Radiation, let me compare thee

We know Japan has heightened levels of radiation, but what about those killer vending machines?
When I entered university, I quickly became aware that there were three types of people on campus: students in the humanities, others in commerce (the blanket term there for studies in economics, management  and finance), and the rest in engineering and sciences. At first, it seemed like a joke, like a contrived distinction on a school sports day when students are divided into red team, blue team and white team. But as time went on, I realized these were very serious and useful distinctions to last through a lifetime, perhaps even a very solid element of a theory of human nature. Thirty years later, the distinctions seem more pronounced than ever.
There are very few people who can live in more than one of these worlds, although the commerce and engineering types seem to move in each other’s world more easily. My university had a requirement that all undergraduates had to pass English 100 and at least one course in the sciences. This led to many strained relationships of convenience between people who couldn’t stand each other’s company. One would ask for help with an English paper in exchange for notes from a science course. Each would be embarrassed by his or her weakness, impatient with the other’s weakness, yet proud of his or her own strengths. And they hated each other’s world view. Usually, the relationships didn’t last long enough to make the study exchange bear any fruit.
These ancient animosities have been on my mind since I started writing about nuclear issues. I’ve encountered many defenses of the nuclear industry that remind me how difficult it is to exchange views with someone with a completely different set of cognitive skills who lives and works among like-minded people with shared interests. When we meet, we seem to each other like alien creatures speaking an unintelligible language. On a few occasions, I’ve come across arguments made by engineers that are pronounced with great confidence because they have been propped up within their insular world. As soon as they are uttered outside that world, the situation is just embarrassing because it is readily apparent that they are based on poor analogies, illogic and obliviousness to the wider questions beyond material utility–questions about morality, philosophy and creative ways to avoid ecological destruction.
One such example is the idea that the nuclear industry is moving toward perfection with each meltdown that provides valuable “lessons learned.” This idea of the perfectibility of the technology is enough to make me wonder if I’m not the one who is being quixotic. The nuclear lobby thinks of themselves as conservative, hard-nosed realists. They say, "You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. This is the reality. Deal with it. Don’t be a quixotic fool dreaming about a nuclear-free world." But when it comes to the record of nuclear disasters, they are suddenly utopian dreamers ready to spout about the perfectibility of man.
It was put to me once that nuclear perfection will be just like the history of boiler accidents. Once, when boiler technology was new, there were many accidents and many deaths, but now there are few because of better regulation and designs. Actually, Wikipedia lists about forty famous boiler accidents, and they seem to still be occurring in recent history. But in any case, the important thing is that we’ve all forgotten about the boiler disasters of the past because they aren’t surrounded by massive sacrifice zones where no one can live or cultivate the land. The broken boilers didn’t leave a molten core of radioactive waste leaking into the groundwater for centuries to come. The ruins of boilers were cleaned up quickly because the site was not too radioactive for humans to work in. Clearing up the site didn’t take four decades and 100 billion dollars. Boiler disasters were not low-consequence events for the people who died in them, but they were low-impact in terms of their broader effects. There is just no basis here for a comparison with the meltdown of a nuclear reactor.
Another strange argument I’ve heard is that the nuclear industry is unfairly targeted for regulation, and provokes too much irrational public anxiety. Risk is everywhere, so another argument suggested that hamburger restaurants should be regulated so that cholesterol consumption is reduced to the lowest possible level that is known to cause no harm. It’s surprising to me that the highly trained scientists and engineers who run the nuclear industry can actually be proud of such arguments. When I was younger, I sort of admired the people who could pass advanced calculus and physics courses, but now I wonder if this talent comes at the expense of other faculties of reasoning.
It seems to me that it shouldn’t be necessary to explain to a nuclear engineer the difference between cholesterol and anthropogenic radionuclides. The former is an organic molecule that has been part of the human diet since before we evolved into humans. It has benefits in itself, and delivers more benefits because of the protein and other nutrients that come with it in many foods. We have ways of sensing when we’ve had too much, we know when we are eating it, and we can freely choose to have more or less of it. None of these things is true of anthropogenic radionuclides. They’ve been in our food and water for only a few decades, and the decision to put them there came without the consent of the victim. They have no role in organic chemistry, and no benefits to offer in living organisms. They are poisons. We have no way to sense when we have been exposed to them, and thus no way to avoid them. To protect ourselves from them, we must rely on experts whose function it is to promote the nuclear industry, not to protect individual health. When a nuclear expert argues that the nuclear industry is unfairly targeted and regulated, he is showing that he doesn’t understand what it is about the field he works in that makes it uniquely hazardous and fully deserving of public oversight and skepticism.
I encountered the first two examples in private conversations. The next one comes from the book The Highway of the Atom, by Peter Van Wyck. He critiqued the Government of Canada study that whitewashed the radioactive contamination of the Dene people on Great Bear Lake (which is another story covered in more detail here). The lead fact-finder of the study, Walter Keyes, is vocally pro-nuclear and generally opposed to regulation. He worked for the firm Intertec Management Limited which was contracted to conduct the study. He was also a former deputy minister in the Saskatchewan government (which promotes uranium mining in the province) and he belongs to the lobby group Canadian Nuclear Association. Van Wyck discovered a publication in which Keyes seems to be seriously complaining that vending machines deserve to be more regulated and publicly feared than the nuclear industry because they have caused several deaths over the years (because once in a while angry customers shake them until they topple over), whereas nuclear power plants caused none. Van Wyck cites these words that Keyes spoke to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency:

Although there have been no recorded deaths in North America from radiation exposures at either uranium mines or nuclear power facilities during the past 30 years, there have been enormous sums of money spent on regulation, inspection and enforcement. Yet, in contrast there have been 30 reported deaths in North America from vending machines during the past 20 years–and that’s from the machines themselves, without looking at what may be the hazardous contents of the machines such as cigarettes, food products and other items. Does this mean that government is over-regulating the nuclear industry or under-regulating the vending industry? Is this a case where the cumulative impact on the environment and public safety of vending machines has been overlooked because each incremental item is seen as being so very small without fully understanding the overall impacts? (1)(2)
We can leave aside the fact that Keyes sets the parameters narrowly as deaths by radiation on site. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that the nuclear industry has slowly killed many people offsite. Of more concern is that a lead investigator in a study on the health effects of radiation disingenuously tries here to deny the potential of the nuclear industry to cause disasters of wide-scale consequence. He pretends not to understand what it is about nuclear technology that makes the public want to have it more strictly controlled than vending machine technology.
The three arguments discussed here are just some examples of how the nuclear lobby develop these non sequiturs among themselves and become laughably over-confident in their ability to present convincing arguments to the public. One would think that people so well trained in the sciences would be more skilled in logical rhetoric. In fact, I think they would be capable of better rhetoric if there were indeed any good arguments to be made. Lacking them, all they can do is make very weak analogies to boilers, hamburgers and vending machines.
So let me offer a suggestion. Forget the analogies. There is nothing else like nuclear physics, even though it does provide some powerful metaphors for many abstract phenomena. I would give the same advice to anti-nuclear people. You can compare radioactive contamination to assault on the integrity of the body, but the analogy only goes so far. Direct violence (person on person) is illegal, but the same cannot be said of the activities of the nuclear industry. Its activities are licensed and its accidents do not result in criminal prosecution.
Strangely enough, radiation can be the source of a metaphor, but not the target. Meaning is very effectively conveyed when we talk about a policy that is too radioactive for the president to mention, or when we warn about a financial meltdown, but it’s senseless to say, “Stay away from that nuclear reactor. It’ll get you like a vending machine.” As a rhetorical device, this is cheap sarcasm, I know. But seriously, there is nothing else like radiation. I suspect that the reason is that metaphors are drawn from the natural world, what the human mind understands instinctively from its long evolution. We can easily conceive of birth as arrival and death as departure, but what is beta decay? Until the 20th century, radiation was irrelevant to life, and it is still outside of sensory experience, so there is no way to make it the target of an insightful, interesting metaphor.

Walter Keyes and Dennis Lawson. Presentation to Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency. Saskatoon, February 29, 2000, on behalf of the Risk Assessment Society. Cited in: Peter C. Van Wyck. The Highway of the Atom (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010). Pages 186-187.
United States Consumer Product Safety Commission. CPSC, Soda Vending Machine Industry Labeling Campaign Warns Of Deaths And Injuries. November 2, 1995.

1 comment:

  1. Whoa, I had never given it a thought that vending machine could be so much dangerous. Radiation is the biggest threat to the human society and we must not take risks. Our life is too valuable to put it at stake.