Hollywood films have long portrayed radiation as evil and powerful. Fear of radiation was widespread even before the United States dropped bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The blasts themselves killed more than 200,000 people, and many others died later from radiation exposure.
The New York Times wrote article after article about how radiation would change Japanese lives "for "centuries," that there would be genetic damage -- defects for the next 1,000 years. But surprise: So far no such damage has appeared.
Some researchers, like toxicology professor Ed Calabrese, now say blast survivors, who were exposed to smaller amounts of radiation, are living longer than normal, and in small doses, radiation may even be good for you.
"It's all in the dose," Calabrese said. "What's going on at low doses is often seen to enhance immune performance and enhance longevity," he said.
In one experiment, researchers exposed mice to small amounts of radiation and concluded it may have slowed their aging. The irradiated mice had more energy and shinier fur.
"We find that at low doses you can actually extend the life span of the mice," Calabrese said.
Essentially, Calabrese says, a little radiation may work kind of like a vaccine and actually be good for people.
In Europe some people now bathe in radioactive water, saying it's good for them. And in Montana, some Americans spend time in old uranium mines where they breathe in radioactive gas.
They say they feel better when they leave.
Many scientists say that's nonsense, or dangerous -- and it has yet to be proved that low-dose radiation is beneficial -- but they do agree that the hysteria about radiation is just that -- hysteria.
In 1979, the movie "The China Syndrome" set the stage for panic.
Just weeks later, a nuclear power plant in Three Mile Island, Penn., released radioactivity in the air. People fled and worried that officials weren't telling them about lingering health hazards from the accident.
In truth, the people living in the area were exposed to an average of 6.5 millirems of radiation. We now know that's meaningless given that every year, all of us absorb about 30 millirems from the ground, 26 from the sun, 10 from just one dental X-ray, 10 from food, and 5 from our own drinking water.
Patrick Moore, who co-founded the environmental organization Greenpeace, said the group has actually fostered people's exaggerated fears.
"It's because they're being told over and over and over again through the media that they are going to be damaged and killed by radiation from nuclear power," he said.
Moore is now at odds with his former friends at Greenpeace. He's now a consultant for the nuclear power industry.
"Not a single person is being killed in the nuclear industry, and people are wanting to ban it. It's pure scare tactics," he said.
But what about that accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine 20 years ago? It terrified the world.
The media projected hundreds of thousands of deaths.
In truth, a study by eight international agencies found 56 people were killed, mostly firefighters and workers at the plant. Thousands of other people may still die of cancer, but nowhere near the number that was predicted. The study said the biggest health menace the people of Chernobyl faced was psychological trauma, in part from fear. The fear was worse than the radiation.
So next time someone scares you about radiation, remember that you are exposed to it all the time without harm, and some people even want more of it.