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Killing off Spider-Man: How the media has shaped our nuclear fear

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From the grim foreboding of the Cold War era to the pop culture legend of a superhero created by the bite of a radioactive spider, nuclear skepticism has been fuelled by the mass media with very little recourse to scientific fact.

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That’s the firm argument of experts in Adelaide for this week’s Australasian Radiation Protection Society conference at the Convention Centre, who insist there needs to be some “rational” revisiting of the perceptions underpinning widespread theories of the “nuclear boogeyman”.

And they say those perceptions must be overturned before South Australians can truly debate the merits of a proposed high-level nuclear waste repository.

Geraldine Thomas, Professor of Molecular Pathology at Imperial College London, told InDaily the skeptics had gained ground in the battle for hearts and minds, in part, because they have been brashly vocal, whereas “scientists always like to be certain of their facts before they say anything”.

And, given they are examining the potential long-term health risks of radiation-related sickness, it has taken a long time to arrive at that certainty.

Thomas said evidence examined from nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl and Fukushima suggested the major health impact of the former was thyroid cancer associated with radioactive iodine linked to a contaminated milk supply.

In Fukushima, however, “the first thing they did was cut the food chain [which] restricted the dosage to a minuscule amount”.

“But if you read the general media, that’s not the impression you get at all,” she said.

“There’s a tendency to panic when radiation is mentioned… we’ve allowed our fears of the Cold War to spill over into over-emphasising the possible health effects [of radiation] that turned out not to be true.”

In a few generations’ time, we might look back and say: ‘What the hell were they thinking?’

Her comments were echoed by Roger Coates, president of the International Radiation Protection Association in the UK, who suggested the spectre of nuclear war and the initial public impression of radiation via the devastating bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki had made perceptions hard to shift.

“It started off on a little bit of a downer,” he said, with considerable understatement.

“It’s fairly obvious that as soon as you mention radiation, certain sections of our communities think, ‘That must be dangerous’ [and] part of the fear is the history; people think of weapons, [so] in that sense it must be dangerous.

“But what people don’t often realise is that the radiation used in hospitals for CT scans and cancer therapy treatments is exactly the same sort of radiation that comes from nuclear plants.”

Moreover, there is natural radiation to which people are exposed every day.

“You and I and everyone that lives on this planet are exposed to radiation, naturally, every minute of every hour of every day,” Coates told InDaily.

“[It comes] from a variety of totally natural sources – from the rocks, from the air, from the food… and there’s a reasonable amount of radiation that comes from outer space, cosmic radiation, from which we are sheltered to some extent by the Earth’s atmosphere.

“So if you fly on a trans-Atlantic flight at 40,000 feet, you’ll get a significant increase of radiation exposure… Using that as an example, every individual who does a return trans-Pacific flight will get 100 times more radiation from that flight than they will from a nuclear waste repository – literally.

“That’s the context people don’t understand.”

Coates says SA’s stable geology, as described in the Scarce Royal Commission’s final report, marks it out as a suitable venue for a waste dump, and while many nuclear-power-generating countries – including the UK, France, Switzerland, the US and Finland, where Premier Jay Weatherill will be jetting to tour facilities later this week – won’t require such a facility, “there will be a market out there if SA decides to go down that road”.

“For small countries, it could be an attractive proposition – or for large countries, like Japan, that don’t have quite the same stable geology, it may well be an attractive option for them,” he said.

“I believe there’s highly likely to be a market, [but] it won’t be for everyone.”

However, he insists there needs to be a better understanding of the risks posed by radiation.

“The radiation that anybody will receive from this facility will make a minute difference to what everybody already gets from natural radiation,” he said.

He said radiation professionals were obligated to “play their role” in putting forward “a neutral radiation protection perspective… so there’s a better understanding and hopefully less fear”.

“Okay, it may still mean you don’t like the project – that’s a totally different matter – but I’d rather the decision was made on the basis of reason, rather than fear and exaggerated views of what the risks are,” he said.

Thomas laments a “somewhat schizophrenic” approach to radiation in society – on the one hand, accepting its use in fighting cancer but on the other fearful of exposure to man-made radiation.

She insists exposure to radiation from nuclear plants is minimal and easily managed, let alone that from an outback waste repository.

“This stuff is going to be put a long way underground, and radiation won’t get out from under the ground,” she said.

“There are so little health risks and so many potential benefits to South Australia taking what is quite a bold move.”

She said her impression of the community engagement was that it had been “extremely well handled” and “actually shows that communities are willing to engage”.

“When new technologies come in, people are fearful, and you’re right to be cautious – but as long as you’re basing your ideas on scientific evidence… and we have a tendency not to do that with radiation,” she said, noting that the health impacts of coal-fired power were far greater than that of radiation.

“ We need to think about where we’re going in global society [and not] allow the myths to cloud the rational arguments… In a few generations’ time, we might look back and say: ‘What the hell were they thinking?’.”

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