Why are we so afraid of nuclear?

There is little doubt that the words "nuclear" and "radiation" engender fear and anxiety in many humans. What is less certain is why.

Although we tend to interpret reality through the lens of our present knowledge and awareness, the roots of common societal sentiments are not as obvious as images of mushroom clouds. They are the result of how humans interpret and project fundamental symbols of good and evil, how they incorporate new ideas and new capabilities into their existing lore.

Understanding this fear requires understanding how knowledge arises and is passed between generations in the complex system of a society of aware beings, an understanding that is in its infancy and that now uses the concept of a meme. A meme can be considered the sentient version of the biological gene.

Professor Richard Dawkins originated the idea of memes as sentient traits that can compete and be passed along to subsequent generations as vigorously as physical traits are expressed through biological genes. Memes fit into the conceptual framework of the evolution of human society, e.g., belief systems, political structures, taboos, mythologies, etc.

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It is not coincidental that powerful ideas spread and develop over time, confer advantage to groups exploiting these benefits, compete and then replace lesser ideas in ways eerily similar to physical traits. That memes can also adapt to changing times and embody efficiencies as well, make them even more powerful and useful to humans whose most successful trait is sentience.

Dr. Judith Wright proposes that something as fundamental as energy to society is perfectly suited to incorporation into memes. Whether it was harnessing fire over 100,000 years ago, the explosion in biochemical energy provided by the advent of agriculture 20,000 years ago or the development of coal 150 years ago, with its ability to produce abundant steel and heat, energy is incorporated into every culture in history through a spiderweb of images and mythologies.

With the advent of coal, and then hydropower, nuclear and gas, the meme of owning or exploiting large numbers of humans, to provide sufficient energy to the privileged few, collapsed as the inevitable condition of the masses. Suddenly, energy was available to all. Even the choking, coal-dust reality of Dickensian London was preferable to the hardships and poverty of rural life. Visions of global equality among people became a common theme in writing, philosophy and politics in the late 1800s, all powered by the new scientific sources of energy.

Like genes, memes change in a punctuated manner as external conditions suddenly alter, and like genes, they build upon what is already present. Ideas formerly held in the minds of a society or culture morph to describe new concepts. Old images take on the new properties but hold the same relationships of good and evil, past and future, savior and destroyer.

Various incarnations of the Garden of Eden appear in so many cultures, both predating and postdating Judeo-Christian beliefs, that it seems a fundamental construct of human sentience. The benefits and detriments of energy and technology fit beautifully into these memes and even forced them to evolve into more modern versions of themselves.

The power was greater. The stakes were greater. The images were greater.

Fear of radiation is an obvious candidate. Dr. Spencer Weart traced how the fear of nuclear is much more complicated and much older than nuclear weapons or nuclear energy, starting from the beginning of modern science and technological societies in the late 1800s. While we presently think of radiation as a subset of the nuclear age, it was the concept of radiation that came first.

The discovery of radiation occurred at about the same time as electricity began to significantly impact society. Electricity, itself, completely changed society almost overnight. Like radiation, it was invisible and could hurt or kill you easily, as it did often in its beginning.

These developments were so new and so utterly profound that they challenged the foundations of belief, becoming intertwined in the classic good-evil myths as either protagonists or antagonists, depending upon each person's vision of the future. Futurists saw technology as engendering brotherhood and wisdom across the globe. Traditionalists saw it as destroying the fabric of society and all that was held sacred.

As seen in silent movies from that era (and in movies ever since) scientists became a symbol of the struggle between good and evil, and technology, the apple in the Garden of Eden. Would technology save mankind or destroy it?

At that time, scientists were more commonly called technologists, as the things of creation were more important to people of that time than the basic science behind them. People cared about the telephone, not magnetics and transduction. But fear of power in any form, and those who wield it, is quite deep in the human psyche. The idea of individuals meddling with dangerous powers that could destroy the world was not new. Wizards, witches, shamans — those with magical powers might release demons, pestilence or any number of evils, not the least being heretical thought, like science, that would turn the world they knew upside down.

Atomic weapons, and then nuclear energy, came much later and fell smoothly into this social evolution, coming to epitomize this basic struggle as it epitomizes our ability to create energy and power. The old images of alchemy came to the fore, correctly so, as nuclear became the transmutation sought for so many centuries.

By the time atomic energy emerged as a possibility, adults who had grown up reading by candlelight and riding horses were now reading by electric lights and riding in electric trolleys. Atomic power came to be the ultimate association with this new world and its infinite possibilities.

Then came the wars. World Wars I and II emblazoned in the global psyche what the evil side of this new technological world could do. Death from the air and rains of poison gas were the greatest fears long before atomic weapons. The notion of a preemptive first strike was developed with these weapons, not with nuclear. Even the concept of deterrents came well before nuclear because the chemical weapons of World War II were considered so horrific that no one could possibly think to use them again.

Later, with the dropping of the first atomic bomb on Japan, nuclear came to be associated with the ultimate end member of this dark side to technology.

That the many firebombing campaigns during World War II released over 10 times more energy than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined is not relevant to this meme. The idea that so small an amount of mass could release so large an amount of energy captivated the mind and enshrined nuclear as the ultimate power, and thus, the ultimate seduction in these mythologies to those who would wield it.

In the end, what humans do with power, any power, has little to do with the specific source, but everything to do with the way we control ourselves and our interactions. The memes that structure our society will determine our future, and energy and technology will be incorporated into these sets of memes as will any other aspect of humanity.

Nuclear is no different. It will no more easily destroy the world than will coal, drug-resistant bacteria, xeniobiotic species or terminator genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds.

But the destructive power of nuclear weapons competes strongly with the constructive power of nuclear energy. Our first trials with nuclear energy over the last 50 years proved that nuclear is the safest and most efficient of all energy sources, from both the human health and environmental perspectives. To produce a trillion killowatt-hours of electricity, nuclear takes less land, uses less steel and concrete, kills fewer people and has less harmful emissions than any other energy source, including wind and solar.

But this experience has not yet infused the meme of global energy sufficiently to move nuclear power to the forefront of the energy sources we need to embrace as a species in order to save the planet. Renewables, new generation nuclear, low carbon sources, efficiency and environmental protection all need to be incorporated into the meme of a safe, reliable and sustainable energy future.

It remains to be seen whether this meme will adapt fast enough to contain the energy we will continue to release as a species on this planet.

Conca is senior scientist for UFA Ventures, Inc. and a trustee of the Herbert M. Parker Foundation.