Radiophobia

A lot of what I’ve been talking about on this blog, especially related to the emotional aspects of the nuclear debate, can really be boiled down to one particular issue: ‘radiophobia’.

In a strictly medical sense, radiophobia can be defined as the irrational fear of ionizing radiation (the type of radiation associated with nuclear power/bombs). This definition is most often applied to those who are irrationally afraid of X-rays, in a medical context.

What radiophobia is more often used to denote, especially in the nuclear debate, is the pervasive negative emotion associated with all kinds of nuclear technology.

Studies have shown that there is a long term emotional impact of large events, like Chernobyl, and there is growing coverage of the same radiophobia developing in Japan.

This negative opinion tends to colour people’s ability to calmly and rationally evaluate facts associated with the debate. Many cite radiophobia as the reason that people have a disproportionate response to the perceived risk of technologies that use radioactive materials. With proper safety in place, nuclear technology is not more dangerous than any other, and is often safer than many (such as coal, see the early posts on the science of the nuclear debate).

Despite the rational safety level of nuclear power, the disproportionate negative response tends to develop anti-nuclear campaigner’s arguments to the point where they become a ‘special pleading‘ fallacy. Special pleading is a fallacy where an exception to the normal rules is requested, for no valid reason. In the nuclear debate, this manifests itself in people who reject the use of nuclear technology for safety reasons, despite the evidence that nuclear is safer compared to other technologies.

In identifying this fallacy though, I am not trying to attack the completely legitimate feelings of those who have suffered though or know those who have suffered through radiation based incidents. Although the argument itself is a fallacy, the very real emotion behind it should be respected, and those who aim to debate in this arena should think about the impact of their words and how best to communicate their ideas before stepping up to the plate.

Say something controversial.

Matt

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Location, location, location: Why doesn’t location get talked about in the nuclear debate?

VICE’s technology arm recently posted a story called: “​How Volcanic Eruptions Threaten Nuclear Power Plants“, which details the debate going on in Japan about the proximity of some of their nuclear power plants to active volcanoes. Despite the fact that they are not close enough to be affected by actual lava or pyroclastic flows, (as reiterated by vulcanologists), these plants are close enough to be negatively affected by ash from the eruptions. This article gave me something to think about, how location affects the nuclear debate.

Volcanoes are not the only problems that Japan’s nuclear power industry faces. Japan has a lot of volcanoes because it is on the edge of what is called the ‘Ring of Fire’. The ‘Ring of Fire’ runs around the boundary of the Pacific Ocean, and is where numerous undersea tectonic plates meet with the continental tectonic plates. The result of this is that there is a lot of volcanic activity as well as lots of earthquakes.

What else comes with earthquakes though? Tsunamis. As everyone is probably aware, Japan has to deal with tsunamis at comparatively frequent rate. We only need to recall the Fukushima Daaichi disaster to see how true the fear of natural disasters affecting nuclear power plants is. To be fair, Fukushima was unlucky enough to be hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami. But it does beg the question, is it wise to build a nuclear reactor, no matter how well designed and how many precautions have been taken, in a place where these sort of natural disasters are commonplace?

Compare Japan with Australia on that map above. Australia sits right in the middle of a continental tectonic plate, and the centre of Australia is pretty much as far from the sea and large earthquakes you can get.

If Australia were to build nuclear reactors somewhere in the vast unused land area that in the middle of the outback, it is almost guaranteed (touch wood) that there would be no natural disasters that could affect it, the main issues that would remain would be dealing with the heat, getting water to the site and getting the energy back to the coast.

But this point rarely, if ever, comes up in debates. Anti-nuclear advocates are allowed to go on about the possible dangers of natural disasters (an in places like Japan, they are probably right), but the pro-nuclear side never seems to rebut this with the idea that we build somewhere where that these things are unlikely to happen.

Say something controversial.

Matt

Nuclear vs. GMO, similar controversies?

Last night I went to an event to promote the release of a book about scientific controversies and the interaction between the scientific community and the broader public sphere.

During his speech (and I checked, it’s the same in his book), this author compared the controversies and public debates on nuclear power with the more recent controversy surround the introduction of GMOs into the food supply.

I must admit, I have a bit of a personal interest in the GMO debate, as my undergraduate degree was in plant biotechnology. So, while I am always willing to talk to and debate about GMOs, I must admit it was a little bit interesting to hear this author make such a comparison.

On the surface, the debates can look quite similar. The proponents of both industries use similar points to argue in favour of their technology: that their technology is about making a cleaner, more productive and more efficient world, with less damaging effects on the environment (controversial, I know). The opponents of both of these technologies also campaign in a similar vein, with common frames between them: ‘science gone mad’, public health risks, ‘the benefits don’t outweigh the risk’, and that science is ‘playing “God”‘. They are also both mainly public controversies, as the scientists behind the technologies have mostly resolved any doubts over the safety and efficacy of their respective technologies.

However, I think that these debates are not as similar as it might seem. While both use technologies that are seen as extremely complex and dangerous, but when you compare where they came from, they’re really different. GMO technology is just a small, logical progression from advanced breeding techniques developed over the last century, which in turn are based on breeding techniques developed since humans started farming. Contrast this with nuclear power, whose closest technological relative is probably high explosives; they are not even in the same ballpark as nuclear power, technology-wise or danger-wise.

Also, I think the most important distinction between nuclear and GMO is the fact that there has never been any documented harm to humans from GMO technologies. As previously discussed, the anti-nuclear movement has every right to play upon the danger of nuclear power, given the damage done by the few nuclear accidents there have been (not to mention all the damage done by intentional bombings and above-ground testing). To conflate Chernobyl and Hiroshima with the imagined potential harms of GMOs not only minimises the suffering of those involved in those incidents, but also negatively effects the campaign to promote GMOs, which are trying to solve many of the problems that we face in the world today.

Say something controversial.

Matt

Also, just because it’s my pet topic, if you have any doubts about GMOs, please watch this video of Mark Lynas, a former anti-GMO activist, speaking to the Oxford Farming Conference in 2013:

Introduction: Context for the blog

For my first real post on this blog, I thought I might outline the idea behind the blog and what you can expect in the future.

In a world where climate change is a topic almost constantly in the media, energy generation and fossil fuels are important topic in both civil and political spheres. Renewable energy solutions are important and there is much exciting science coming our way in the future. Then there is nuclear power. Nuclear power, specifically fission power, has been around for a while (a lot longer than you think, as I’ll explain in my next post) and boasts significant efficiency, cost and safety (yes, safety) benefits over other non-renewable energy sources (1).

Despite this, nuclear power remains a controversial topic worldwide, and especially in Australia. Disasters such as the infamous Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and Fukushima, as well as lesser known incidents, such as the Sellafield fire in the UK reinforce the negative associations of nuclear power. Atomic energy of any sort has this negative association, and this is probably due to the effects of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as the above ground testing in the USA, and the Pacific in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and all the negative outcomes associated with these events.

But all is not bad with nuclear power. In fact, a recent study showed that nuclear fission is significantly safer than coal power, despite the three major nuclear incidents of the past 70 years. The paper published by NASA (2), showed that nuclear power was responsible for preventing an average 76,000 deaths between 2000-2009, and an estimated 1.8 million deaths before 2000, because less coal power was needed.

The controversy surrounding nuclear power is one fraught with emotion and complex discussions of risk vs. reward. In Australia we currently have no commercial power stations, and only one small research reactor at the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO). However, we also have the majority of the world’s uranium ore, with current estimates at 31% of the world’s supply (we are the third largest producer of uranium after Canada and Kazakhstan) (3).

Having this valuable resource and not making use of it seems a bit counter intuitive, and there has been multiple attempts to allow nuclear power in Australia, all of which were unsuccessful. However, the nuclear landscape in Australia is still lively, with South Australia announcing a Royal Commission into nuclear power generation, in response to the current economic contraction.

Nuclear power remains contentious and I hope to delve deep into the controversy in Australia and around the world of the next 10 weeks. First I will start with a bit of history, of nuclear power itself, and the controversies and social movements that have grown up around it. After this, I hope to flesh out the controversy, identify the key players, their impacts and motviations, and really get to the core of the nuclear power issue. Thanks for reading, if you have any comments, queries or suggestions for the blog, please comment below.

Say something controversial.

Matt

References

(1) http://www.nei.org/Master-Document-Folder/Backgrounders/Fact-Sheets/Quick-Facts-Nuclear-Energy-in-America

(2) http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es3051197

(3) http://www.world-nuclear.org/info/Country-Profiles/Countries-A-F/Australia/