25 April 2014

We fear what we cannot see.

When I was a little tyke I remember how scared I was of dark places. I would turn on every light and often take a baseball bat with me - just in case there was a monster waiting for me. Even as I waltzed into adulthood, where this silly fear of nothing shrouds into darkness, I am often guilty of replacing unfounded paranoia with yet more invisible boogiemen.

It is completely reasonable to be afraid of what we cannot see. Surely what we do not know is far more terrible than what we do. When we find out that a politician is having an affair with a woman in another country we re-elect him - because at least we know what terrible things that one was doing. The others? They are probably beating children and raping farm animals while stealing grammy's retirement.

Sometimes the concern hits the absurd realm when someone is telling their friends on their phone that they tossed away their microwave due to radiation concerns - completely unaware that those same waves are traveling through their brain on that cell phone they are jabbering on. Just the core concern about microwaves, radio towers or power lines could be classified as silly when countless studies have shown that they pose less risk than stepping on a banana peel.

However, the most ridiculous phobia of nothing that society has created is nuclear radiation. I used to share that unfounded anxiety. We were taught from the youngest age that there was no worse weapon than an atom bomb. (That is not true, but we will save that for another day.) Since the accident at Fukushima, we are convinced that there is no scarier power source than a fission reactor. Even Germany, who tends to have some relatively intelligent individuals, decided to eradicate all nuclear power plants due to hidden terror. Their concerns seem perfectly reasonable. That is, until we know the truth about radiation.

I will not bore you with all of the sievert calculations, but we need to recognize that radiation is natural. Anything containing potassium is radiating, including your bananas and potatoes. Electromagnetic waves and subatomic particles are hitting us all day, every day, and we get more of them the faster we move. Pilots and flight attendants are unknowingly swimming through radiation as they take you on holiday to DisneyWorld.

Stars churn out radiation and supernova spit out radioactive elements that warm the planet we live on. We owe our very existence to radiation because, without it, human beings would never have evolved on our planet. So why are we so afraid of it? Because we have been told scary stories about these invisible particles that will surely be the death of us all.

You know what is truly scary? Coal. Four thousand times as many people are killed annually from use of coal as an energy source as fission fuel. Yet, even knowing how much safer nuclear energy is, entire countries have sworn it off due to Three Mile Island (TMI), Cherynobyl and Fukushima.

TMI and Fukushima had zero directly attributable deaths. Yes, there was radiation exposure that likely will impact a few of the Fukushima 50 (true heroes) - but the accidents did not directly kill a single person. Chernobyl had 56 direct deaths and an estimated 4,000 due to radiation exposure.

TMI was mostly a media event, Fukushima was an old nuclear power plant that needed to be updated and Chernobyl was a thermonuclear weapon accident. What I mean by the latter was that the U.S.S.R. originally used Chernobyl as a reactor for nuclear weapons and converted it to be a power plant, which is why it did not have a containment dome over it like every other nuclear power plant. It has been argued that Chernobyl was a product of the cold war and also, due to the accident, brought an end to it with the collapse of the U.S.S.R.

That is it. The entire history of nuclear power and those are the three big accidents, so we need to ignore it as a power source while coal kills thousands of people annually and is even reducing the average lifespan of people in China near the plants. But we are not afraid of coal because we can see it - that smoggy air polluting the world is not sneaking up on anyone.

Much like the monsters lurking in the shadows, we need to stop fearing the invisible particles traveling around us. Whether it is gamma, ultraviolet, X, micro or radio waves - our phobias are somewhat unfounded. These hidden gems allow us to listen to music, talk to friends, heat a burrito and create electricity. Yes, in ridiculously high doses they may increase your health risk (some of those morning talk show hosts will melt your brain) but this is true of everything we consume - even water.

Perhaps it is time to stop being afraid of nothing.