Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Nuclear don’t need no education?

By Helena S Davies

Science, like countless other specialist subjects and pursuits, is continually guilty of segregating itself into two groups: those that know and everyone else. Now this former group is persistently encouraged and chastised for ensuring that the group consisting of everyone else (otherwise known as the public) are kept informed and are (or at least are given the opportunity to be) educated as to what exactly it is that we know. I say ‘we’ at this point as my job description (and I know many will scoff quite openly at my use of the word ‘job’) is a PhD student of environmental nuclear biology, a description which, funnily enough, is not quickly rolled off the tongue by my grandmother at coffee mornings. I am simply circulated and discussed amongst my family and friends, outside of the science sector, as a nuclear scientist. And there it is; that separation again.

Arguably this is perfectly natural, we categorise people into groups every day of our lives, friends, family, colleagues, celebrities, undergraduates… However, being part of the nuclear sector, I have become increasingly aware of the sheer desperation that this particular industry has in pursuing the breakdown of this separation, because public distrust, with regards to nuclear energy, still lingers and, my word, does this not sit well. Of course there is justifiable reason behind this from the, not so historical, history of the industry (kindly refer to Google for a barrage of examples after typing “nuclear” into the search box where, today only four hits down, a link with the word “bomb” surfaces). Nevertheless this exact topic of public perception of the nuclear industry has come up at every conference, seminar, lecture and outreach programme that I have ever attended. In fact, as soon as I meet someone new and I’m asked about my work, the subject is brought into the fray. The reason I bring this up is because at these events, the most common response and suggested answer to improving the image of nuclear energy amongst the public is (drum roll please and baited breath as I am finally getting to the point of this article): education.

That’s right; apparently you still do not know what nuclear scientists know. However, why should you?! We do not expect and are not expected to know complex human anatomy before going in for surgery. The basics normally suffice for that: cut in the right place and you’ll be OK, cut in the wrong place and you might have some problems. Why isn’t a basic knowledge of the principles and concepts of nuclear energy enough? A basic education of this is certainly provided. Looking at the UK National Curriculum for science released in December 20141 and September 20132 , the principles of nuclear fission and also fusion are listed, in addition to the requirements for every 11- 16 year old residing in England to be taught about the atomic structure and energy sources, both sustainable and non- sustainable. I remember learning this myself 10 years ago, so it isn’t new. It seems wholly unreasonable and unrealistic to suggest that simply battering the public with more facts and figures, jargon busters and media friendly metaphors is the answer. From looking at our school education system alone I would say that actually most people are rather well informed on the subject.

An image from the BBC bitesize revision course in GCSE science: 'average contribution of different sources to natural background radiation'

As someone who really enjoys public outreach events and science in general (it’s getting me to shut up about it that’s the trick), I am certainly not saying that this current level of education should stop, nor that continuing to be open and informative about the nuclear industry and radiation in the environment is a bad thing. However, it seems foolish to believe that increasing education will equate to building trust. Science often suffers badly from this, a prime example being the issue with those against vaccinations as well as the respective problems in the nuclear industry. So if more educating is not the best course of action, what is? Improved science journalism? Improved communication skills from the industry? Perhaps toning down the hyper- awareness the nuclear power sector has in trying to alleviate fears and concerns would help? I used the word “desperation” earlier and this is not an emotion people warm to. However, these options will be discussed in more detail in a follow up article (I can tell you are enthralled at the prospect already)…

Kind Regards from just another brick in the wall.


1Department of Education. Science Programmes of study: key stage 4. National curriculum in England. December 2014.

2Department of Education. Science Programmes of study: key stage 3. National curriculum in England.  September 2013.

Nuclear and Society: an outsider’s perspective

A new guest blogger! This time, we have Elizabeth, an outsider with a burning curiosity for nuclear.

By Elizabeth Harper

On the 27th January, I attended a lecture entitled ‘In The Public Eye: Nuclear Energy and Society’, given by Malcolm Grimston as part of The University of Manchester’s Dalton Seminar Series. This was set to be a particularly compelling lecture because, as we all know, nuclear has something of a PR problem and there are no clearly defined ways of rectifying it. Grimston based his lecture on a book he is currently writing on society’s conceptions of nuclear and the nuclear industry, and the innumerate tensions and uncertainties that these generate.

He began the lecture by saying that the nuclear industry does not deal with the distrust and negativity surrounding it in a very constructive way; often ending up in an indecisive state of ‘rubbing hands together’ and not proactively addressing the claims made against it. He argued that this is because of the way in which ‘people’ respond to the statements released by governments and companies like EDF that aim to inform and calm people. This can be seen in the case of the Fukushima evacuations where the government wanted to quell national and international anxiety by providing ‘safe zones’ which, ironically, served to inflame ‘people’s’ fear of radiation. According to Grimston, ‘people’ react perhaps quite rationally  to the information put forward specifically regarding nuclear safety: if they are told that nuclear stations are to be made ‘even more safe’, then how safe were they before, if it is possible for safety to be improved? Through this deconstruction of what it means to be rational or irrational, he argued that the nuclear industry and nuclear experts have to perpetually navigate a minefield of semantic eggshells in fear of inadvertently worsening ‘people’s’ already apprehensive sentiments towards nuclear.

A still from little known TV animation, 'The Simpsons'. 
I use the word ‘people’ specifically with quotation marks because it was a word that cropped up time and again in Grimston’s lecture. As he progressed, his diagnosis of who or what comprised ‘people’ became increasingly problematic: ‘people’ become an homogeneous mass of all of the people who exist outside the realm of science and the understanding of nuclear that this entails. More specifically, and more importantly, Grimston casually conflated the media with the general public, suggesting that they think (be it rationally or irrationally) in the same way.

This is problematic because the media and the general public are not the same thing and they cannot be conceived of in the same way by the nuclear industry, including highly respected academics like Grimston. There is a chain of understanding that starts with industry, which passes through the media and then is consumed by the public. As a result, the media can be considered to be more powerful than the public because they are the ones who take the information given by the industry and relay it in any way that suits their own, oftentimes, reactionary, ideological or political agenda. This not only encompasses nuclear power but also information and statistics regarding immigration or benefits claimants.

One obvious example of such an outlet is The Daily Mail, which only a few days ago published an article on how fallout and radiation from Chernobyl will affect our crops this harvest. As a result, the public read and can be swayed by headlines that scaremonger, distort facts and fuel ignorance of nuclear, producing the paranoid (ir)rational responses that Grimston discussed. I would argue, therefore, that members of the public are not to blame for their warped conceptions of radiation (amongst other nuclear problems) because they consume news headlines or Hollywood films that tell them otherwise.  If the public were not subjected to such sensationalised stories that feature in the tabloids, some of the most read newspapers in circulation and online, then it is much more likely that there would be a positive embracement of nuclear energy. As a result, the public and the media cannot be described under a vague umbrella label such as ‘people’.

This is important to not only give some credit back to an interested and interesting public who, it is becoming increasingly apparent, are misinformed and distrustful of nuclear because of the media (71% of 23,231 people from 23 countries in 2011 after Fukushima wanted to replace nuclear and coal with renewable energy sources), but also to improve the image of the nuclear industry itself.[1] It is hard to feel sympathetic for an industry where high profile academics do not critically separate the media from the public and show no active attempt to engage with the media to shine a light on the inflammatory journalism produced. Even though I, a humanities graduate, had a few of my own misconceptions addressed by the lecture, none of what Grimston said seemed to be news to the majority of the people there, evident from the knowing tutting and chortling taking place. As a result, the lecture actually ended up casting a scornful gaze on the public who through, perhaps, no fault of their own, do not know any better. This was cemented for me, when Grimston provided each case study with an example of ‘people’s’ (ir)rational reactions to safety measures; a sentence or two in the voice of ‘people’ that supposedly summed up their interpretations of various situations, mostly regarding Fukushima. As he read them out to a chuckling room, they sounded like they could have been taken for tabloid headlines. Instead of being critical of this, ‘people’, that indiscriminate homogeneous mass of everything outside of the industry, were merely mocked.

I argue that the most effective way for people who work in nuclear to ensure the future implementation and success of new nuclear is by directly addressing media headlines, for example this one from The Daily Express or this one, again, from The Daily Mail. Accept that the public have been misinformed by what they have seen and heard in the newspapers, on the television and at the cinema and confront the sensationalised stories directly. Nuclear has often been accused of secrecy and of lacking transparency, and this is becoming a self-fulfilled prophecy. I would argue that the industry must actively and publically engage in a much more open and critical dialogue and debate with the outlets and ideological apparatuses that construct what the public have come to know, understand and, ultimately, trust.   

[1] Globescan poll commissioned by the BBC, 2011.

Friday, 6 February 2015

Veritasium - "The Most Radioactive Places on Earth" review.

By Mark Williams is a great place to learn some science (see end of article for a few of my favourites), here we take a critical look at a recent video on radiation.

Since its upload more than 1 month ago over 1.5 million people have already viewed Veritasium’s new video measuring radioactivity around the world. Armed with a neat Geiger counter, Derek visits many of the most infamously radioactive places on Earth: Trinity Site, Hiroshima, Fukushima and Chernobyl as well as a Uranium mine, Marie Curie’s office and the stratosphere.

The table below is based on the information provided in the video, but here I’ve kept the units at per hour, instead of per year, for each example.

Approximate dose, in ┬ÁSieverts per Hour
Usual background dose
0.1 to 0.2
Eating a banana
0.1 (per banana)
Peace Dome, Hiroshima, Japan.
Uranium mine
Marie Curies lab door knob
Trinitite at Trinity, US, nuclear bomb test site.
33,000 feet (The stratosphere)
Cruising altitude (long haul flight)
Chernobyl, Ukraine
Fukushima, Japan
Basement of Pripyat Hospital, Ukraine
Permitted US radiation worker limit.
~5.7 (based on 50,000 per annum)
At the space station
~18.25 (based on 80,000 per 6 months)
Smokers lungs
~18.25 (based on 160,000 per annum)

Making ionising radiation relatable is difficult, and this video has highlighted a few important problems that arise with doing just that. For example, the Sievert does not just consider the radioactive material, but also its proximity and likely effect on the human body. This video talks about the equivalent dose, in other words the dose in a fairly homogenous field, like a city. But it also looks at the dose on a specific organ, in this case the lungs, which must consider a ‘weighting factor’ - here radioactive smoke comes into direct contact with the tissue and you have what is known as an ‘effective dose’. 

For example, smokers are much more likely to develop lung cancer than non-smokers, but being a smoker may not mean that the chance of developing other cancers is so severely increased. The dose received on the space station, also mentioned in the video, will act on the entire body.

Different radionuclides (unstable elements) give off different ionizing radiation at different rates. There are countless books (and trust me when I say countless!) defining and equating the physics of dosimetry and suitable protective measures. We are lucky to have this knowledge today as it guides our use of radioactive material within research and dictates strict commercial practices. However, its complexity makes it seem like scary jargon.

Using the banana equivalent dose, as in the video and a previous article, is at least a little bit relatable, but it doesn’t portray the complexity of ionising radiation and can, I feel, mislead our understanding. Is that a problem? Does the public need to understand the reasons behind the risk? Do people really have the time? Or are we missing something in our explanations, is there not a better more relatable parallel than bananas…

Some of my favourite YouTubers:

Veritasium - 'The science video blog from atoms to astrophysics!' These are usually about common misconceptions and debunking myths. Some videos are pretty funny, but you'll often learn something new.

VSauce - 'Our World is Amazing.' In my opinion, this is one of the most well informed channels on Youtube. Michael Stevens is able to discuss any issue, be it scientific, artistic, historical etc... and often digresses into fascinating detail.

Periodic Videos / Sixty Symbols - Brady Haron asks professors and experts from (usually) The University of Nottingham questions relating to chemistry or physics, respectively. Any regular viewer of these channels will come to adore the professors and lecturers as they explain their fields with passion.

Minute Physics - As the name suggests, this is physics heavy. But it is generally good at explaining a lot of physical concepts with a whiteboard in a short space of time.

Kurzgesagt - With one upload per month, this channel is small, but dense with interesting content. It's also occasionally hilarious.