Over the past few months, we have been on a journey together, exploring the importance of nuclear energy, as well as the birth and foundations of radiophobia. In many ways, these articles were born out of frustration with the state of the debate which surrounds nuclear energy today – especially within the nuclear community itself.
Together, we have established that facts play a limited role in the way issues are perceived, nuclear being by no means unique. Too many a time have I attended conferences where nuclear communication has been top of the agenda, but where the contents and conclusions were all the same, simply rehashing and repackaging the same flawed mantras. This has happened, time and time again. “The public are just irrational and emotional” you could often hear from some of the old-timers, followed by the antidote - “handing out more facts will correct their misunderstandings”.
Over the last few years, the mantra has evolved somewhat - “we need to do more risk communication…and more education” - but the fundamental problem remains the same. It is our biases, the way we instinctively interpret our world, that rule supreme for the majority of the time (as opposed to facts) – and it is often aided by the popular culture.
Radiophobia is something that many of us have felt at some point in our lives – just watch the Chernobyl series(!) – indeed, radiophobia will come up in conversation on not too infrequent a basis. Variations of the following are common:
- “I’ve heard that a lot of deformed babies were born as a result of Chernobyl”
- “Radiation from nuclear power plants result in three-eyed fish, like Blinky in the Simpsons”
- “The radiation from your phone will give you brain tumours”
The pervasiveness of radiophobia is partially related to the psychological factors we’ve explored in earlier pieces, and the powerful influence of imagery. It is also part of something much bigger, and something much, much older.
In 1966 Mary Douglas, the world-renown anthropologist, published “Purity and Danger: An analysis of concept of pollution and taboo”, in which she identifies the importance of purity as a concept at the heart of all societies and religions worldwide. This is where radiation derives its powerful imagery and stigmatising power. To make matters worse, radiation is deemed to be a permanent pollutant, from which there is no escape. Whilst this is not scientifically true, it is the perception which, in turn, comes to define how we relate to it. People who are deemed to have been “polluted” with radiation thus become “them”, and the concept of “us” versus “them” is immensely powerful in inter-human relations.
The easy option would be to declare nuclear power an electricity generator non grata, close the shop, and move on. Indeed, in a world which is increasingly ruptured, defined by conflict, partisanship and little appetite for building bridges, it might seem futile to advocate for something as historically controversial as nuclear power. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. It might be the hard thing to do, but it is the right thing to do.
We have established in earlier articles in this series that the direct and indirect impacts of radiophobia are too severe to be left unchallenged. It has caused widespread harm across the world in the aftermath of nuclear accidents, and is depriving humanity of its best chance of building a truly sustainable and equitable world. We must grasp the nettle and start the journey towards a post-radiophobic world, for the sake of every man, woman and child now alive, not to mention generations to come.
As a first step, it is crucial, essential, of the utmost importance, or any other superlative synonym for bloody important that you can find, that nuclear power it given an image makeover – an image renaissance if you like. In many ways, there is no time like the present. Whereas the nuclear debate of the last century was inherently tainted by the mushroom cloud – i.e. nuclear weapons – those cognitive and emotive links are arguably weaker than ever before. Radiophobia is deeply ingrained in most of us and our culture, and it will have to be combatted by salami tactics, lessening its grip on nuclear discourse slice by slice. For starters, a big slice would be for the nuclear community to stop talking about safety.
The debate around nuclear power has a tendency to end up being about safety, with many nuclear advocates bringing up the topic proactively, time and again, in conversations with people about nuclear. Whilst I have a great deal of sympathy for the notion that nuclear power’s outstanding safety record should be a source of pride, it just is not doing the nuclear cause any favours. Au contraire – by continuously talking about safety, we ensure that radiophobia remains at the top of the agenda.
This is done through a very simple mechanism: by talking about safety, the audience is invited to think about nuclear safety – in other words, accidents – and the associated emotions and imagery. This only reinforces radiophobia, and helps to prime the mind insofar that nuclear power = accidents = scary images = bad. Simply put, the more safety talk, directly or indirectly, the more nuclear power will continue to be *regarded* as unsafe. So, I have a very simple plea to the nuclear community at large: please, retire the proactive safety argument once and for all? Nuclear power offers so much in terms of positive messages, use them to their fullest!
A word of caution, however. Some argue that the pro-nuclear community should aim to create widespread enthusiasm for nuclear energy. As much as I love nuclear technology and would consider myself a first-rate nuclear geek, I would respectfully disagree. It is unreasonable to expect – thus setting oneself up to being let down – that the public will pay enough attention to energy issues for genuine and sustained enthusiasm to be cultivated. At the end of the day, people are more interested in who will win the Premier League or America’s Next Top Model, not to mention the genuinely important concerns like employment, access to healthcare, etc, etc. Energy is rarely on the top of the agenda, and when it is, it is often for negative reasons.
For far too long, the way this awesome power source has been portrayed has been dictated by its detractors. It is the imagery of the bomb, of Chernobyl, of safety concerns, of costliness, the list goes on. The only “positive” framing that you find in connection to nuclear power that is aimed for the public is the climate message. It, however, begs the question whether tying nuclear to the “the end of the world is nigh” narrative classifies as positive.
Many nuclear advocates have openly declared the importance of climate change insofar as their motivation for having adopted this unloved energy source is concerned. “Conversion” stories are plentiful, where former, high-level anti-nuclear activists have become pro-nuclear, citing climate change as a major factor. Inevitably, personal motivations are reflected in the way the nuclear power has been framed by many of its supporters. This is by all accounts very human, as our unconscious biases are bound to seep through and manifest subtly in our day-to-day life.
Indeed, there is evidence pointing towards the fact that linking nuclear power and climate change does only result in “reluctant” acceptance. There are very few people who regard climate change as an “extremely high risk to human health, safety, or prosperity”, whilst also thinking that nuclear power does not pose a high risk. Studies in the US and the UK found that these individuals make up a very small proportion of the population. Therefore, focusing only on climate change in the nuclear debate seems highly ineffective.
In a similar vein to the way critique from the anti-nuclear movement on safety was internalised by the nuclear community, resulting in ever-increasing obsession on safety, I suspect that the same goes for the pivot towards climate change that has been seen in the nuclear conversation since the early 1990s.
This is not to say that nuclear does not have a key role to play in fighting climate change – because it most certainly does – but to replace the bomb and other scary images from the repertoire of nuclear imagery, we have to find a positive ground to build upon. Melting icecaps, starving polar bears or forest fires certainly will not achieve that. Creating an alternative set of emotional responses and images relating to nuclear will be crucial, and I am convinced that the humanitarian work the atom can do will offer that new deal.
Nuclear energy is first and foremost a humanitarian giant, and it can truly revolutionise the lives of all of us. It can be used for a broad range of things, from generating affordable electricity to creating synthetic fuels. Radioactive materials from a reactor can also be used to fight food waste (through irradiation), pest control and pandemic prevention (e.g., sterilising mosquitoes to fight malaria).
Most of us probably assume that heat kills more people than cold, something that is aided by the narratives of global warming and the associated increased risk of heatwaves. However, the cold kills considerably more people than heat, as suboptimal indoor temperatures is responsible for a raft of health conditions. The inability to adequately heat one’s home is a major health threat, which disproportionately impacts socio-economically disadvantaged groups, especially amongst the elderly. Nuclear power plants generate a tremendous amount of heat as part of the nuclear chain reaction, and this heat can be used to heat people’s homes affordably, ensuring that no one will have to choose between essentials like food or heating your home. Equally, the cheap electricity that a nuclear power plant generates round the clock will help to reduce the financial burdens for the most disadvantaged, ensuring that they can live a better life.
Access to clean drinking water remains a considerable problem globally, and the effects of climate change will likely make the situation much worse. It is estimated that in five years, half of the world’s population will suffer the effects of water scarcity. 2.2 billion people do not have access to safety-managed drinking water, and contaminated water results in almost 500,000 diarrheal deaths annually, as well as spreads diseases such as polio, dysentery and typhoid. Nuclear power can play a key role in providing clean drinking water by means of desalination, where seawater is made into drinkable water. Radiation can also be used to disinfect water, if need be.
In this day and age, it is simply unacceptable that some 25,000 people a day die due to hunger, or that nine million people die a year as a result of air pollution – in many cases caused by either lack of electricity, or dirty electricity. It is equally unacceptable that hundreds of thousands die due to cold weather, and that almost a billion people live without access to electricity. By highlighting the fact that nuclear energy is a humanitarian giant, capable of resolving many of the greatest challenges which humanity faces, we will be able to build new and unlikely coalitions in favour of the atom.
There will be much hard work required to address the many myths and misconceptions that exist around radiation and we all have a part to play. We need nuclear power now – we simply cannot allow radiophobia and its grip on public perception to stand in the way. By vanquishing the spectre of radiophobia, we can unshackle humanity and once we enter the post-radiophobic world, the bright future promised by the atom will be fulfilled.
- John Lindberg