top of page

Maria is our fourth opinion piece author with her series "Harmonious Inhabitation: Architecture in the Climate Emergency".

Sustainability is a growing agenda for architects, with many practices now making commitments to go beyond sustainability and look towards regenerative design that has a net positive impact on the environment.

As an architect at global architecture practice Grimshaw, Maria has experience working on projects ranging from major infrastructure, to cultural projects, to one-off residential. She is fascinated and inspired by how we can bring sustainable and regenerative thinking into the spaces we inhabit, from the macro to the micro-scale. She is a registered architect in the UK, but has been working in Grimshaw's Melbourne team since 2019. In this role she has worked locally and internationally, getting the opportunity to widen her understanding of environmental and political challenges around the world.

Maria has a passion for understanding the intersection between sustainability, health and holistic wellbeing, much of which she documents through Bode Studio - her passion project and virtual resource on Instagram for ideas, projects and products that inspire her in her work. This year she is pushing this area of interest further and is working towards certifying as a WELL Accredited Professional, a building standard that aims to achieve healthy buildings. This complements her experience and training working on Passivhaus projects, which she gained at her first workplace with Architype in the UK. The Passivhaus standard for buildings is based on high energy efficiency and excellent thermal performance, and her training in this area has given her a strong motivation to champion sustainable design principles across all her work.

You can find Maria on Linkedin and Bode Studio on Instagram

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

Imagine this: For all your life you've been told that eating an orange will give you a scary disease, if not kill you outright. This is then reinforced by your teachers at school, in films and books, and by stories told by people about relatives who might have encountered this mythical orange. One day, many years later, someone comes along, sprinkling orange juice all around you without your consent, and you might, or might not, have been exposed to a tiny amount of orange juice. Even if virtually every scientist tells you that orange juice is safe, wouldn’t it be rather strange if you didn’t become anxious or scared, after years of being taught to the contrary?

Replace oranges with radiation, and voila, you get radiophobia. Over the past half a century, we have all been told in no uncertain terms that radiation is indeed very dangerous, causes cancers and birth defects, full stop. Images of Chernobyl firefighters dying after receiving atrocious amounts of radiation, children and animals born with severe birth defects such as too many legs, no arms or ballooning heads – allegedly caused by radiation exposure – and much, much more has formed our experience with radiation at the very deepest of levels. Unhelpfully, radiophobia has often been used by pro-nuclear voices to discredit people’s fears around radiation, citing it as an irrational fear, and that if you’re afraid, you must be ignorant, not knowing your facts. We discussed this in the previous instalment of this article series. Nevertheless, as the example above highlights, radiophobia is indeed rather rational.

To anyone having followed the historical debate around nuclear energy, the spectre of radiophobia has been ever-present – perhaps not always expressed, but nevertheless, always lurking in the back of the room, like a faint shadow. The story of radiophobia comes from the depths of human anxiety about nuclear weapons, but has over the decades evolved into something much larger. It has morphed to envelop nuclear power, and it has become one of the chief calamities holding back humanity, robbing us of a better tomorrow. In this piece, we will be exploring where radiophobia came from and the psychological processes which nurtures and maintains it.

Radiation; the ghost of our minds, shaped by decades of portrayals in books, films and TV series – is an unforgiving monster. Radiation is the proverbial Victor Frankenstein, violating the most sacred and most hidden of places, perversely creating monsters by ripping apart our DNA, leaving us to live our lives as mutants. We become destined to succumb to the most feared of malaise’s – cancer – and produce more mutants (not the X-Men kind!) when our children enter this world. This is the unique fear profile of radiation – once “contaminated”, it is believed that the radiation will linger on, slowly poisoning everything and everyone. Given this image, it is no wonder that exposure to radiation causes anxiety; indeed, fear.

In fact, it is our own imagined radioactive ghost that is the mutant. In many ways, the “groundwork” for today’s radiophobia was laid in the period 1945-1965, when the power of the atom first and foremost brought to mind imagery of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the near-inevitable Atomic World War. During this period, fallout from extensive nuclear weapons testings, predominantly by the US and the Soviet Union, sparked debate around the potential health impacts of low-dose radiation.

The effects of high doses of radiation were already being noticed mere weeks after its discovery in 1895, but the effects of very low doses, accumulated over time, was a hotly debated and contested issue. The discovery that low levels of radioactive elements released by the tests were accumulating in children’s teeth, alongside claims that hundreds of thousands of cancer cases were to be expected as a result of the tests, caused public outrage. Whilst such claims made by activists were scientifically unsubstantiated, they swayed the public debate considerably, triggering a very powerful radiophobic response - and led to the first international ban against atmospheric tests of nuclear weapons. More importantly, for our purposes - the fallout debate had firmly established that radiation was something to be afraid of, and the narrative of the invisible threat, constantly surrounding us.

Today, it is evident - beyond any doubt - that the cognitive, emotional and imagerial links between nuclear power and nuclear weapons exist in the public mind, despite the actual differences between the two technologies. Most glaringly, perhaps, is the misconception that a nuclear reactor can lead to a nuclear explosion a la a nuclear bomb – despite the fact this is physically impossible. These links, however, has not always been part of the nuclear debate. Many of the leading anti-nuclear weapons advocates were also leading anti-nuclear power advocates. Imagery, rhetoric and strategies flowed freely between the two, which over time led to image “crossover”, with radiation being the common denominator. In a study asking people what they thought the aftermath of a nuclear accident looks like - may answers were very similar to the aftermath of a nuclear bomb – despite this being far, far from the case.

We are born with very few fears. It has been argued that it is only the fear of falling and of loud noises which we come into this world with - all other fears are acquired and learned. Radiophobia did not develop as a universal fear, but rather was found within the nascent environmental movements of the 1970s and 1980s. It also fits very well with the overall Zeitgeist of the last decades of the 20th and early 21st centuries, where risks against humanity are presented as catastrophic and world-ending in nature. As many of the values of the environmental movement began entering the mainstream, so did also the socialisation of radiophobia.

These links provide important clues as to where radiophobia came from. From the realms of psychology and behavioural economics, we find the concept of heuristics – the mental processes through which we quickly make decisions, form judgements and solve complex situations – which is crucial to understanding radiophobia. A good starting point can be found in many of our bookcases – by way of the ground-breaking work of the psychologist, economist and Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, in the shape of the bestselling “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.

One of the lasting contributions by Kahneman is the “two systems” thesis, which is the result of decades of research into human thought models and decision-making. Put simply, we all have two “systems”, which we use to make sense of the world. 95% of the time, we use system 1, which is quick, automatic, emotional and stereotyping. System 2, on the other hand, is used a mere 5% of the time, which is the logical, conscious and, as some would call it, the “rational” side of us. Understanding that most of our interactions in the world are based on our biases is important, as it highlights why providing facts – aimed for system 1 – to “correct” radiophobia is bound to fail.

This is especially true as radiation in many cases elicit a strong emotional response, and this rapid response activates the so-called availability bias. This is a phenomenon where the individual relies on immediate examples, based on previous knowledge or impressions, when assessing a risk or making a decision. This means that, for example, if you believe that nuclear accidents lead to many deaths, you will react very negatively to the news that a nuclear power plant is planned in your vicinity, as your first association will probably be death and danger. This is supported by research that has shown how a word - for example cancer - generates an unconscious emotional response - usually fear or anxiety - which in turn affects the individual's decision-making. If the emotional response is positive, the risk will usually be considered low and the reward high and vice versa. This so-called affect heuristic is clear in the nuclear power debate, where radiophobic associations with cancers, malformations and Chernobyl often lead to a negative psychological response, which in turn affects people's attitude towards nuclear power.

This has been corroborated by decades of psychological research, which has concluded that it is emotions, imagery, mental shortcuts and biases, as opposed to facts, which determine the way we perceive risks such as radiation. Indeed, it has been found that, in order to act “rationally”, we depend on mental imagery and the emotional response we’ve developed to said imagery. This mental imagery is inherently populated by our experiences – be it lived or through media - and represents the perceived reality of whatever issue is being discussed. Nuclear energy and radiation are no exceptions, with popular culture having played a significant role in shaping our relationship it, having created and promoted the monstrous image of radiation, aided and reinforced by the perceived impacts of nuclear accidents.

This is, in turn, reinforced by a phenomenon we all encounter on a daily basis - confirmation bias. It did not create radiophobia, and it is by no means unique to nuclear energy, but it has done a great deal more to ensure the survival and longevity of radiophobia and its policy guises. The basic tenant of confirmation bias is very simple: we look for things that confirm the views we already hold, and select any potential facts reinforcing this, whilst rejecting those that would invalidate our views. For the radiophobia case, confirmation bias looks like this: “Radiation is dangerous; the accident at Chernobyl proved that it is dangerous; thus, radiation must be dangerous”. We would, in order to confirm our views, subconsciously select the “evidence” – regardless of its credibility or scientific anchoring – which supports it. In the Chernobyl case, people who already believe that nuclear is a lethal danger would naturally believe the widely discredited Yablokov & Nesterenko study which claims some 985,000 deaths, whereas so far, some 100 attributable deaths have been reported.

Ten years after the Chernobyl accident, anti-nuclear advocates published claims that nuclear reactors – during normal operations –causes AIDS, alongside a number of different negative health consequences. Whilst there is no evidence that supports these claims, it serves to highlight a broader point about the nature of evidence. If we leave the nuclear debate briefly, you find that people who firmly believe that the Earth is flat are excellent at finding “evidence” to support their beliefs, and ignore any “evidence” which contradicts their belief. This is very much the case in the nuclear debate as well.

Nuclear energy has, since the very start, been intensely political. It got caught up in some of the biggest societal conflicts of the post-WWII era, and served in many ways as a proxy when people struggled with the new world which we were entering. The misconceptions and in many cases, outright lies about nuclear energy, were brought into the societal discussions by fear entrepreneurs, whose motives were as diverse as there are grains of sand on a beach. What is clear, however, is that the radiophobia they created and actively promoted, is alive and well. It has, for all intents and purposes, been allowed to roam freely and virtually unchecked.

Given how the public debate around radiation and all matters nuclear has been shaped over the past 70 odd years, radiophobia is completely rational. Nevertheless, and despite decades-worth of research pointing to the contrary, proponents of nuclear energy have spent decades telling people that nuclear power is safe, that their fear of radiation is irrational and that this can be cured once they are told the true facts, and given the proper data, about nuclear energy. To call the public irrational is not only a counterproductive strategy, but also fundamentally flawed. The next – and final – article in this series will explore some of the ways to combat radiophobia, avoid future suffering, and thus, once and for all unshackle the full potential of nuclear energy.

References images:

NARA: unknown [] ARC Identifier 540016, Item from Record Group 220: Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, 1893-1999

bottom of page