Why Japan’s crisis causes worry, fear of radiation risk in the U.S.

Ann MacDonald

Contributor, Harvard Health

If the thought of a “nuclear meltdown” scares you more than the thought of undergoing a medical test that involves radiation, there’s a reason for that – and it involves more than just the amount of radiation involved in one versus the other. It has to do with the way you (and all of us) perceive risks.

I was reminded of this as I watched the news about the triple-whammy tragedy unfolding in Japan. The devastating earthquake and killer tsunami were shocking to behold as they unfolded on television screens. But it was the latest development—reports that damaged nuclear power plants are emitting radiation into the atmosphere—that really terrified me, even though I live thousands of miles away from the disaster. It seems to be having a similar effect on many of my fellow Americans, some of whom have begun stockpiling potassium iodide pills, which help protect against radiation-induced thyroid cancer.

It’s still too early to tell how much radiation has leaked into the atmosphere in Japan, never mind how much—if any—might migrate thousands of miles away to New England. But my own emotional reaction made me wonder what happens psychologically when we hear phrases like “nuclear meltdown.”

It’s likely that several things are going on in our brains at once—as explained in an article by risk expert David Ropeik when he was at the Harvard School of Public Health. He lists 14 factors that influence our perception of risk. Nuclear disasters hit several of these psychological buttons at once. Exposure to the sun seems benign, even though visible and ultraviolet light are natural forms of radiation, while exposure to radiation from a nuclear power plant—something man made—seems downright sinister. Nuclear disasters are hard to understand, and we may not trust the “experts” who are reassuring us everything is fine. Another hot button is how will it affect me and my family. Radiation exposure in particular can have long-term effects, such as cancer—as my colleague Pat Skerrett points out in a related post.

Apply Ropeik’s risk perception factors to the nuclear crisis in Japan, and 12 of them point toward a heightened perception of risk.

That’s why it’s so important to seek out facts before succumbing to fear. It’s too early to tell what the radiation fallout is in Japan—or elsewhere. Until the facts become clearer, try to keep the fear, and the risk, in perspective.


  1. Delman

    Hello Ann,

    I’m glad to be corrected about your lack of scientific knowledge, but all I can say is that you have made my point more strongly than I could have myself.

    You’re The Editor of Harvard Health Publishing, but claim to be a mere writer with an (ignorant) opinion. Does Harvard appoint just anyone to such a position, and then fail to monitor what she is saying? I think someone at Harvard who — unlike you — is prepared to be accountable for her or his opinions should apologise for the article and assure us this sort of thing will not happen again.

    If keeping risks in perspective was — as you say — the point of your article, you could hardly have done a worse job.

    • BG

      Why should she apologize for others’ lack of reading ability? This article was about risk perception. the links included underline this. It is not a statistical paper about radiation levels. The title, the illustration, the content all state this. The other commentators were clearly looking for other information which with a modicum of effort on their part could have been obtained elsewhere, even by clicking on the related links. Perhaps you all were viewing it on your phones and didn’t bother to read fully. Also, the penchant for intellectual stratification is appalling. A “mere” writer isn’t allowed to make informed observances but a scientist can?

  2. M. London

    Perhaps it would be wise now to follow up with an expert article explaining how distance from Japan to California may lessen the risk and the fears of radiation. I’m sorry to say I do not need laymen writing about radiation or nuclear events.

  3. DLG

    I’m afraid I agree with Delman although I might not have phrased it as such. The thing that bugs me is that you are representing yourself on a Harvard Medical School site and, as such, as some kind of expert and yet the only thing I could take from you brief is that the fear imminates from the “sinister” nature of nuclear power and the potential long term impact on ourselves and our families. This does not, to any extent, explain the irrational fear that is gripping many in the US regarding Japan. The whole thing is presented a bit amateurishly. Not at the level one expects.

  4. Delman

    This is a poor article because it deals with people’s fears without commenting on whether they are groundless or not.

    The spectacle of a Harvard scientist admitting her “terror” when she heard there’d been some nuclear emissions on the other side of the world would be merely ludicrous, if it weren’t contributing to the (groundless) terror of others.

    • Ann MacDonald
      Ann MacDonald

      Hello Delman,

      Thanks for writing. Just to clarify: I am not a scientist. If you read my bio, you will see that I am a writer.

      I’m all for keeping risks in perspective — that was the point of the post.

      Best wishes,


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