Primordial fear: why radiation is so scary

April 24, 2011 by Marlowe Hood
A protester cycles past banners during an anti-nuclear demonstration in front of the construction site of the third-generation European Pressurised Water nuclear reactor in the French city of Flamanville. A quarter century after Chernobyl, and more than 65 years after atomic bombs laid waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even unfounded fear of radioactive contamination can spark panic.

Nuclear radiation is frightening stuff. A quarter century after Chernobyl, and more than 65 years after atomic bombs laid waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fatally sickening thousands not killed outright, even unfounded fear of radioactive contamination can spark panic.

The explosions at the Fukushima following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated a large swath of Japan emptied pharmacies in North America and Europe of anti-radiation pills despite reassurances from all manner of experts that the danger was nil.

There are any number of agents -- cancer, AIDS and auto accidents, to name three -- that claim millions of victims every year but do not inspire that same kind of terror.

People still smoke, practise unsafe sex and climb into their cars every day.

So why is so fearsome, and what determines how we react when faced with a threat, imagined or real?

The answer is complex and laced with contradictions, starting with the fact that most people don't even think twice about absorbing delivered through medical X-rays or scans.

But put the words "nuclear" and "accident" together, and suddenly the idea that sub-atomic particles can slip through our skin to damage inner tissue, and even alter the very fabric of our DNA, sets spines to shuddering.

"Anything that can penetrate inside our bodies fills us with apprehension, and triggers an ancestral, or ancient, fear," said Herve Chneiweiss, a neurologist at the Centre for Psychiatry and Neuroscience at Universite Paris Descartes.

Picture taken in 1971 shows a nuclear explosion in Mururoa atoll in the south Pacific. Over 65 years since atomic bombs laid waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fatally sickening thousands not killed outright, fear of radioactive contamination continues to cause fear for many.

And when the culprit is invisible, odorless, tasteless -- beyond, in other words, the reach of perception -- that angst is magnified even more.

"We are all fearful of invisible things that have invisible effects. Even the word itself almost invokes fear as soon as it is pronounced," said Etienne Klein, a physicist at the French atomic energy commission and a professor of philosophy at the Ecole Centrale de Paris.

For evolutionary psychologists, who argue that human behaviour is deeply rooted in natural selection and the need to adapt to our environment, fear of radiation also taps into the apprehension of our distant forbear about contagious disease.

Even if early man could not see virus or bacteria, he was confronted with their lethal impact.

"People treat nuclear contamination as if it were disease contamination -- emotionally, they think about mere exposure and not dose," said John Tooby, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara who has written extensively on the evolutionary origins of emotion.

"Although we live bathed in a sea of background radiation, people treat any increment as a dire risk," he said by email.

"Radiation increments from Fukushima create incipient panics here, even though it is orders of magnitude less than they might have experienced by moving to higher altitude," he added.

Tooby recalled, while still a student, using a Geiger counter to show a custodian that his household Chinaware was more radioactive than other objects nearby.

An Air Photo Service-issued picture shows the stricken Fukushima nuclear power plant in northeast Japan. The reality that sub-atomic particles can slip through our skin to damage inner tissue, and even alter the very fabric of our DNA, is alarming for many.

"His wife insisted on throwing it all out, even though I told them it was harmless," he recalled.

Such gut-level reactions, these and other experts say, are overlaid with historical knowledge that remind us of both the atom's terrible power and the unpredictable conditions under which it can be unleashed.

The explosion on April 26, 1986 of Chernobyl's No. 4 reactor in Ukraine spewed radioactive dust and ash over more than 200,000 square kilometers (77,000 square miles), reaching as far north as Scotland and as far west as Ireland.

A much smaller area around the site suffered serious consequences, as did some of the hundreds of thousands of "liquidators" conscripted by the Soviet regime then in power to staunch the nuclear fire and clean up the deadly mess.

The health and death tolls from Chernobyl -- and the areas affected -- are still fiercely disputed, and estimates vary hugely.

That very uncertainty further fuels alarm, experts say.

"How was one [living in France] supposed to know whether or not to worry about a radioactive cloud?" asked Francois Taddei, a molecular geneticist at the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (INSERM).

"For Chernobyl, we were told that there was nothing, which in fact there was. How does one rebuild confidence?"

"One had the impression -- justified or not -- that the authorities were lying, and so everything they said was cast into doubt," said Klein.

Explore further: US West Coast: on frontline from nuclear cloud?

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3.8 / 5 (12) Apr 24, 2011
Of course the (lamestream) media's hysterical and ignorant hyperbole has nothing to do with it.
4.6 / 5 (56) Apr 24, 2011
Since Chernibyl, one million people have died in car crashes in the USA alone, that's 40,000 per year. Of course Chernobyl is Not the standard measure wrt to nuclear safety as that place was a joke.
2.4 / 5 (12) Apr 24, 2011
yet againg pro-nuclear-fission propaganda.
All the handicapped/death born children caused by radiation disagree with this article.
People with weakened immune systems(that can fight off cancer celss less effectivly) disagree with you.
Increased swedish cancer mortality rates disagree with you.

i can go on.

The fear is not of disease like.
The fear is the CHANCE that because of something happened decades ago can still pose major risks for your health.
1.6 / 5 (8) Apr 24, 2011
The citizens shouldn't fight against nuclear energy, but for faster exploitation of cold fusion research, which appears harmless and completely safe. The using of nuclear fission in this context is like the warming our houses with opened firecamps in living rooms: it's dirty and potentially dangerous for life environment. The risk of tsunami was deeply understimated at Japan. In the same area the tsunami reached the height 24 m in 1933, the height 38 m in 1896. The Fukushima was destroyed with tsunami wave lower than 14 meters. It means, the Fukushima plant was not prepared even to cent-year's flood.



If we should make the nuclear plants as robust and safe, as these conventional ones, the hidden cost of nuclear energy would became clearly apparent.
1.7 / 5 (7) Apr 24, 2011
The cold fusion finding not only makes the nuclear fission energy unnecessary, it enables to better control the carrying of concealed weapons. In my opinion, in future the whole Earth should be monitored with neutrino detectors and all fission plants should be banned under penalty, because such reactors will serve primarily for nuclear weapons production only. The new civilized world should get rid of dangerous technologies as a whole.
3.6 / 5 (8) Apr 24, 2011
People were always irrationally afraid of the unknown. This is the same as a child being afraid of a monster hiding in darkness, but instead of evil monsters, we get evil nuclear plants. Also, media and politicians know how to exploit this fear to get voters and readers, contributing to anti-nuclear craziness.
2.8 / 5 (6) Apr 24, 2011
PET, CT scans and radiotherapy should be not ever be available to anti-nuclear technology persons immediately as a written law, so that the hypocrites can die off quickly in accordance with their belief and make the Earth a more rational and educated place.
3.5 / 5 (4) Apr 24, 2011

Wow, even as a self-professed proponent of nuclear technology development, I am gobsmacked by your visions. Did you brought said cold fusion pocket reactor down from your Tau Cetian friend's UFO along, by any chance? Last I check, none of the Earthling's version worked yet.
1.6 / 5 (5) Apr 24, 2011
I am gobsmacked by your visions
It's just nickel pipe pressurized with hydrogen. When you heat it, it stays hot - nothing special..

4.6 / 5 (5) Apr 24, 2011
But put the words "nuclear" and "accident" together
Simple. Propaganda. We needed to hate and fear the enemy in order to fight foreign wars and spend obscene amounts of $ on weapons of our own.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki death and injury are dwarfed by allied bombing firestorms in japan and Europe. Personally I find the thought of roasting in a shelter more distasteful than radiation poisoning.

If nuclear energy had been sold instead of vilified then people would not fear it. Most of our energy would come from it, we would all have been driving electric cars for decades now, and there would have been no reason for the west to remain invested in, and influential in, the middle east.

A new and independent caliphate empire would have congealed there and we would have been powerless to prevent it. And it would now be threatening us economically and militarily. We only built enough plants to ensure security should the oil supply end, and then justification was PRODUCED to stop.
4 / 5 (4) Apr 25, 2011
yet againg pro-nuclear-fission propaganda.
All the handicapped/death born children caused by radiation disagree...still pose major risks for your health.

Your post is a great example of anti-nuclear fission propaganda. There are greater problems on this planet to worry about than nuclear fission reactors.

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