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Radiation protection reaches a crossroads: input for a fundamental debate

At the 49th annual conference of the radiation protection association in Hannover, Dr. Inge Paulini spoke on 10 October 2017 about the current challenges for radiation protection. The conference dealt primarily with the new radiation protection legislation.

begin 2017.10.10
location 49th annual conference of the radiation protection association in Hannover
Speaker Dr. Inge Paulini, President of Federal Office for Radiation Protection

Radiation protection reaches a crossroads: input for a fundamental debate

Inge Paulini Dr. Inge PauliniDr. Inge Paulini, President of BfS

At this 49th annual conference of the association for radiation protection, we look back together at a year which has signified a caesura for German radiation protection: after many years of preparation, it has been possible to fundamentally re-regulate radiation protection on several levels.

The new radiation protection legislation implements European basic standards in national law and creates the basis for comprehensive radiation protection in Germany.

Radiation protection growing in significance

The radiation protection legislation shows that radiation protection is growing in significance in almost all areas of human life. The daily use of smartphones or exposure to radiation during medical diagnosis and treatment, UV protection throughout the year or radiological emergency protection in – unfortunately – all too possible accidents: radiation protection is to be considered everywhere.

With the implementation of radiation protection legislation, the BfS will be strengthened in its role as the central institution for radiation protection at federal government level. The radiation protection legislation gives my office new competencies and responsibilities. So as to fulfil these in the best possible way, we are presiding jointly over a variety of discussions about requirements, regulations and responsibilities.

I would like to take the opportunity of this reorientation of German radiation protection to stimulate a debate not only about the – absolutely vital – concrete and often technical details but also about the fundamental significance of this topic. Questions include:

Or also:

  • How can German radiation protection, which in many areas takes a leading role internationally, remain successful in the future?

Challenges for radiation protection

Radiation protection is facing a wide range of challenges.

  • First and foremost these involve maintaining competence. The numbers of students in radiation protection subject areas have been falling for years, while simultaneously we are losing qualified employees as they enter retirement. In my company too, over half of specialists are over 50 years old – so in coming years we will be facing significant challenges in finding replacements.
  • For public communication and awareness, radiation protection is considered a difficult topic. For the general public, the basic foundations of radiation protection are often hard to understand; the scientific findings, which are characterised by probabilities and uncertainties, are often difficult to grasp and the subject is at the same time connected with serious concerns and fears.

Nevertheless, how can we once again bring radiation protection more clearly into the public consciousness?

I am firmly convinced that a strong integration of radiation protection themes is crucial in the great topical debates of our time, and these must involve many societal stakeholders. If we rely on overwhelmingly scientific discussions or exchanges only amongst experts, we are threatened not only with a niche existence socially – we are threatened above all with the loss of the ability to fulfil our own high standards in the long-term protection of humans and the environment.

In which debates can and should we participate? I see two areas here:

  • one is the role of science and scientific policy consultancy,
  • another is the clear definition of the role of radiation protection in the management of significant future issues.

Role of science and scientific policy consultancy

Regarding the first point, many scientists complain of increasing disregard in social debates. It seems – despite an ever strengthening global network – to be increasingly difficult to bring scientific findings and methods profitably into social and political debates. We are facing the common challenge that an ever more complex world is demanding simple answers that science is not able to give.

In my opinion, this is to be counteracted on two levels:

  • on the one hand, we must all take responsibility for the promotion of education and science and for demanding their justified place in debates,
  • on the other hand, it is also our duty to communicate our findings in a comprehensible way – to the general public too!

As a concrete example, I would like to mention the debate about free release measurements for materials from the decommissioning of nuclear power stations. Conditioned by the enormous risks of nuclear energy, which have been drummed deep into the social consciousness by catastrophic accidents in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, there is also a social perception of intense risk in the field of decommissioning, which cannot be allayed simply by mentioning limit values. Intensive debates are necessary here to ensure Germany's safe withdrawal from the use of nuclear power.

The role of radiation protection in the management of significant future issues

Regarding the second point, many significant future issues are concerned with radiation protection:

  • In the expansion of the power network required for the energy revolution, open questions about health and radiation protection must be considered as early as possible so as to generate an appropriate degree of acceptance within the population.
  • The digital change is one of the central future structuring tasks. Advancing digitalisation in all areas of life and the expansion of the digital infrastructure are opening up immense opportunities that must be kept in view. However, the rapid developments also lead to a changed individual exposure situation caused by electrical, magnetic and electromagnetic fields. The investigation of any associated health problems remains largely lacking.
  • In the course of climate change, exposure to UV radiation will increase, depending on behaviour.
  • The current international situation as regards security policy, as well as Germany's withdrawal from the use of nuclear energy, are systematically changing the requirements of civilian crisis and emergency prevention. Radiation protection is therefore to be considered as an integral component part of many scenarios (nuclear terrorism, poison attacks, nuclear reactor accidents in Europe).

It is my goal to involve the BfS and radiation protection more closely in these debates and to incorporate the perspectives of radiation protection in areas in which radiation protection has not yet been considered an issue. I look forward to discussions with you and to exciting exchanges about the future of radiation protection.

State of 2017.10.20

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