Fear is a powerful emotion. It can be used to control others, to gain power, to gain money, or to gain recognition as an “expert”. It can also motivate us to action, and even to do the right thing in some cases.
Science can help us know what we should and should not fear, and what potentially to do about the things we fear. Thus, science can help to dispel fear. (Too much fear is not a good thing – it distracts us from other things we should give more of our attention to, and it can prevent us from enjoying the good things around us.)
What prompted my thoughts on this right now? I just learned that on Feb. 19, there was a small release of radioactivity from the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP – click to see their summary) in Carlsbad, NM. (WIPP is a long-term storage site for nuclear waste materials related to past nuclear weapons activities – it’s not used for commercial waste produced by nuclear power plants.)
What frustrates me is that so many people have an “expert opinion” on this topic through the blogosphere, with people citing SECRET SOURCES and NEW CALCULATIONS that reveal that we’re all going to die from this event. (I am exaggerating…barely…but you get the point.)
There are many people who consider themselves progressives, or just care about the environment and have an opinion on various nuclear issues. But who you trust for your info means a lot. My dad is a great and wonderful person, but he gets his news and analysis of current events through very conservative sources, so he frequently surprises me with the ideas that he absorbs and accepts when he’s otherwise also an extremely intelligent person. I think this phenomenon is much more recognized as occurring on the far right, but it actually happens just as much (or at least a lot) on the far left, and this (in my opinion) really contributes to discrediting progressive causes and movements.
There is money to be made in fear. Here is one example. A blog that purports to do its own (fatally flawed) calculations on the WIPP radiation release, with a nice “Donate via Paypal” button that says the money will go to testing of food for radiation. Yeah right. When I click on it, its paypal label is just the name of the blogger, like any other donation link anywhere else on the site.
The first blog I saw on this topic is here. It attracted over 90 comments, which I’m jealous of! 😉 Look at all the experts responding with new calculations, insider reports, etc. about how we’re gonna die. Below is my response:
I’m new to your site, just having stumbled upon it doing some google searching on this WIPP incident.
One thing I find lacking in much discussion about radioactivity is context – specifically, what do the numbers cited mean, and how do they compare to other numbers related to radioactivity that we routinely experience?
A Bq (becquerel) is an absolutely minuscule measure of radioactivity. The release of a handful of Bq’s truly poses no health risks. I think we should actually feel *safer* and *more secure* knowing that WIPP can detect and respond to minuscule releases, giving us confidence that it won’t release larger quantities.
And here’s some perspective on numbers. Many radioactive materials are naturally occurring. C-14, for instance, is everywhere. That’s how we do carbon dating. Life has evolved in the presence of background radiation, so background radiation levels are not harmful. The levels cited in this WIPP incident and your article here – 0.64 Bq and 0.092 Bq – are much less than natural background, and much less even than the amount of radiation *contained in any banana*. A banana has on average 15 Bq of radioactive potassium. A banana explosion would release much more radiation than this event.
And I’m not trying to say the release of radiation is not a concern. It is! But it’s a concern for the WIPP people, too, and they managed it quite well. I haven’t read your blog, so I don’t know, but I would think you should be much more concerned about the rail accidents involving trains carrying oil from the Canadian tar sands. These have actually killed people!
As for the criticism of offering free radiation testing, this is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situation. People hype up radiation because it’s scary. People get afraid over events like this. If WIPP does nothing and offers no concrete way of assuring people they are safe (through free testing of anyone who’s worried they were exposed) they will be criticized. If they *do* offer this testing as a means of public reassurance, people will criticize that too (as is done in many of these comments).
Here’s info on the bananas: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banana_equivalent_dose
Looking forward to some good discussion.
We’ll see what happens.