Press release
Paris, 5 June 1997

New NEA report on radiation

As part of its series of publications intended for non-specialists, the Nuclear Energy Agency (NEA) announces the publication of a new report Radiation in Perspective: Applications, Risks and Protection. The report discusses the development of radiation protection measures and internationally agreed principles. It addresses social and economic issues such as ethical questions, risk perception, risk comparison, public participation in decision-making and the cost of protection, with the aim of facilitating understanding of this subject.

Despite its many beneficial applications in medicine, industry and research, ionising radiation is focused on by the public more in conjunction with the generation of electricity by nuclear power.

The debate about radiation is just one of many that have arisen in countries, in which high standards of living depend on a wide range of technologies, applied through a complex infrastructure of manufacturing and energy industries, and transport systems. The challenge is to maintain or improve these standards without undue damage to the environment, and without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs to achieve sustainable development.

Radiation is the catalyst of a series of apparent paradoxes: it is universal, yet unseen and unfelt; it has many beneficial applications, yet can be harmful; it is well understood, yet often feared. Measures to safeguard health and the environment from the harmful effects of radiation are well developed and applied through stringent national legislation in most countries. There is a broad scientific and technical consensus that the degree of scientific knowledge of radiation and its effects constitutes an acceptable basis for a conservative system of protection. Yet a key issue in radiation protection is that of balancing risks and benefits. There is little doubt that the benefits to patients from the use of radiation and radioactive materials for diagnosis and treatment generally far exceeds any associated risks. The balance becomes more difficult to maintain if the benefits are general but the risk is concentrated on a few people. Such complex problems are not unique to the nuclear industry. They also arise when considering the siting of motorways, airports, chemical plants and waste disposal sites.

Further questions about radiation arise when considering issues that are essentially socio-economic rather than technical. To what extent should decision-makers consider public perceptions of risk when there is a discrepancy between such perceptions and quantitative risk estimates derived from technical analysis of engineering systems? How much should be spent on the further reduction of risks that are already low? How should benefits to current generations be balanced against possible risks to future generations?

There are no simple answers to such questions, but they can only be addressed on the basis of a clear understanding of the scientific, technical, economic, social and other factors involved, which this new report seeks to provide.

Radiation in Perspective: Applications, Risks and Protection
OECD, Paris 1997, 94 pages
ISBN 92-64 - 15483-3

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