Thursday, March 24, 2011

AHHH THE NUCLEAR CLOUD! Why do we panic?

It’s often strange what events spawn fear in the general public and even more perplexing to try to understand why.  The New York Times Opinion page ran a column today regarding safety concerns within nuclear power plants and regulatory measures going forward, but briefly touches upon a point that always interested me and that I’d like to expand upon: human fear.  The article mentions that the Chernobyl meltdown of 1986, the world’s most devastating nuclear plant disaster, will ultimately kill around 10,000 people, mostly from cancer.  If you compare that with the fact that the effects of coal plants kill 10,000 Americans A YEAR, it makes you wonder why no one really speaks to the dangers of coal during their mad sprints to the drug store in search of Potassium Iodine.  Similarly, the most famous nuclear leak on American soil, the Three Mile Island incident, also had limited effects on Pennsylvania citizens.  In fact, cancer rates among the people who live around the plant were no different from the rest of Pennsylvania’s inhabitants.  Can I give you one more statistic?  Great!  In 2005, guess how many people died in the United States from car accidents?  39,000!  And studies show that there’s been an upward trend in this statistic with each passing year (I couldn’t find the 2009-2010 number and well, I'm lazy, and I don’t need it to prove my point).  So the question is:  if coal is a bigger killer than nuke power and both pale in comparison to the dangers of driving, why do we freak out about the consequences of nuclear power, but the others barely enter the daily conversation?
For whatever reason, perhaps slow brain evolution as my brother often suggests, the human is unnecessarily afraid of certain low probability DISASTERS while ignoring statistically relevant fears (such as the car accident).  The obvious assumption is that people are afraid of things they cannot control, which would explain why simple Earthquakes and plane crashes receive so much media attention, though for the most part, they are infrequent and the damages, in the grand scheme, are generally minimal.  I always found it funny that my mother, in New York, may hear about a 5.0 California earthquake even though said “disaster” didn’t even warrant one single hospital visit.  Even stranger are people who are afraid of being injured in a terrorist attack.  Let’s not forget the hordes of Midwesterners afraid for their local Wall-marts after 9/11, or those who may alter their travel plans because they heard through the grapevine that terrorists may be planning a strike(even if it’s untrue).  Though this may be irrational, I can understand the fear behind a mass disaster because of the possible widespread panic and sudden demise it may cause (even if unlikely).  It is, after all, a scary thought. 
But this is why the fear over nuclear power puzzles me.  Chances are, during a nuclear meltdown, you’re not going to be immediately effected unless you live pretty close to the reactor.  Sure, it may be cause for an evacuation, but chances are your skin won’t melt off your face.  In fact, it seems like most even understand that it’s the after effects that may harm them.  But even though there may be an increased chance of cancer twenty years down the road, people often dismiss similar consequences or, at least, do not panic over them.  After all, consider how many Americans either smoke or drink while ignoring the obvious risks associated with those two activities.  Obviously, smoking and drinking are recreational activities, and dancing in a radiation cloud isn’t, but the end results may be similar.  But health risks are hardly the only ones we take without the future in mind.  How many times have you bought something on a credit card with the inability to pay up front?  Most of us just figure we’ll worry about it later.  There is some kind of natural disconnect with our thinking in the present and our thoughts towards the distant future. 
So why such a panic over nuclear radiation?   Is it because we don’t have enough information about what to do during a nuclear crisis?  Or is it because the images most associated with nuclear disaster are the mushroom cloud and Hiroshima/Nagasaki in August of 1945?  Was it born from our Cold War fear and the promise that nuclear war could end the world?  After all, these are all scary thoughts and are the first things that pop into my mind when I think about the word ‘nuclear,’ but as said, most do see the difference between a nuclear power plant and a nuclear weapon.  
So why the extreme fear? 


  1. Well Brett... I agree that we have a tendency to fear things that are beyond our control. Like some people have fear of flying because they are not to the ones operating the plane - or this is how a friend of mine explained her fear recently.

    I guess with big accidents and natural disasters we tend to be blown away by the large number of victims (or possible victims) and the scale of damage that hits a place at once. It is not like car accidents that are scattered around the country adding up the "dead-count" little by little. It's not as shocking initially, I suppose.

    Also I think that our fear of nuclear power has a lot to do with the Cold War and the fear of it. At least for the older generations. That it is a make of evil wiping us out of existence... so to speak. And also, the media has a habit of exaggerating things so people panic.

    We actually got some of the nuclear cloud over us in Finland in 1986. It was all hush-hush... but there was a peak in cancer rates a little later or so I've heard.

  2. Definitely agree that the media plays its part in this. I think the swine and bird flu are good examples where the media helped fuel the unnecessary panic. Its still just weird, to me, to see where we place our caution.

    Like look at airports. Yes, there have been terrorist hijacks throughout time, but i do wonder how much the rate would increase if walking on a plane was less of a security gauntlet. Any day of the week, someone could walk into grand central station (or any highly trafficked public building) and blow it to pieces, but it just doesnt happen.

    I guess i just wonder why certain things earn our panic while others dont.

  3. I don't think I need to translate into written form my often vocalized feelings about how the press is treating nuclear power. We'll deal with mercury contamination and increasing asthema rates for coal, natgas explosions and gulf oil spills, yet freak out over anything deemed a "nuclear accident". Mark my words, more people will have died in the deepwater horizon explosion last year than from Fukushima.

    A new favorite quote I came across the other day "Everyone is stupid, but once in a while people will surprise you with brilliance"