The unknown frightens us a whole lot more than the known – we can plan on how to deal with hazards we know about while the unknown leaves us unprepared. When my son was young, for example, he was afraid of the dark. Or, rather, he was frightened of the things he could not see – the suspected (but unconfirmed) monsters that might attack him in the night. I pretended to have the same fear as a child – in my case so that my parents would leave on the hall light so that I could secretly read a little longer at night. My son’s fears were honest (if ill-founded) where mine were more manipulative – aimed at snatching a little more surreptitious reading time.
Radiation phobia is ubiquitous in our global society. A huge number of people are frightened by radiation and their fear drives them into wild speculation about what the radiation might do to them. To those of us who understand the science behind radiation and its effects, these fears seem as silly as my son’s worries about monsters in the closet; to those who are frightened, our scoffing can seem uncaring and heartless – just as I am sure I seemed that way to my son on the fifth monster-search of the night.
We live in a society that depends on radiation and radioactivity. And at the risk of restating fairly common knowledge, it’s worth recounting some of this, if only to get it all in one place.
- About one-sixth of the world’s electricity (and a fifth of that in the United States) comes from nuclear power plants and, if we are to continue trying to bring electricity to both the developing and developed world without pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere then we have few options other than to deal with the reactors and the waste they produce.
- Medicine saves or improves billions of lives each year using radiation and radioactivity for diagnosis and treatment. Absent this radiation we would be back in the days of exploratory surgery, watchful waiting, and guesswork for a huge number of people and their ailments.
- Research that we depend on to help make our lives simpler, better, and healthier utilizes radiation and radioactivity. Whether that research is aimed at understanding cancer, developing more productive (or more nutritious) foods, or teasing out pharmaceutical biokinetics it benefits us all.
- And, lest we forget, our industry is more productive, our products higher-quality, and our process control systems simply more effective because of the use of radiation and radioactivity that are used for process controls, to measure the levels of tanks, and so forth.
The bottom line is that our society is better for the use of radiation and radioactivity. We can live without them – but we would likely not live as long or as happily. Ironically, it seems that the public’s fears of radiation are proportional to our dependence on it as a society. Unfortunately, these fears can drive the public into actions that are unwise (such as forgoing the benefits of medical radiation), ill-informed (such as stocking up on iodized salt in the aftermath of the Fukushima accident), or that just make it harder and more expensive for society to garner the benefits of the radiation and radioactivity that benefits so many of us (such as excessive regulatory burdens). Will public education help? Can more information about radiation shine a metaphorical light for the public, helping them to see that their fears are largely groundless? As what we might call a “recovering professor” I’d like to think so, but that is a guess and not certainty.
Part of the reason for my lack of certainty goes to my second anecdote. Just as I played on my parents’ ignorance to manipulate them into leaving the lights on so that I could achieve my goal of reading past my bedtime, so too (I suspect) do some in the anti-nuclear movement take advantage of the public’s lack of understanding and the resulting radiation phobia to stoke the public’s fears in order to manipulate them into taking actions that they might otherwise avoid. The most recent example of this happened in the first weeks after the Fukushima accident when an anti-nuclear organization took a colorful graphic showing the propagation of the tsunami across the Pacific Ocean and labeled it “Pacific Dead Zone” and combined it with another graphic purporting to show four separate sites with “breached reactors” and yet another graphic indicating that, within 48 hours, the entire American west coast would be slammed with a radioactive plume exposing everyone to “75 rems” (0.75 Sv). Topping it all off, the author(s) of this graphic added the logo of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (presumably to add legitimacy) and attached it to an article discussing all of the global horrors that were sure to ensue.
The author(s) of this graphic had to know that their work was a lie from beginning to end – that not a single bit of it had any legitimacy. And they knowingly used the NRC logo knowing they did not work for (and certainly did not speak for) the Commission. Yet they published it worldwide – it is still in circulation and has been attached to at least a half-dozen blatently anti-nuclear articles since the Fukushima accident. This is nothing more than a cynical exploitation of a tragedy designed to take advantage of public ignorance to push an agenda and those responsible should be taken to task. But the fact that this image continues to circulate also demonstrates the public’s relative ignorance when it comes to radiation and nuclear issues; I would like to think that a better-informed public would be more likely to see through such a sham.
Unfortunately, not much is being done to try to remedy the lack of public information that contributes so heavily to radiation phobia. I have talked with private and professional organizations – they have told me it’s the government’s job to educate the public on so sweeping and controversial a topic. I have spoken with news organizations – they have told me that public education isn’t news. I’ve also spoken with governmental agencies – they have told me that the government doesn’t want to frighten the public by bringing up radiation education in the absence of a real emergency. And those few organizations that are trying to do so are going about it passively – putting materials on-line and assuming that people will find them – instead of trying to find a way to push information into the public discussion.
I’m not sure what’s worse – not knowing how to start to address a recognized problem, or choosing not to take actions that you suspect will help. What I do know is that simply waiting and hoping that someone else will tackle a difficult – but necessary – task helps none of us while it serves society poorly.