Harvard professor David Ropeik takes a look at radiation and the concept of risk and find a number of linkages that inculcate a fear of radiation beyond the actual risk from it.
Particularly among baby boomers, our nuclear fears are rooted in existential Cold War worries about nuclear weapons, which transitioned into fear of nuclear fallout from weapons testing , which transitioned into environmental concerns. Beyond that stigmatizing past, nuclear radiation bears many of the psychological characteristics that research has found make any risk scarier.
We're more afraid of risks imposed on us than those we choose, which is why medical radiation is accepted but nuclear power radiation isn't.
A sign of a good article is that it is not afraid to tread into uncomfortable areas.
The more pain and suffering they cause, the more afraid we are of risks, and nuclear radiation is associated with cancer, even though studies of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have firmly established that this form of radiation is a much weaker carcinogen than most people realize. The high doses and prolonged exposures from those explosions raised the cancer death toll among survivors who were within two miles of the explosions by only about half of 1%, according to the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, which coordinates the now 65-year-long epidemiological study of these survivors.
It is fear of radiation that put advocates all over the American airwaves after the Fukushima accident to talk about an imminent radiological apocalypse. Actual risk can be far outstripped by perceived risk – and exploited accordingly.
Admittedly, Ropeik goes further than I think the subject can sustain. For example:
On top of those "risk perception factors," nuclear energy is associated with industry and capitalism and institutions of economic and political power that some feel are responsible for an unfair society, one in which a few have most of the control and the rest are stuck lower on an economic and social class hierarchy too rigid to give everyone a fair shot.
Really? Polls have shown that the nearer one lives to a nuclear facility, the more one likes it – because it is an economic engine in the area – and because plant workers in the neighborhood act as de factor advocates, helping to get actual and perceived risk into balance. On several levels, a nuclear energy plant is like a factory – it provides jobs to workers and an economic boon to its county and state.
(It’s not unusual for social studies academics to explore a topic via the perils and pitfalls of capitalism, and such a perspective can be useful. This time, though, Ropeik applies a fairly standard critique of industrial endeavor where it really doesn’t fit – The China Syndrome tried the same approach, blaming the faults of that movie’s fictional nuclear facility on rapacious owners.)
Quibbles aside, the overall point is solid and Ropeik states it exceptionally well. Well worth the read.
Interesting if very dated video from the Atoms for Peace era. It’s 1952 and Fred MacMurray is your host. Father James Keller, who wraps things up in the last section, is well spoken but seems to have been brought aboard to provide extra spiritual ballast. Even when it makes you cringe a bit, the history is the history:
Yes, it’s true. We never get tired of showing the Vogtle plant in Georgia - clearing land or pouring cement or whatever the workers are up to - It’s been a long time coming.