Center for Strategic Decision Research


The Social Aspects of Radiation Terrorism

Dr. Evgeny P. Velikhov
President of the Kurchatov Institute
Dr. Leonid A. Bolshov
Director of the Nuclear Safety Institute, Russian Academy of Sciences

The world community currently faces a very complicated task, which is to confront the threats of radiation terrorism. Since the attacks of September 11, the international nuclear community, under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has begun to elaborate the requirements necessary to guarantee the safe use and storage of the sources of ionizing radiation. 

One requirement of importance is to create a special tracking system that can minimize the consequences of radioactive agents used for terrorist purposes. Previous accidents have vividly shown that not only strategic errors but also tactical mistakes in using such a tracking system can result in extremely serious consequences for society. However, this problem can be solved by updating national accident-tracking systems and by improving the normative legal basis of radiation safety for the population. Since a terrorist act involving radiation can occur just about anywhere, the updated tracking system and related services should also be available to be used wherever they are needed. 

In addition, the population must adequately understand the dangers of radiation and be aware of the increased threats of radiation terrorism. This is a public relations task that no official should disregard because the problem of radiation terrorism depends to a large degree on public awareness and knowledge for its solution. 


While it may be difficult to foresee future developments in the dangerous area of radiation terrorism, we must address several issues if we are to deal with it: 

  • The reaction of the population to the risk of radiation contamination, not only at the time of the crisis but also in its aftermath; 
  • The Post-crisis control of the risks of radiation in the form of legal, administrative, and economic regulations; 
  • Learning from and making use of the new collective experience. 

All of these aspects refer in large part to how well ordinary people understand the dangers of radiation. The Thomas Principle, well known in sociology circles, reads, "If people determine some situations as real, then these situations are real in their consequences." Therefore public assessment of the degree of radiation danger in a crisis requires very serious attention. 

Fear of radiation makes society extremely vulnerable to the threat of radiation terrorism. Combining that fear with free access to devices that detect increases in radiation levels makes the radiation tracking system completely unstable; mechanisms of social risk increase the chances of triggering a crisis when there is at least a minimal threat of radiation being used. Indirect damage caused by inadequate reaction capability can then surpass the problems caused by the radiation itself. Fear of an epidemic can spread rapidly to densely populated areas with developed means of communications. 

When a radiation accident occurs, the population initially reacts extremely negatively, but then calms down to normal. Populations generally move from negativity to acceptance of the disaster to grieving to a normalization of life to, finally, relaxation. The large-scale social consequences of radiation, therefore, can last for years. As previous accidents have shown, inadequate public understanding of the dangers of radiation can lead to ramping up and dragging out the problem. In addition, health issues may continue all through a population's life, not only for those who received an overdose of radiation but also for people who were connected to the disaster indirectly. 


Inadequate understanding of the risks of radiation results in the need to carry out unnecessary dose-measuring inspections and to provide medical examinations of the people concerned. It also results in socially aware individuals, especially those who have babies, leaving the contaminated area, greatly enlarging the restricted zone. This leads to widespread social and economic degradation. For example, life in all regions of Russia was affected by the Chernobyl disaster. The number of abortions increased, even in East European countries where contamination was not great at all. A food shortage also developed, because crops were thought to be contaminated. After the Chernobyl disaster, many babies who lived nearby did not have access to milk and fresh vegetables for a long period of time. Various psychosomatic symptoms also occurred in the general population, caused by health concerns for themselves and their children. 

Each radiation catastrophe has been followed by negative social and political consequences. State power is affected first, because officials are unable to prevent the crisis in the first place and unable to govern properly after the crisis. One can say that in cases of radioactive terrorism the consequences are disastrous. However, people's exaggerated estimate of the dangers makes them oppose the radiation safety measures taken by the state. Any safety measure is deemed insufficient. So the government moves to meet public demands, which contradict the norms of radiation safety and lead in the long run to unpredictable consequences. It is more difficult later on to reject bad decisions that are made irresponsibly, and the public's negative attitude worsens. 

It is well known that ionizing radiation sources used for terrorist purposes cannot cause massive human casualties through radiation contamination. Human casualties are possible only through the use of a powerful explosive device that disperses radioactive materials. However, inadequately estimating the danger of radiation release may result in a variety of consequences, including:

  • Loss of human lives and compromised health as a result of panic; 
  • Economic damage caused by infrastructure irregularities; 
  • The cessation of business activities, both within and outside the region; 
  • Loss of interest in economic development in the region; 
  • Increased social and psychological rehabilitation costs; 
  • The need for calming measures, including food control, medical treatment, and resettlement; 
  • Compensation for the health issues allegedly caused by the increased radiation level. 


After the release of radiation at Chernobyl, about 120,000 to 130,000 people had to be evacuated. But more than 7,000,000 people were affected and more than 145,000 square kilometers of territory were contaminated. Nearly 600,000 people got the status of "liquidator" to do the clean-up. If the rescue operations had been optimal, the number of people evacuated would have been the same but at least half of them could have returned home. Then the total number of people who suffered and the total territory involved would have been lower: less than 100,000 inhabitants would have been involved, the territory affected would have been 3,000 to 5,000 square kilometers, and only 30,000 to 50,000 liquidators would have been needed. 

Following the accident, between 1986 and 1998, nearly 50,000 people were evacuated or moved voluntarily from the Bryansk region. More than 2,000 people remain at settlements who were supposed to be placed out immediately. There are also still a good  number of people who would like to move to less contaminated territories. Resettling away from the Bryansk region made it possible for people to avoid from 50 to 100 mZv of radiation per lifetime. The International Commission on Radiation Safety recommends settling out to prevent dosages that exceed 1,000 mZv of radiation per lifetime. 

Soil contamination was another major issue. But using the density of soil contamination as a criterion for interference led to an absurd disproportion between money the government spent on territories with high contamination levels and those with lower levels. The collective dose in the Bryansk region, a more highly contaminated area, was 305.5 Zv per person; the payment per dose unit was $140,000/Zv per person. In the Tambov region, which was less contaminated, the payment per dose unit was $920,000/Zv per person. Thus the per dose unit payments were considerably higher in the less contaminated areas. 


In order to increase public safety in the event of radiation terrorism, it is necessary to work hand in hand with the mass media, public officials, and heads of institutions to inform the public about the risks of radiation and about how to react in case of a crisis. 

The public's current negative attitude developed as a result of historical events: first, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then the fear that was pervasive during the Cold War; and finally the apocalyptic scenes of nuclear winter that were threatened during the time of the nuclear arms race. The Chernobyl accident also made a major contribution to the phenomenon of radiation anxiety, both in the USSR and throughout the world. 

The exaggerated fear of radiation is also the result of the mistrust of science in general. Most new technologies are associated with lethal dangers. The gap between the ordinary population's and the scientific community's ecological consciousness has developed because most people assess the dangers of radiation based on using nuclear technologies for peaceful and military purposes. In a brief questioning of natural science students from several Moscow institutes in 2001, students were asked, "How many people have died from the atomic bombing of Japanese cities, from the disasters in the Southern Urals and Chernobyl, and from the past 50 years of Russian atomic industry enterprises?" Every student estimated that the number of people who died was three to four times what it actually is. 

One reason people have an unrealistic view of radiation risk is because it is based on existing legal norms. After the accident in Chernobyl, the Russian legislature established rigid, unrealistic sanitary norms. As a result, levels slightly over the Russian limit, which are normal in the majority of Western countries, are of serious concern. So-called radio-contaminated natural products are prohibited from sale, but in reality are not harmful. The existing norms of ecological safety are in conflict with the actual science. Thus the criteria for ecological disaster, which is supposed to be an additional dose of irradiation equal to 10 mZv a year, is incorrect; Chernobyl tests have shown that a negative effect (usually recoverable) occurs when the dose is between 200 and 300 mZv for land animals and over 2,000 mZv a year for ocean beings and vegetation. Legislation in Chernobyl guarantees health insurance coverage for those people whose level of additional radioactive irradiation is much lower than the amount determined to be of concern. 

Ecological education is supposed to be the main factor for understanding radiation. In 2001, a dozen manuals on ecology showed that the authors tried to highlight the problems of radiation safety by using the Greens' publications, distorted information based on a personal viewpoint. Instead of considering radiation risk within the framework of the single system of technological dangers, public ecologists pose the radiation risk factor to others as the most dangerous. 

The mass media often informs the public in a similar way. It is a well-known fact that the press caused panic about topics related to the Three Mile Island accident and mad cow disease that were not dangerous for human health at all. On the one hand, the mass media expresses public sentiments, but, on the other, defines them. The press can be of great help in controlling any crisis. 


Lowering the risk of radiation is a strategic task of society. The wealthier the country, the more it can afford to lower the radiation risk, particularly if it can be easily detected. For example, the U.S. National Commission on Regulation has set a goal to lower the level of carcinogenic risk connected with radiation up to 10-5 (not more than 0.01 percent of the population risk of spontaneous oncological mortality); the dose limit of 1 mZv per year recommended by the International Commission on Radiation Safety and legally endorsed in Russian radiation standards corresponds to a risk of <5 x 10-5. The most minimal level increase equal to 1 mZv can be easily registered by sensitive detection devices. 

In Russia, dozens of projects have been carried out recently in over 30 cities concerning the effects of chemicals that contaminate the environment on people's health. These studies showed that the greatest carcinogenic risk is to the air and the drinking water. Chemicals such as butadiene, hexavalent chromium, and bensol take the lead among the carcinogens. The maximum level of acceptable concentrations of these artificial chemicals creates ten times more risk than that created by yearly radiation doses equal to 1 mZv. According to data from the Scientific and Research Institute of human ecology and environmental hygiene (A.N.Sysin) of the Russian Academy for Medical Sciences, more than 80% of air samples taken show that the carcinogenic risk exceeded the level 10-3 while the level of maximum acceptable concentrations of chemicals in those samples was normal. 

To address one more related topic, the risk connected with high levels of air pollution in cities is considered to be acceptable. In Russia, nearly 80 million people run that risk, and as a result 40,000 people die every year. The radiation risk for populations that reside in areas beyond the limits of the Chernobyl accident zone is tens and even hundreds of times less: 8 deaths a year per 100,000 people. 

Thus when society-in defiance of all objective scientific data-proclaims that one factor is more dangerous than the others, it deceives itself. Inappropriate risk-control strategies do great harm to the economy. Lowering the radiation risk is also becoming more and more expensive, while considerably fewer investments are making it harder to bring down the mortality rate and increase the life span. 


In the event of radiation terrorism, both the level of public safety and the resulting indirect consequences of the act are mainly determined by public opinion. One of the main tasks in providing safety is to find the right answer to the problem. Consistent work in this direction can be regarded as an effective and inexpensive preventive measure. Keeping the population educated about the issues involved with radiation risk, however, calls not only for a professional, scientific approach but also for taking into account how a non-professional audience understands scientific information. This means that we must take an individual approach to every group we reach out to. At an international level, it also means developing a corresponding state information policy and coordinating approaches. Moreover, we must consolidate the efforts of professionals in various countries as well as those in international organizations. 


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