Whether we like it or not, Australia is
linked to the nuclear industry. If Saudi Arabia has about a third of
the world’s known oil reserves, then Australia is the Saudi Arabia
Uranium is a major export earner for Australia. In 2003 Australia
sold A$472 million worth of it overseas. Should Australia build a
nuclear power plant to reduce reliance on coal burning power
stations? Should we accept nuclear waste from our trading partners
for potentially large profits? If you want to understand the risks
and benefits of the nuclear industry, you will need to know
something of the science of radioactivity and of the biological
effects of irradiation. You will need to be aware of the origins of
the sometimes irrational fear of irradiation (radiation phobia) and
its harmful consequences.
This paper has been written specifically for the general reader
who may not necessarily have much or any scientific training. The
nature of radioactivity, with special reference to uranium and
plutonium, is simply described. How radiation affects tissues and
the potential hazards to individuals and populations are explained.
The cancer incidence in survivors of Hiroshima, Nagasaki and
Chernobyl are summarized. It is hoped the reader will find this
paper helpful in understanding the issues currently so prominent in
public debate. References to further reading are provided.