Field of Science

Expelled! No nuance allowed

I was reminded of the title of Ben Stein's ludicrous new movie on creationism when I came across BBC's recalling the Three Mile Island which took place on this day in 1979. The reporting makes it clear how reporters sweetly shy away from any subtleties or scientific nuance, which unfortunately turn out to be details that matter. I do understand that almost everyone was more ignorant or fearful of anything in nuclear in 1979 and to be fair the BBC does note later that nobody died from the accident, but what strikes me is how they used the blanket-word "radiation" so many times in the article without in any way qualifying what it means. This is quite similar to the irrational gut reaction many people have when they hear the word. To recapitulate:

1. "Radiation" bathes us from head to toe throughout our life. Background radiation is hundreds of times more than any radiation accrued from living near a nuclear reaction. It's even more than radiation possibly escaped from a nuclear reaction in an accident if the reactor has a containment structure.

2. There is no proof that low-level "radiation" causes cancer; in fact there is proof that it may be generally good for life. Plus, almost everybody who reports such studies fails to consider the relative risks from "radiation" compared to other causes. As the well-known scientist James Lovelock notes in his The Revenge of Gaia (2006), it is misleading to say that 40,000 extra people will die earlier because of some radiation. The question is, how much earlier? As he says, if people are going to die on an average a week earlier because of some radiation, compare that to hundreds of thousands that would die instantaneously if the giant dam they live next to bursts open? How many people die years earlier because of heart disease? How many lives are prematurely cut short because of road accidents? Yet we pristinely accept these risks in daily life. People have no problem living near dams on the Yangtze when the risk they pose is much higher than that from "radiation".

3. And of course, the simple scientific error of not noting what the radiation consists of is commonplace. Every college kid knows that radiation can consist of many different particles- alphas, betas, gammas, neutrons- that each have a vastly different effect on living tissue. Plus, the isotope that emits the radiation is crucial; uranium is vastly preferable to strontium. But strontium has a smaller half life....and so on.

In case of TMI, it was immensely bad timing since the accident was preceded by the scare-mongering movie The China Syndrome starring Jane Fonda, a well-known irrational anti-nuclear spokesman. In it, the reactor core is feared to be melting away through the earth to China, a preposterous scenario even by fictional Hollywood standards. (although some of the Amazon reviewers don't seem to get this) The point is, it is pure fear-mongering to kick around words like "radiation" and "radioactive steam". Sadly, the scenario has not changed too much, and I doubt if most people will do a much more responsible job of reporting such an accident if it happens today. I feel miffed in thinking that a similar accident today will essentially impact the public's perception of nuclear energy almost the same as TMI. I do hope I am wrong. But then, the media has a proven track record of not caring about subtlety and nuance when reporting on science (or many other things for that matter). Unfortunately, they are the "respectable" sources who reach the most people and who most people rely on for their daily dose of "reality".


  1. Somehow I never thought about the premise of the China Syndrome (perhaps because the movie itself was so forgettable, and I saw it when I was a child). It does seem like anyone who took highschool physics would realize that this scenario couldn't possibly happen, since even if the reactor core was hot enough to melt into the earth in the manner described, it would travel to the center of gravity for the earth. I believe that this is not in China, or even anywhere on the surface of the Earth.

  2. Correct. And yet people believed it.


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