For nearly a week, pundits, analysts and talking heads have flooded the airwaves, adding their two cents to the barrage of information about the unfolding situation at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant in quake-ravaged Japan.
They have covered the spectrum – from alarmist predictions of a “Chernobyl-like” cataclysm to random use of the word “meltdown,” to rational, technical explanations of what engineers and physicists believe is happening.
The nuclear industry, in the midst of what had been perceived as a nuclear power renaissance, is in full triage mode, trying to get information out there without sounding self-serving. Banner headlines in local newspapers proclaim that Japanese nuclear operators are frantically trying to avert a China syndrome times three, a situation in which full core melts in all three Dai-ichi units result in a breach of the primary containments.
What we do know without doubt is that, if you place the words “nuclear” next to the words “radiation,” “cesium-137” and “explosion,” you end up with some seriously freaked out people. Don’t get me wrong: The events unfolding at Da-ichi are very, very serious. The three units will no longer operate, and the operators are not out of the woods yet, not by a longshot.
Lessons from the worst civilian nuclear accident in U.S. history at the Three Mile Island plant in Harrisburg, Pa., tell us that good, timely communication with the public is critical. Dick Thornburgh, then-governor of Pennsylvania, during the nuclear emergency, offered the following poignant quote about the Three Mile incident: “Search for and evaluate the facts and their sources again and again, and communicate those facts truthfully and carefully to the people, remembering that credibility can be as fragile as it is crucial in the cauldron of a genuine public emergency. However, respect but do not depend on the news media.”
Countless analyses evaluating people’s responses to nuclear accidents or to the specter of a radiological terrorist attack all reach the same conclusion: People’s reactions are not in necessarily line with what the actual risks may be, and that all things nuclear and radiological scare them, sometimes unnecessarily. That lack of scientific literacy is a growing legacy of our educational system, one in which STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math) is no longer valued, emphasized or funded. Add to this the fact that most K-12 science and math teachers don’t even have a degree in these fields, and you have a public that can’t tell an atom from a neutron. No wonder anything nuclear frightens people. They don’t understand it. Suspicion of government secrecy, cover-ups and untoward practices by industry further complicates the mix.
Congressman Rush Holt has spoken repeatedly of the need to have a more scientifically literate public, most recently at the AAAS Annual meeting. The current Japanese nuclear mess is a perfect example of why the current fervor for eviscerating funding for science and STEM education will do nothing for the public’s understanding of science.