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Fear of Japan's nuclear crisis far exceeds actual risks, say scientists

Pop culture has long helped fuel an irrational fear of radiation, and dire warnings about Japan's embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant are likely overblown, scientists say.

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Medical staff in protective clothing check radiation levels on a young boy in Koriyama, Japan. Attempts to cool down a stricken reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan have suffered an early setback after seawater dumped from the air failed to bring down radiation levels

Zuma Press/Newscom

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Fukushima is not Chernobyl, scientists repeat, and even Chernobyl was not as deadly as popularly believed.

Dire warnings of radiation spreading from Japan's embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to deadly effect across Japan, or even to California, are likely overblown, they say.

Radiation is all around us, varying with the number of miles we fly, the elevation of our towns, and the minerals in our environments, scientists point out. We live with it, and most of the time it is harmless.

“There is an increased level of anxiety disproportionate to the actual risk,” says Jerrold Bushberg, who directs programs in health physics at the University of California at Davis. “It’s the dose that makes the poison. It’s not a binary thing.”

Fear and hype surround radiation, which has become something of a bogeyman in part because of popular culture. A radioactive spider bit Peter Parker and turned him into Spiderman. Bruce Banner absorbed radiation in a bomb explosion and became The Incredible Hulk. Radiation from nuclear detonations morphed a small lizard into Godzilla.

“It gives you subliminal messages about the capacity of radiation to do harm,” Professor Bushberg says in a telephone interview.

'Crazy' for Americans to be worried

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