Radiophobia the Teaser

You might just be interested to learn about radiation and why your fear of it can be irrational. The following is an excerpt of my recent book on Radiophobia, available at

1|    A Brief History of Radiophobia 

“You may be living on a false inheritance. You must not accept that! It would be too easy to give in to consensus. For heaven’s sake, please do not let the opinion of the mob rule your heart.”   

– Guy Walters

What can I say that will dispel your radiophobia, that irrational fear of radiation instilled by a century of cold war politics, newspapers, television, lurid movies and nuclear accidents?

I could just jump to the conclusion and tell you that radiation and radioactive isotopes are not as dangerous as you have been led to believe; that in high doses, radioactive substances are indeed carcinogens, just not very potent ones. 

I could add that radiation is a must, can’t have life without it, and that radioactivity is a blessing, saving countless lives and promising continuing improvements in our quality of life. There is also the astounding potential of nuclear power and its promise of a clean, safe, abundant, wealthy future for all.

Well, I did just give away the conclusion and yet I don’t want you to just believe me and stop reading. As is becoming more evident, it is far too dangerous to believe what you are told on trust alone. Like you, experts put their pants on one leg at a time; look at their data not their degrees, question their presumptions and make up your own mind. 

If experts obfuscate or are unwilling to set down the facts, they are unreliable, dismiss them.

In the next several chapters, I will give you the facts as I have researched and understood them. 

As a child of the 50’s, I had to start by dismissing my own radiation fears which began with some of my earliest memories. 

My parents spent much of the decade protecting their kids from radiation. Dad worked at Chalk River, knew biochemistry, knew the effects of radioactive fallout and was worried about the frequent H-bomb tests in the Pacific and Siberia. Our diets changed, we avoided Pacific seafoods, used dried milk powder and even took iodide pills to avoid the radioactive isotopes of cesium, strontium and iodine.  

Brazil nuts were also put on the avoid list, picked out from the mixed nuts because they accumulate trace amounts of radium.  One grad student tested them, grinding Brazil nuts up and feeding them to his toddler. Apparently everything came out alright, the radiation was not assimilated and the nuts were put back in the jar.

Mom was the X-ray expert, aware that radiologists had increased incidences of leukaemia, breast and skin cancers. She scolded the dentist, making sure our vulnerables were covered with a lead apron and dragged us away from the shoe store Pedoscope. At home she kept us 10 feet away from our 20 inch TV screen.

Items put in the cellar included my radium dial watch, the alarm clock, and my first chemistry set with its radioactive sample and scintillation screen. The Fiesta Ware, red flower pot and Vaseline glass all followed. All were stored away by my parents because of their radioactive glows.

I didn’t know what radiation was but I knew it was bad, real bad.

That other parent figure, Walter Cronkite hosted ‘The Twentieth Century’ and in low-res black and white brought the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into our Sunday evening living rooms. The weapons tests were covered by his nightly news, great flashes that incinerated atolls and spread an insidious and terrifying fallout that snowed down on Japanese fishermen. 

As an allegory for these atomic tests, Godzilla, stirred from slumber and enraged by nuclear fire, repeatedly busied him/herself throughout the 1950s, knocking down skyscrapers and spraying fire over Tokyo.

The early 1950s started off with two Broken Arrow incidents. 

In February 1950, while practising for a nuclear strike over the North Pacific, the crew of a USAF B-36 had to abandon their plane when 3 of their 6 engines iced up and shut down. Before bailing out they released their Mark 4 atomic bomb over the inside passage of British Columbia and detonated it in midair. 

Official reports say that the bomb was a mock-up, having a casing of depleted uranium and missing its plutonium core. Not sure how they were protecting us with a faux bomb, but, apparently, the explosion was only the conventional blast from the 5000 pounds of explosives used to implode the core. Twelve of the 17 crew survived and the abandoned plane flew on to crash into Mt. Kologet in northern BC.

Later that November of 1950, a  similar incident occurred near Riviere de Loup in Quebec. A USAF B-50 was transporting another Mark 4 atomic bomb, one of several that had been secretly based in Canada. More engine trouble and the bomb, again minus its plutonium core,  was jettisoned over the St. Laurence River, set to detonate at 2500 ft. The conventional explosion rattled houses and residents and scattered 100 pounds of mildly radioactive uranium casing over a wide area.

In December 1952, there was a partial meltdown of the NRX reactor core at Chalk River, Ontario and some workers were exposed to high levels of radiation during the accident. The clean-up crew, including US and Canadian military, could only work short shifts, keeping their radiation exposures within safety guidelines. Apparently, there has never been an adequate followup on the health of these workers.

The 1957 book, then the 1959 movie, ‘On The Beach’ increased the popular terror of fallout as audiences waited (and waited) for clouds of radioactive dust to spread from the incinerated Northern Hemisphere to blanket doomed Australia.

While the military rushed to build ever bigger bombs, shortcuts were taken that led to the 1957 Kyshtym accident in Russia. A huge chemical explosion spread clouds of nuclear waste for hundreds of kilometres. Over 200 people are thought to have been killed and thousands more were affected by a fallout of radioactive caesium and strontium.

Later the same year, the Windscale nuclear reactor, used to produce weapons grade plutonium for the UK, caught fire. Before the fire was doused, volatile radioisotopes vaporized from the reactor fuel and about 14 PBq (14 PetaBecquerel or 14,000 trillion counts per second) of radioactive Xenon-131, Polonium-210 and Iodine-131 escaped into the winds and fields of the British countryside.

In 1961, not to be outdone by Russia or Britain, technicians at the Nuclear Reactor Testing Station in the USA carelessly withdrew the control rods from an experimental reactor. The reactor blew itself apart in a steam explosion and core meltdown. All three operators were killed.

Meanwhile, the cold war brewed hotter with the development of ballistic missiles that could strike cities within a few minutes from the far side of the world. 

In October 1962 the construction of Russian missile sites close to the US launched the Cuban missile crisis. While elementary school students practised the futile lessons of ‘duck and cover’, the world stumbled to the verge of all out nuclear war.  

Movie goers flew from the cinemas, terrified by Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1963 film “The Birds”. Don’t remember the part about radiation? Well, the reason for the bird attacks wasn’t given but I suspect radioisotopes. Guessing aside, the flick does show how a well crafted story can produce an unreasoning phobia, even a fear of starlings and sparrows. One of my siblings is still afraid of a gathering of birds almost 60 years later.

Dad dragged me out to the movies to see ‘Doctor Strangelove’, the 1964 nightmare comedy of B52s soaring over frozen wastes and triggering an apocalyptic Doomsday Device filled with Cobalt-Thorium G. Still burned somewhere in my occipital lobe is the image of Slim Pickens, yeehooing, riding his atomic steed to oblivion.

As nuclear power promised a future of clean inexpensive electricity, the New York Times hatched a 1969 antinuclear campaign posting the headline:


Later that same year, another NYT article further stoked public fears:

  “RADIATION LINKED TO RETARDATION; U.N. Report Warns of Even Low Doses in Pregnancy”

The article warned that a UN report had found:

“even low doses of radiation on pregnant women might 

possibly result in retardation of the unborn”

Lots of qualifiers in that headline, but many expectant mothers were scared into cancelling their X-rays and over the next decades hundreds of protestors challenged the building of new nuclear plants.

Throughout the ‘60s nuclear submarines were built to patrol continental coastlines, coming close enough to strike their targets within 10 minutes. Each submarine carried enough warheads to destroy an entire country. 

Off the west coat of Canada, my father-in-law flew his Neptune over surfaced Russian subs. Catching their attention, he would open the bomb bay doors revealing his twin torpedos; he was armed and dangerous.

The Kosmos 954 reconnaissance satellite was launched in 1977, failed to attain permanent orbit and burned up as it reentered the atmosphere over northern Canada. The onboard nuclear reactor spread intensely radioactive debris over a 600 km swath from Great Slave Lake to Baker Lake.

Fiction preceded fact in 1979, when the alarming movie “The China Syndrome” was followed within months by the more alarming and eerily similar meltdown of the Three Mile Island reactor. The worst nuclear reactor accident in US history released large clouds of radioactive gases over surrounding Pennsylvania. 

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