Skyrocketing oil prices, Middle East tensions, natural disasters, environmental issues and a surging worldwide demand for fossil fuels has put the topic of nuclear power back into America’s energy equation.

The time finally may have come when we can start looking at nuclear power as a viable, dependable, cheap and extremely safe source of energy for the future. Before that happens though, we are going to have to grapple with the one thing that has unnecessarily crippled America when it comes to nuclear power — our radiophobia.

Radiophobia is simply the irrational fear of any type of ionizing radiation. Nuclear power, the product of ionizing radiation, is seen by most Americans as dangerous and wrought with insidious side effects. Mere mention of radiation or radioactivity conjures up images of sinister, uncontrollable forces that cause disease, deformities and death.

Our apocalyptic view of anything nuclear is no passing fit of hysteria. Quite the contrary, for the past 60 years it has been a hard-wired part of the American psyche.

So where did our radiophobia come from, and how have we allowed it to be one of the guiding principles in our decisions about nuclear power? The answers lie in two distinct areas: One is psychology, the other is bad science.

We automatically equate nuclear power with danger because for the past 60 years we have been bombarded with gross exaggerations of the true nature of nuclear power. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, hundreds of science fiction movies, images of deformed and mutated animals, and media driven by sensationalism have successfully convinced generation after generation that nuclear power is not only to be feared, but avoided at all costs. Add in Cold War psychology and the environmental movements’ doomsday scenarios and it’ s no wonder our radiophobia is alive and well.

A cogent example is provided by professor Zbigniew Jaworowski of the Central Laboratory for Radiological Protection in Warsaw, Poland. Jaworowski states that the psychosomatic disorders observed in the 15 million people in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia who were affected by the 1986 Chernobyl accident are probably the accident’ s most important effect on public health. These disorders were not caused by ionizing radiation but instead by the belief that any amount of man-made radiation, even minuscule doses, can cause harm. In the years after the accident, more than 270,000 people from these areas were unnecessarily evacuated and relocated because of radiophobia.

Along with the psychological hysteria attached to anything nuclear, we also must contend with the bad science that was the basis for decision-making when it comes to nuclear power.

In 1959, the International Commission on Radiological Protection signed off on a policy based on the theory of “linear nonthreshold.” LNT is a benign little scientific theory that has, although it turned out to be flawed, become the premise by which major scientific, economic, political and social decisions have been made.

At its simplest, LNT assumes that the detrimental effects of radiation are proportional to the dose (a linear relationship) and that even the smallest dose has detrimental effects.

LNT also premised the idea of “additivity of risk,” which meant that even small doses of radiation can add up over time and lead to detrimental effects similar to that of larger single doses.

LNT led to the concept of “dose accumulation,” which refers to the idea that a large, damaging dose exposure to one generation can be hereditarily passed along to future generations.

By its very name, “linear nonthreshold” is false when gauging radiation exposure. The detrimental effects of small doses do not increase as the dose gets larger. Instead, there is a definite dose “threshold” at which detrimental effects become evident.

Take the idea of “additivity of risk” that says small doses of radiation can add up over time and act as if one large dose were applied. That is just like saying that if a person spends five hours in 80 degree temperature the results will be the same as if they spend one hour in 400 degree temperature. The math makes sense — 5 x 80 = 400, and 1 x 400 = 400 — but the actuality is patently absurd.

All of these assumptions spawned other assumptions that became the basis for many international policies concerning radiation protection and the uses of nuclear power. Problem is, all of these concepts have been proven scientifically ridiculous.

Increased use of nuclear power to meet America’ s energy needs is on the horizon. Will we finally be able to rid ourselves of the boogeyman called radiophobia?

Ike Morgan has taught high school math and physics for 24 years. He lives in Exeter.