The real damage from nuclear accidents is mostly psychological. It's fear and fear can have powerful manifestations. Cambridge University prof and specialist in the public understanding of risk, David Spiegelhalter, says we fear most that which we cannot see:
Psychologists have spent years identifying the factors that lead to increased feelings of risk and vulnerability - and escaped radiation from nuclear plants ticks all the boxes.
It is an invisible hazard, mysterious and not understood, associated with dire consequences such as cancer and birth defects. It feels unnatural.
It has been estimated that 17m were exposed to significant radiation after Chernobyl and nearly 2,000 people have since developed thyroid cancer having consumed contaminated food and milk as children.
This is very serious, but nothing like the impact that had been expected, and a UN report identified psychological problems as the major consequence for health.
The perception of the extreme risk of radiation exposure is also somewhat contradicted by the experience of 87,000 survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, who have been followed up for their whole lives.
By 1992, over 40,000 had died, but it has been estimated that only 690 of those deaths were due to the radiation. Again, the psychological effects were major.
Radiation does, however, feel acceptable when used in benign circumstances such as medical imaging. You can pay £100 ($160) and get a whole-body CT scan as part of a medical check-up, but it can deliver you a dose equivalent to being 1.5 miles from the centre of the Hiroshima explosion.
Because more than 70m CT scans are carried out each year, the US National Cancer Institute has estimated that 29,000 Americans will get cancer as a result of the CT scans they received in 2007 alone.
I've been really astonished at the "Chicken Little" reactions I've seen from progressives about the Japanese fiasco. Ten thousand Japanese have either been swept out to sea or lie buried beneath rubble and yet our attention is seemingly riveted on a few failing reactors that have killed - oh, let me count - nobody. What, this is Armageddon? Nope, not really.
Yet widespread fear may rule out the use of nuclear power which may be our last best option for weaning ourselves off fossil fuels if we're to avoid a real catastrophe, runaway global warming. Hey, wait, I've got an idea! Let's compromise. How about if we all agree not to build major nuclear reactor plants anywhere that four of the earths' major tectonic plates collide? Hmmm, I wonder why the Japanese didn't think of that?
Fear is a real bitch. That's why it has become the instrument of choice of today's radical/mainstream Right. Fear weakens you. It leaves you vulnerable, malleable. We no longer can afford that. If we don't learn to reject fear (a.k.a. "grow a pair") we may be in for a brief and brutal century. The ship has sailed and on this voyage it's going to take clear-headed courage to make it through.
So get on your best woolly sweater, have a soothing cup of jasmine tea and stop being such a bunch of fucking ninnies!