Unknown to me at the time, radiophobia was probably introduced to me at a very early age, and in a less dramatic fashion than most. No bombs, no shambling zombies, no fluorescent bunnies. Instead, my introduction to radiophobia was by way of giant fish in a local pond. For the majority of my childhood years, I lived in the small village of Skultorp, a rather undistinguished and sleepy place in the rural heart of Sweden. However, I also did, figuratively speaking at least, grow up on top of a uranium mine.
The disused Ranstad mine, initially earmarked for the production of uranium to the Swedish nuclear weapons programme, is found a few kilometres from my childhood home. The mine only operated for a few years and by the time I was born, the pit had become a lake, where trout had been introduced which, according to playground lore, had grown tremendously – all thanks to the radiation. Whilst I now know it was all gibberish, it nevertheless served as an unlikely first exposure to radiophobia.
Radiophobia as a phenomenon is a rather curious one. In the nuclear debate it is frequently used, usually by proponents of nuclear energy as a catch-all phrase to respond to anything related to people’s fears of nuclear. According to the Harvard Medical School, a phobia is defined accordingly:
“A phobia is a persistent, excessive, unrealistic fear of an object, person, animal, activity or situation. It is a type of anxiety disorder. A person with a phobia either tries to avoid the thing that triggers the fear, or endures it with great anxiety and distress.”
It is clear that radiophobia is somewhat of a misnomer, insofar that it isn’t a phobia in the clinical meaning of the word. Equally, the effects of radiophobia are very real, so simply claiming that radiophobia is merely an “emotional” and “irrational” response is not only incorrect, it is also counterproductive. After all, radiation from reactors are commonly associated with a raft of rather unpleasant risks, be it cancer, birth defect or gruesome death by way of radiation sickness. It would be rather curious if someone was not rather anxious about radiation, given that all of us have heard the horror stories about nuclear accidents. One in particular – and with thanks to HBO for the refresher – has caught the public imagination unlike any other human-made accident.
Enter, Chernobyl. A city in the rather swampy north of Ukraine, close to the border to Belarus, founded almost 1000 years ago. A city which endured pogroms, WWI, the Russian Civil War, Stalin’s Famine, occupation by the Nazis. Before April 26, 1986, very few would ever have heard of it, or the Vladimir Lenin Nuclear Power Plant which bore its name. Yet, as destiny would have it, at this particular nuclear plant a deadly combination of design flaws, human error and cultural factors came together to cause the world’s most serious nuclear accident to date (and likely, forever, due to a design philosophy long gone). Out of the two explosions and the persistent fire, the myth of Chernobyl rose alongside the radioactive smoke.
Several reports, often commissioned and conducted by anti-nuclear groups or individuals, claim that the death toll from Chernobyl are in the tens-, if not hundreds-, of thousands. As many of these reports rely on collective dose assessments, a widely discredited method for calculating health impacts due to radiation, and it is highly unlikely that these predictions are accurate. The latest report from the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) puts the total deaths resulting from Chernobyl at 62, alongside approximately 6000 successfully treated thyroid cancer cases.
Furthermore, and horror film directors in search for inspiration, there is no evidence pointing towards increased rates of congenital anomalies – entirely in line with the findings from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Imaginary and undoubtedly terrifying figures of hundreds of thousands of deaths, and countless deformed children are commonly depicted in the same breath as uttering Chernobyl, but the scientific evidence for those claims simply is not there. Its pale spectre - radiophobia - is the real culprit, often forgotten, but very real.
Chernobyl is the prime example where many lives have been detrimentally impacted because of radiophobia, rather than from the radiation itself. Due to this accident, 116,000 people were evacuated within months of the accident, with an additional 220,000 being evacuated the years that followed. The vast majority, however, did not require evacuation from a radiation protection perspective. The ensuring victimisation, social stigma and fatalism experienced by evacuees and rescue workers from Chernobyl showcase much higher rates of mental health problems, suicides and alcoholism. This is a direct consequence of radiophobia, where the secrecy around exposure levels by the Soviet authorities unleashed the radiant ghosts that mostly follow us, but also an effect of the breakup of the USSR and the socio-economic chaos which ensued.
Additionally, whilst it is impossible with certainty to pinpoint the exact number of abortions that took place due to radiophobia, there is evidence that Chernobyl did lead to an increase in elective abortions across Europe. Robert Gale, an American doctor who treated radiation victims after the accident, estimated that more than 1 million abortions were undertaken in the Soviet Union and Europe as a result of incorrect advice from their doctors about radiation exposure and birth defects following the accident. These abortions were not justified medically - but highlight the radiophobic response commonly seen when nuclear accidents take place. These are the real victims of Chernobyl - and of the radiation fear which is stoked by demagogues for ideological gains. Extensive reviews were undertaken after Chernobyl to avoid similar accidents (and responses). The United Nations and its agencies quickly established that the most detrimental outcome of the accident was not radiological in nature, but rather the severe mental effects of displacement and social stigmatisation. Many lessons were learnt after Chernobyl, yet perhaps the most important – and arguably the hardest – lesson was not. The fact we had not actually understood radiophobia became very evident in March 2011.
After the tsunamis hit the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, it quickly became evident that the world was witnessing a nuclear accident on live TV. Despite taking place almost 25 years later, the similarities between the responses to the accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima disturbingly highlight that very few changes had taken place during the intervening time.
Shortly after the Fukushima accident began in earnest, buses came to evacuate the most vulnerable and sick patients of care facilities within the nearby area. The evacuations were hurried, and no medical staff travelled on the buses with the evacuees. The journeys themselves took up to 24 hours, where the patients had no access to food or water, let alone the medical care many depended upon. Consequently, many patients died during or shortly after the evacuations that were “justified” to minimise very low radiation exposure to these individuals. These evacuations were entirely unnecessary to protect people from the effects of radiation – the doses were so low that they did not pose a threat to their long-term health – and these deaths are therefore directly attributable to the radiophobic responses of the local authorities.
Another incarnation of radiophobia manifests itself in an especially cruel fashion - bullying. An eight-year old boy was evacuated from his home in Fukushima prefecture and joined a new school, where he was branded a ‘germ’, had his belongings stolen, and was physically abused by his classmates. They eventually extorted his family to pay 1.5 million yen (about 13,500$) for the physical abuse to stop. This is only one of hundreds of cases of bullying due to radiophobia. The detrimental long-term health effects of bullying are well-established.
Given the rich imagery and strong emotional responses which nuclear energy has acquired over the years, it is perhaps not too surprising that the general public has become radiophobic. In interviews conducted by noted psychologist Paul Slovic, he found that most people described the aftermath of a nuclear accident to look very similar to those of nuclear war. This, and the fact that there is a widespread belief that radiation from nuclear power plants causes birth defects, cancers and death – even though scientifically disproven – makes people’s fear for radiation completely rational. After all, after decades of fear conditioning, it would be stranger if they were not fearful.
Radiophobia has truly devastating effects, both in terms of its impacts on people impacted by nuclear accidents, and in terms of undermining the promise of the atom. But why have we developed radiophobia? Where does it come from? The next piece in the series – “The ghost of our minds: Why we fear radiation” – shall explore these topics.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and may not reflect on any of the institutions which the author is associated with.