Sunday, February 26, 2006

Radiation threats and credibility

A couple of days ago, the government and the parliament agreed to set up an independent committee to look into whether iron imported from Ukraine contained high levels of radiation, as some reports have suggested.

The interesting thing about this is that testing for radiation is as simple as passing a Geiger counter over the suspected material. Why is an independent committee needed for such a simple task? Clearly, the agency with the Geiger counters (the Jordan Nuclear Energy Commission) has a credibility problem, not just with the public, but with the deputies and possibly with the government.

This is not the first such case where the credibility of the JNEC has been questioned. A couple of years ago, statements by the Israeli whistle blower, Mordachai Vanunu, led to a similar call for an IAEA inquiry into whether the Dimona facility is causing increased radiation levels in the south of the country. At the time, the assurances of the JNEC were not heeded, and an international team eventually reported that there was no increased radiation that could be attributed to Dimona.

It is hard to say specifically why nobody trusts the JNEC. One answer might relate to how it responded to the Dimona question. In effect, Vanunu made two important statements relating to Jordan. The JNEC focused on the speculation that radiation might have been released from the reactor, and thus might have affected the Jordanian population. This speculation was untrue. The second statement was that Jordan should take measures to distribute iodine tablets to regions adjacent to the reactor, because the aging facility is susceptible to leaking, and contingencies are always good to have. Until now, as far as I know, the government has done nothing to mitigate the effects of a radiation leak in case it happens. Israel has distributed the iodine pills to residents who might be affected in the area, so it is not clear why Jordan is so timid about the issue.

Now, I realize that the JNEC is a technical agency which provides data to the politicians. It was (and is) the government that doesn't want to make too much of a fuss about the issue for political considerations. However, the JNEC lent itself to the political agenda of the government by overstating Vanunu's first suggestion and ignoring the second. Once a technical agency shows willingness to subjugate its statements to political expediency, it loses its credibility. This is one problem.

The second problem relates to releasing information. Any technical agency that wishes to inspire confidence should be generous with data. The JNEC doesn't even have a web site. To inspire some level of trust, information about the type of equipment, and their distribution as well as sampling protocols followed should be made available to the public, as well as at least a sample of data collected. In this report, written prior to the establishment of the latest committee, the following sentence is prominent "For his part, the JNEC director, Dr. Ziad Al Qudah refused to give any information about the examination procedures that the commission will take (to test the iron)". Of course, this is not something that inspires confidence.


At 11:05 PM, Blogger Firas said...

Khalaf, this mistrust goes down pretty much to everything!

The problem is that we don't have a healthy opposition that would make the government think twice before doing something! Currently they come up with things without even announcing about it!
Another problem is that people are afraid to speak up!And if someone dares to, s/he will be left alone to face isolation and accuses of being a trouble maker since no one else is complaining!
The people and the government goes by this motto : اذا بليتم فاستترو!
"If you got problems, keep it on the down low"

Anyways, I think this is a good step, I mean an independent Org. or not, it's our right to know!

Here is a post abouit this particular issue I had long time ago: It's titled: Lousy Government, it talks about the Israeli nuclear plant issue:

At 11:24 PM, Blogger Khalaf said...

Hi Firas: It is difficult to differentiate between cases where rumors are not quelled despite being illogical (such as the earthquake rumor) and the cases where the government only partially deals with the issue, trying to obscure more difficult realities (such as the Dimona case). You are right in that there is a crisis of confidence. Credibility can only be built through consistent honesty.

I liked your earlier post, and you suggestions at the time would have been much more credible than what Asma Khader gave us.

At 10:51 AM, Blogger salam said...

Khalaf,this issue bothers me.I am one of the people who believe in giving the government the bebefit of the doubt.SO in general,when they see,there is no fear of excessive levels of radiation,I tend to believe them,maybe I want to believe them to be able to put my mind at ease.But I have been bombarded with bad news about people,relative,friends who live in Jordan who've been getting cancer.Of course this is not a formal statistic,just my own view and I think there's something fish about this whole thing.Something doesn't feel right.

At 1:29 PM, Blogger Khalaf said...

Salam: I tend to agree with what the gov says, but I find it disturbing when it and the parliament don't trust one of their own agencies. This is a real problem.

As for cancer, available statistics show that they are within world levels, despite high levels of smoking and low levels of physical activity.

At 3:11 PM, Anonymous Nidal said...

The lack of confidence is a very big issue, and certainly is worrying, as for the technicalities I am no expert so it is difficult to comment, but I know someone who is, let me see if I can get him involved!
Very interesting post though

At 7:34 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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- Kiley

At 10:25 AM, Blogger Yael K said...

When it comes to things like nuclear power and the possible effects on those living around it, I think most people in most countries are sceptical of what the government and government agencies tell them as far as safety issues. When something goes wrong it goes very very wrong, after all. There was Chernobyl in Russia and Love Canal in the U.S. -and the U.S. government tried for years to claim that the waste was not responsible for the higher cancer rates and illness in that community before having to give in under the tremendous weight of evidence against them. Makes people more than a bit nervous and suspicious.

And government agencies, while working of course for the government, also tend to each have their own agendas separate from the government --things like how to get more funding for themselves, more power for their agency, image etc --and so are not opposed to blurring and hiding, the truth if the truth could bite them in one of those areas. Of course they don't do it all the time and certainly some agencies don't do it ever but because some bad apples have done it, it makes people, even within one agency of the same government suspicious of what other agencies are saying.

A little scepticism is a good thing, I think.


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