Seeing the term “nuclear paranoia,” you might think of hostile countries that are developing nuclear weapons—such as Iran or North Korea. But the term applies closer to home.
The magic word is “radiation.” In a seminar, I was explaining thermal radiation—the heat you feel from the plate of a hot clothes iron, or from a barbecue, or from the sun on your face. Thermal radiation from the sun heats the earth, too, which will re-radiate the energy back to space—unless the earth’s radiation is impeded, whence you get global warming. It was the word—radiation—that upset a participant. This was the first she had heard of thermal radiation (which is everywhere, all the time), and she was frightened, thinking I described a creepy invisible thing that was frying her everywhere she went. Her fear of nuclear radiation was so ingrained she couldn’t accept thermal radiation for what it is.
Fears of nuclear radiation extend throughout the general population. In our culture, it’s a buzz word associated with horror. As a 2016 article in a major magazine said, “Nuclear reactor accidents are so devastating and world-changing that you know them by one name …” Yes, nuclear electric generating plants have contaminated their landscapes. But the term “world-changing” applies to the world of psychological fears. Chernobyl was designed with a known instability. Fukushima Daiichi was in a known earthquake/tsunami zone. Compared to other risks, were these as bad as the news implied? Chernobyl killed 100 workers and emergency personnel within a few weeks. Fukushima had no deaths due to nuclear radiation, but more than 300 received significant doses. A lot of people have been displaced, in some cases more for political than technical reasons. Suppose a nuclear plant near you had an accident. Would you believe it if the authorities said “no danger?”
Casualty figures, however regrettable, should be compared with ordinary risks: about 15,000 deaths occurred due to the earthquake and tsunami that ruined the Fukushima plant Those casualties had no relation to the plant. The U.S. suffered 35,000 traffic deaths during the year 2015, and more than two million deaths during the 50 years 1966-2015. Fukushima and Chernobyl generated fear, whereas the two million American traffic deaths generated little notice. Knowing that, would you drive a car?
Yes, there are dangers in the use of nuclear power. But nothing like the dangers of burning fossil fuels. Or driving. Yet nuclear paranoia impedes any action, either new nuclear construction or old nuclear disposal. The Yucca Mountain repository for spent fuel was closed before opening due to political nuclear paranoia, in part prompted by Nevada’s senator Reid. A Las Vegas newspaper claimed property values would drop 30% if nuclear waste were transported through the area, with statements like “Nevadans would be forced to accept the deadliest material known to man …” Deadly? So is tobacco.
The U.S. Senate has never ratified the international nuclear test ban treaty, although we stopped testing. The U.S. has refused to process spent nuclear fuel, which would greatly reduce the amount of waste stored “temporarily” at nuclear plants. We could utilize the fissionable material remaining in the spent fuel and avoid the long-lived wastes if we would allow reprocessing of the spent fuel—but we’re afraid of that. Finally, the U.S. has just defaulted on an agreement with Russia in which we promised to dispose of 34 metric tons of plutonium left from our weapons program, while the Russians promised the same with their excess plutonium.
Why? All because the word, “nuclear” raises such fears the politicians won’t discuss the topic, and because politicos and tycoons gain clout by increasing the fears. That’s happened in Russia, too. Paranoia is not limited to one country. Fear is the best tool for controlling people.
Not all paranoia is nuclear. There are groups who believe that scientists conspire to control the country. With beliefs like that, it’s no wonder we can’t compare the dangers of a nuclear plant, global warming, and driving a car.
Do I hear a question? Did somebody ask what it was that killed more than two million Americans in fifty years?