02
APR
2011

Death by fire or death by water?

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  The exact death toll from the earthquake in Japan is not known with any precision but it is certain to be more than ten thousand, The Indonesian Tsunami killed nearly quarter of a million people as did the earthquake in Haiti. Yet millions of people continue to live on Earthquake fault lines, slopes of volcanoes and coastlines known to be at risk. Istanbul, San Francisco, Rotorua? Where will be next? Yet ask many people who live in these vulnerable areas if they would live close to a  nuclear power station and they are likely to cite Fukushima as evidence of why they wouldn’t. Of course Fukushima is a disaster but to put it into perspective, if even one percent of as many fatalities occur as a result of the nuclear accident as is caused by the Tsunami and other “natural” causes it will probably overshadow the rest of the disaster in the popular press. So why are we so disproportionately afraid of nuclear accidents compared to natural disasters?

One reason is that we feel natural disasters are…well natural. Things we can’t do anything about, whereas nuclear accidents are self-inflicted. Superficially, that is true but could we really do without energy? If all electricity production ceased even more people would die. Without getting into the debate about whether or not we could replace nuclear with other forms of energy generation, it seems that the feelings about these things are some how deep seatedly emotional and not rational. If you want a rational explanation of the Fukushima events there is a simple account here.

And of course journalists know that playing on these deep emotions is good for selling stories.

“Contaminated Tokyo tap water is ‘unfit for babies’ as Japan radiation ‘heads to Britain’ from Fukushima plant”

The article goes on to say the disaster is likely to be  the costliest ever but doesn’t make it clear what proportion of that cost is  due to the “natural” part and which the “nuclear”. Other reports make a big issue of seawater being thousands of times beyond the “safe” limit for radioactivity when the reality is that the contamination that is serious is confined to a very small area and is likely to quickly dissipate to levels much lower than they are now in several other seas and oceans. Radioactive pollution in the sea is undesirable but it is better to know objective facts than let the imagination run riot.

It seems to me that the main problem is that radioactivity is invisible. It’s that deep seated fear of the unknown similar to being scared of the dark, the Lord of the Flies “Beast” or the Bogey Man.  There probably isn’t an easy answer to this other than education. If you had the choice of living in San Francisco, or close to Sellafield which would you choose? Maybe neither and close to San Onofre a nuclear power station located on a Pacific Ocean beach in the California Earthquake zone might be a particularly bad choice.

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About the Author
Ian Lynch has worked in a range of roles in 4 LAs an independent school and a CTC. Led OFSTED teams, been an assessor of the NPQH and set up and run three education based enterprises. Main interest is in driving actions that can make a difference within the constraints of "the system" using knowledge of how "the system" works.

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