Friday, 11 May 2012

Nuclear Fear: Is It Inevitable?

By guest blogger, Matt Gunther

Gunther takes a brief look at the nature of fear, which seemingly surrounds nuclear energy and questions whether it is inevitable or has the potential to be broken? Teaming up with Tyrion Lannister, Detective Jimmy McNulty and a disgruntled dental patient he also attempts to provide a solution, albeit a simple one.


The author would like people to know that this is in no way peer reviewed, information is from the media and wider public domain and, as such, should not be judged as scientific fact. This article is a reflection of personal opinions, not necessarily the author's, and does not reflect the views or opinions of any the author's commercial or academic associates.

An imp, alchemist and sellsword all stand rather tentatively around a small glass vial containing a fluorescent green liquid. Proclaiming this wildfire can melt through wood, steel and flesh, the withering alchemist is beside himself with platitudes for this creation. He offers only one warning to the Hand and his arrogantly self-serving sidekick: "This has descended from the power and might of those who burnt out the sky with their breath and blotted out the Sun with their wings." Laughing at the notion,  Tyrion hastily requests that this half-witted pyromancer make enough jars to light the horizon from Dorne to the Wall. Unbeknownst to the Hand, however, he would not only be igniting the land in this act but also a fear so far-reaching it would grip the throats of the First Men. [1]

The Hand, an alchemist and a sellsword. A.K.A. Truman, Oppenheimer and Groves.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past eighteen months or are a "fantaphobe" as I like to call them, you may be aware the previous paragraph relates to a show and literary saga entitled Game of Thrones. I've found much of George R. R. Martin's prose can be related to issues in modern society and I'm not referring to incest, dragons or the ability to break one's fast. The previous paragraph easily demonstrates, in my opinion, the relationship between science, politicians, the military and us, the humble layman.

However, this blog isn't really about the relationship itself but what gripped the throats of the First Men as a result of this fractured relationship: Fear. I've tried valiantly to understand where this fear of science and, more specifically, nuclear energy came from. Many would lead you to surmise, somewhat simply, that it was a "little boy" and a "fat man" falling from the sky, which caused a frightening hysteria to stain the state of the nations after WWII. From this, you may also conclude in parallel that it was the greater fear of the unknown, which has stymied our faith in nuclear energy. Many scholars use the example of a scientist being the harbinger of entities unknown, who doesn't appreciate the power they are futilely attempting to harness. This analogy is used in much the same way as it was in the medieval era for alchemists.
She may well know the consequences of an
unsavoury dental examination,
but she damn well fears the helplessness of it all

I find this example somewhat ironic as it assumes we are too ignorant to understand the consequences of such acts. We aren't! The results of an atomic explosion were known (or assumed) to flatten a vast area pre- and post-Manhattan Project, so it is not this people fear necessarily. The example also suggests an ample amount of futility is present within such research, which is also another unfathomable deduction. 

Personally, I believe it is a fundamental fear of powerlessness, which consumes us. The notion that the man in his high castle is the one in control, with ourselves resigned to view his workings through a series of increasingly thick, translucent doors that stubbornly refuse to be opened. Be it through guarded secrecy or a form of intellectual elitism, particular areas of science have remained forever elusive to the common man/woman. However, why should they? Who is to blame for the culmination of this fear culture? And is it, to some extent, inevitable?

To put it in very simple terms, the response to the first question should be no, it should not. I believe the solution to this is through communication. Not simply by reading out scientific journals and opinion pieces verbatim, but through explaining concepts on a basic and engaging level in which Joe Bloggs can understand. Misunderstanding and a lack of communication are reasons why people feel separated from science. Thus, they can easily be swayed by the media and, therefore, will be lead into a not-so-dissimilar situation as the lady above: Trapped in a society whereby they are forever glued to their plasma screens, wallowing in the helplessness of not being involved in the process..... and watching the utter-garbage that is Sky News.

By involving the general public in certain processes within the nuclear industry, we can assuage this fear and empower them to help change the industry for the better. There are some detractors to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority's volunteer repository scheme in the UK, but it has helped quell this latent fear by directly involving them.

So, who is to blame for this manifestation of fear? Well, to quote an old saying: "The players change, but the game remains the same." The industry has always feared the public viewpoint on nuclear as being inherently apathetic or wholly negative, no matter which organisation runs such matters. Many industrial players have made it clear that anti-nuclear campaigners are to blame, but the former are as complicit in not doing enough to convey the right message.  As have the public always feared the lack of empowerment, which they feel entitled to. All, to some degree or another, have contributed to this culture of fear. Fundamentally, like Detective Jimmy McNulty glancing nonchalantly over the perpetually flowing Baltimore skyline, we believe this situation may never change.

Does McNulty know something we don't?
Does this mean nuclear fear, whatever it essentially embodies, is inevitable? Maybe McNulty isn't the greatest arbiter as he's an affable drunk with a penchant for disobeying authority?! However, being an affable drunk his view is distorted and his belief unsound. We can change this systematic cycle of scepticism and hysteria. Again, only through more acts of cooperation will the public begin to trust the nuclear community and through engaging communication they will hopefully understand it. Nonsense spouted by some facets of the media and militant anti-nuke groups, which feeds the fear of inability, would be quelled by these actions. For want of a better phrase, the industry will "become the bigger man."

I can't help but think that it is this similar lack of dialogue plaguing the nuclear industry in years gone by, which has forced the Seven Kingdoms to fight amongst one other. Maybe I should send all the relevant political bodies a copy of Game of Thrones so they can learn from the Lannisters' and Starks' mistakes? Saying this, they may exploit the notion of ancient dragons and try to make as much wildfire as possible without caring to involve the public in its decision... Fingers crossed eh?!


[1] This paragraph is adapted from George. R. R. Martin's novel A Clash of Kings (Book Two of "A Song of Ice and Fire") and HBO's "Game of Thrones". We claim no ownership of any characters, themes or events within the paragraph, or the book in it's entirety, herein.


  1. I have written this on several occasions, but it bears repeating here: the fear of nuclear energy has an almost one-to-one correspondence with the fears that surrounded flying that were around in the middle of the last century. How these fears, for all intents and purposes vanished, is instructive, and pronuclear supporters should draw both a lesson and some comfort from.

    Although I worked in aviation for forty years before taking my retirement, my association with this industry goes back to my childhood, as both my parents, and their siblings worked for the airlines, and we live in a neighborhood where most families had at least one member in the field. So my memory goes back for some time, and I well remember both the widespread fear of flying, and the impacts of major accidents on the public and the companies.

    Fear of Flying became a bit of a cultural meme, and spawned artistic works and scientific papers, but it was not limited just to potential passengers – some that lived under airport flight paths constantly worried for their safety. (Thus the neighborhood full of airline employees mentioned above.) Naturally every time there was a major accident, this came to a head, and both the public and the media overreacted.

    Each major accident was followed by a serious drop in bookings that would take several months to recover. Endless articles in the press, and outraged letters to the editor and phone-in show participants on radio would vent their bile over what they thought was the unacceptable risk of this mode of transportation, and claiming the fault lay with greedy airlines and indifferent governments. This in the face of the concurrent fact that in these pre-seatbelt, pre-air bag days, the slaughter on the nation’s highways every weekend was breathtaking and far exceeded the casualties from airplane accidents.

    The reality was that everyone in commercial aviation was very safety conscious, and a real culture of such was developed at every level as everyone was acutely aware that their jobs depended on it. And indeed the industry enjoyed a remarkable safety record regardless of the metric applied, but nothing is ever perfect and accidents due to human error and acts of nature sill occurred, and sill brought drops in traffic and public hand wringing.

    I still remember the incident where all this changed. I was now working for an airline myself, and in the immediate wake of the crash of Flight 981 (a DC-10) near the town of Ermenonville, France we all braced for the inevitable backlash. It never came. Despite the fact that this had been one of the deadliest air crashes of all time to date, that it was clearly caused by a design failure (the cargo door) and poor ground handling practices, the drop in traffic never happened. The press tried to whip up some furry, and indeed there was a special subcommittee of the House of Representatives created to examine the door issue, but the story petered out with surprising rapidity.

    The point of all this, is that I see a similar arc being played out in nuclear power. The public’s response after each major incident is less every time, regardless of the media’s efforts to stir it up. Yes the Japanese are making a national scapegoat of nuclear to hide the collective shame of having been caught with their pants down across the board in the aftermath of the tsunami, and German natural gas interests used it as an opportunity to advance their agenda, but the reality is that the setback in public opinion was modest and shows signs of bouncing back quickly.

    I suspect that unless the next nuclear accident really does leave thousands dead in its wake, and several square miles glowing in the dark, there won’t be much reaction at all outside the wailing of the usual suspects. This is the point where the work of promoting nuclear energy can begin to yield good results – we have reached the point where the public is ready to see that the benefits of nuclear outweigh the risks and we have to step up our game now.

    Rob Gauthier

    1. Hi Rob,

      Thanks for your great comment, it's always great to have these comparisons to draw upon. I think it's interesting you raise this point as Peter Gill - on our last podcast - briefly mentioned how we tend to fear flying but it's the safest way to travel; in comparing this to our fears regarding nuclear and radiation in general.

      Backing up what I said in the article, I believe you're right in saying we have reached a point whereby the public are ready to see the benefits of nuclear. However, I sincerely hope the industry can recognise this fact and endeavour to ramp up their engagement efforts. I've found - from participating in engagement events - members of the public are more than willing to listen and engage with us on these issues. I'd argue to some extent that 90% of those we speak to aren't hostile in the slightest.

      The fact I've even acknowledged hostility in that last sentence though, after being told by numerous authority figures that some will seek to protest as opposed to listen, just goes to show how the industry has to break through their own perceptions in order to fully inform and engage those supposedly in fear of it.

      Thanks once again for great comment Rob. Hope you're enjoying the site!