuated by the media.

    Please contact me directly if I can be of further help.

    Wishing you well and God’s blessings.

    Ray Johnson, MS, PE, FHPS, CHP.
    Director, Radiation Safety Counseling Institute
    16440 Emory Lane
    Rockville, MD 20853

  2. In reply to the response above, the sender of the original email wrote

    “Your email was so helpful, I am very grateful. As a physician and cancer survivor, I have been disappointed with the way guidelines suggest patients undergoing I-131 treatment go about things in the week after receiving radiation. I could have left the hospital after receiving I-131, gotten on a bus, sat next to someone pregnant, and gone to a hotel… all of which puts others at risk. This left me generally distrustful of any government persuasions that nuclear power plants are safe. However, I have spent a lot of time looking at data on the internet, and I came to basically the same conclusions that you made in your email. It sounds scary to be near a nuclear power plant, but it is actually a whole lot safer than you are led to believe by the media. I vaguely remember seeing some poor child and his mother on Oprah crying about having leukemia from drinking water near Three Mile Island, but I can’t find any data on that anywhere. I also found that there are clusters of child cancer elsewhere no where near any nuclear power plants and no one understands what has potentially caused these increased rates. You’ve got to wonder about the radon there. Of course, if the wind is blowing right at you and you are two miles away from an accident, that’s not good. Having the iodine pills at home, making a safe room, learning about how to respond might make one feel a little better emotionally. Thanks again and best wishes to you.”

  3. Ray Johnson permalink

    The guidelines which allow an I-131 patient to go home with radioactive in their body are based on an understanding that exposures to nearby people are unlikely to have any effects. Most people without radiation training have come to believe that any amount of radiation could be harmful. This view is a good example of radiation mythology which you can read about in my paper on the Psychology of Radiation Exposures found on our website at

    For conservative practice of radiation safety it is customary to assume that all radiation may lead to some effect. However, in the real world this is not supported by actual evidence. The debate on low dose effects of radiation will likely go on forever for lack of definitive data. However, rather than joining that debate, I have been offering a different message for several years, namely, “It is actually very difficult to seriously harm someone with radiation.” More than a dozen Past Presidents of the Health Physics Society (career specialists in radiation safety) have endorsed this message.

    Your account of the distraught mother on the Oprah Winfrey show is a common occurrence for people attempting to explain how someone got cancers. Since we do have evidence that high doses of radiation can lead to cancer, it is common to assume that any cancer could be caused by radiation (especially if you can point to a source of the radiation that could be worth suing for damages.) Unfortunately, even medical doctors are prone to assume radiation automatically leads to cancer (assumption of cause and effect). As a scientist, however, I know that is not a good assumption. To determine if a particular cancer may be related to radiation requires answers to a series of questions, as follows:

    1. What are properties of Radioactive Material?
    Form, quantity, and type of radiation?
    2. Where is it located?
    3. How is it contained?
    4. How will it move in the environment?
    5. What are the exposure conditions?
    6. How much radiation energy is deposited in body?
    7. What may be the health risk? (based on observations of people actually exposed who had effects).

    Without answering these questions, any conclusions about radiation causing cancer are purely anecdotal or speculative. As noted above, however, it is common for people to make that connection when they are trying to explain the unexplainable, namely, why do I have cancer?

    I hope you will find my linked paper helpful.

    Again, thank you for contacting us. Your concerns are shared by many others, who may not have learned what you are learning.

    Wishing you well.

    Ray Johnson MS, PE, FHPS, CHP
    Director, Radiation Safety Counseling Institute
    16440 Emory Lane, Rockville, MD 20853

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