One area where the nuclear industry has been very successful in setting and dominating the agenda is the effects of radiation. They don’t have to worry about questions from the audience about two-headed fish.
There is a large body of authoritative scientific research on the effects of ionizing radiation. The overwhelming evidence is that low levels of radiation are not harmful and on the contrary could be good for humans and other organizations. Of course, high radiation exposures are harmful and can be fatal. Industry spokespersons on radiation issues are very well informed and articulate.
A prime example in both reports is the treatment of the Chernobyl disaster which has become standard in the nuclear industry. The big push for this approach came from anti-nuclear idiots who attributed absurdly large numbers of casualties to this accident playing on mysterious but unscientific radiation effects. In response the IAEA and WHO jointly did a study that concluded that only 56 persons died of radiation sickness as a result of the accident and 4,000 of the 600,000 people evacuated may have life shortening radiation-induced illnesses in the years to come. That’s certainly a bad enough accident (or “incident” as they like to call it in the Saskatchewan report) but nothing like as serious as nuclear critics would imply.
Basically what I call the “Chernobyl finesse” is to imply that the only consequence of a nuclear accident is radiation sickness. By acknowledging the radiation deaths and injuries up front, the industry can ignore all the other consequences and by doing so even appear to be open. There is no recognition of the immense societal and economic damage caused to the 100,000’s of people evacuated because of Chernobyl, people who lost their homes, jobs, schools, friends, and so on? How many cases of mental illness, alcoholism, suicide, marital breakdown, unemployment and other forms of human misery resulted? I have no data but I suspect the number of those deaths was much higher than 56 and more than 4,000 lives were shortened. The spin the nuclear industry gives to this issue is embodied in the old but tasteless joke:
Doctor: I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The bad news is what you’ve got is fatal. The good news is that it’s not cancer.
Patient: Thank God!
Even the Three Mile Island accident where the radiation emitted was negligible frightened some of the local people so much as to cause post traumatic stress disorders. I feel that travelling with the critics along the radiation-only-route is not only misleading but also unjustly puts an inhuman and uncaring face on the nuclear industry.
No, it’s not going to be the two-headed fish guy that the industry has to fear at public meetings rather it’s the gimlet-eyed money man who can talk fluently and convincingly about marginal costs, discount rates, value propositions, cost overruns and so on backed up by numbers from the nuclear industry’s record in terms of economic indices, costs and prices. Bad estimating and planning, poor cost control, chronic schedule slippage, and overall incompetent project management are the charges made against the industry. That’s the real killing ground in the nuclear argument and when the discussion moves there the radiation experts can only do their best “deer in the headlights” imitation.