Terrorist attacks? Probably not all that worried.
Anthrax attacks? Well, my post office was in all likelihood served by one of the affected distribution sites, so maybe I’ll put on a pair of gloves on my way to the mailbox.
DC Snipers? Eh, I like taking the back roads.
Hurricanes, floods, forest fires, pandemics, oil spills, revolutions, economic collapse --.there are all sort of things out there to put one’s knickers in a twist these days. (And that’s even before you turn on the Discovery Channel to learn about super-volcanoes and mega-quakes and rogue asteroids and gamma ray bursts and who-knows-what-all else.)
So here we are, and on the other side of the planet, there’s a nuclear power plant damaged by a catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that has killed thousands and left more than a million survivors without homes or hope. The plant is belching radiation and plutonium and who knows what else, and that steam and smoke and gunk is hitching a ride on the Westerlies, arriving, like an unwelcome guest, sometime today.
It occurred to me earlier this week that before I set out to the local health-food emporium to beat some hippy mama over the head for the last bottle of potassium iodide or started fashioning a little tinfoil suit for my kitten, I decided to figure out How Worried I Should Be, and came up with...not much. If I lived in Japan, I’d be worried. But here in Virginia, it looks like Kitty and I will possibly see a higher-than-normal-but-nowhere-near-dangerous exposure to radiation.
Radiation. That’s the key word, isn’t it. Simple, everyday, plain-vanilla pollution is believed to be responsible for upwards of 40% of deaths in the world each year, but we barely pause when someone says “sulfur dioxide” or “particulate matter”. Three billion people still rely on solid fuel -- wood, animal dung, biomass, coal -- for their daily cooking needs. Black carbon emissions have been found to be a major contributor to global climate change, but nobody is talking about outlawing campfires.
The Christian Science Monitor posted a story this week on how the global panic over the disaster is almost inversely proportional to the actual risk. We misremember past nuclear disasters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, making them more deadly and more dangerous than they actually were. We overreact to the threat posed by relatively small doses of radioactivity.
Much of this fear, says Dr. Jerrold Bushburg of the University of California-Davis, comes from pop culture. Look at the comics, he says: Peter Parker, bit by radioactive spider, becomes Spider-Man; Bruce Banner, absorbs radioactive waves, becomes the Incredible Hulk; hum-drum Japanese lizard, exposed to nuclear detonation, becomes Godzilla. (The list goes on.) “It gives you subliminal messages about the capacity of radiation to do harm,” Bushberg told the newspaper.
That’s not quite right. For one thing, Godzilla isn’t really scary, and Spider-Man and the Hulk are not villains. More importantly, pop culture reflects the anxiety of the times as much as it drives them. When it comes to All Things Nuclear, most Americans formed our feeling during the Cold War.
I think most of us who grew up between the 1950s and the 1980s wondered if we’d live to actually grow up; we suspected our childhoods would end in a bright blast of fission because some idiot somewhere burped and caused another idiot to press a button. How many times did we all hear about how missiles would reach us X minutes after a launch, and a strike on [insert major city here] would kill so many millions in an instant? There was no hierarchy of exposure in most of these scenarios: you either died instantly or you suffered in some post-apocalyptic doomscape.
Growing up in the 1980s, my peers and I were fed a steady diet of movies like Red Dawn and WarGames and The Day After, and that awesomely cheese-tastic Orson Wells “documentary” on Nostradamus that had some vaguely ethnic guy in a sparkly blue turban blowing us to smithereens by the end of 1994. In northern Vermont, we also knew we were just across Lake Champlain from Plattsburgh Air Force Base, a primary target for the Russians, and that we’d most likely vaporize instantly, along with the lake.
Thirty years on, when you hear words like “radioactivity” and “fallout,” you can’t help but think back to the fears of those times. It’s contributing to the run on Geiger counters and potassium iodide tablets, gas masks and chemical suits, even though countless scientists and public health officials have assured, time and again, that there is no scenario under which radiation levels from Japan will be high enough to hurt anyone here.
Nuclear energy is a powerful force with some very dangerous downsides, as the Fukushima Daiichi disaster is so spectacularly showing. We need to have a full and honest debate over the continuing use of nuclear power plants and to advance renewable alternatives. But you can’t have a full and honest debate from a place of not-quite-rational fear. Hopefully, we’ll be soon be able to move past the fear and plot our best course to our energy future.