WASHINGTON—Widespread benefits of nuclear technology are increasing around the globe, especially in the field of medicine, while adding only a small fraction to the global average level of exposure to radiation found in nature, according to a new international report issued by the United Nations.
U.S. radiation experts who contributed to the new report told reporters at a news conference today that the primary benefits are in medical applications, where the use of radiation is the largest and fastest growing man-made source of radiation. The benefits of these medical uses range from diagnostic radiology, radiotherapy and nuclear medicine to interventional radiology.
Millions of people are benefiting from these medical uses. But millions more, particularly in developing nations, cannot yet take advantage of many of these medical procedures to improve their quality of life.
“One of the major purposes behind the development of the UNSCEAR report is to help foster greater understanding of radiation and guide the development of standards that will maximize beneficial uses while assuring public safety,” said Dr. Bennett, former director of the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) Secretariat.
Dr. John Boice, scientific director of the International Epidemiology Institute, professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. and advisor to UNSCEAR, said the UNSCEAR report is the most comprehensive assessment of the sources and effects of ionizing radiation available. Governments and organizations worldwide will use it as the scientific basis to estimate health impacts, establish radiation protection and safety standards and regulate radiation sources.
“We know that radiation exists, both from man-made sources and naturally in the environment,” Boice said. “We know that it is detectable, measureable and can be precisely monitored. And we know how to use radiation for benefit as well as how to protect against its potential detriment. This report brings together the body of knowledge from scientists throughout the world who continually evaluate sources and effects of radiation.”
The global average exposure to sources of radiation found in nature is about 240 millirem a year, according to the report. That is about the same as the average level of radiation exposure for workers in industry, medicine and research who use radiation or radioactive substances. The report estimates average annual exposures of 0.1 millirem to 1 millirem from industrial plant discharges and about 0.02 millirem, or one twelve-thousandth of natural background, from nuclear power plants. A millirem is the unit scientists use to measure radiation. A person would receive about 5 millirem on a U.S. coast-to-coast roundtrip airline flight.
Three of the report’s major sections examine the effects of radiation exposure, levels of radiation exposure and the radiological consequences of the 1986 Chernobyl accident. The report concludes that the major health impact of the Chernobyl accident, beyond the deaths of 30 workers and the radiation injuries to more than 100 others immediately following the event, is the 1,800 cases of thyroid cancer in children exposed at the time of the accident.
“There may be more (thyroid) cases during the next decades. Apart from this increase, there is no evidence of a major public health impact attributable to radiation exposure 14 years after the accident,” the report states. “There is no scientific evidence of increases in overall cancer incidence or mortality or in non-malignant disorders that could be related to radiation exposure.”
The UNSCEAR report is a two-volume, 1,220-page document developed by a committee of 131 scientists from 21 countries. It “summarizes the developments in radiation science in the years leading up to the new millennium,” according to UNSCEAR. “Man-made sources of radiation have, of course, increased over time as we have gained knowledge about its beneficial uses in areas such as nuclear medicine, space exploration, scientific research, nuclear energy and consumer products like smoke detectors,” said Bennett.
The Nuclear Energy Institute is the nuclear energy industry’s policy organization. This news release and additional information about nuclear energy are available on NEI’s Internet site at http://www.nei.org .