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.
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 our fourth article, we will be exploring where radiophobia came from and the psychological processes which nurture and maintain it.
- John Lindberg