An interesting op-ed (semi-unrelated to chemistry)

Hello!

For all of you folks there who are worried about the nuclear situation in Japan and it’s potential impacts for the nuclear power industry, this undergrad from Tufts University put together a really great article.  It really focuses on what we as scientists (or budding scientists) need to do and take responsibility for.  Definitely a good reminder of life outside the fume hood.   This article was originally published in the Tufts Daily, and I think it’s a pretty good read for undergrads and professionals alike. Thanks to Evan Weixel for permission to reprint his work. Enjoy!

-Sidechain

Much news these past days has rightly been focused on the terrible disaster happening in Japan. Getting the most coverage has been the ongoing problem of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station. The situation there is critical, and it seems now highly likely that there could be a significant release of radioactive matter. As frightening as this is, the continuing news coverage has helped me realize the thing I fear the most in the world.

Most media outlets are doing their very best to sensationalize the story. Organizations such as The New York Times, CNN and The Associated Press have all published articles that confuse readers about what the actual danger from the nuclear reactors is. Small sidebars contain miniscule links to difficult-to-follow stories on how nuclear reactors work. Words such as “meltdown,” a term deemed insufficiently specific for use in the nuclear industry, are used freely. Radiation is discussed without any note of the actual levels, and no benchmark radiation levels are given. An article in the German newspaper Der Spiegel calls this disaster “Japan’s Chernobyl” yet neglects to mention that the differences in reactor type, design, regulation and operation between the doomed Ukrainian plant and Fukushima Daiichi mean that even in the worst-case scenario, Japan will face a disaster several orders of magnitude less than that at Chernobyl. Frankly, the public is being misinformed.

The comments on these stories are even more worrisome than the stories themselves. The vast majority of posts on websites ranging from The Huffington Post to Fark.com are to the effect that the results from this disaster are going to be as bad as, if not worse than, Chernobyl, the reactors will explode like giant nuclear bombs, and under normal operating conditions, there is no radiation emitted from nuclear power plants. However, these statements are all false. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) has called for a halt on all nuclear-power construction projects in the United States until the faults in the Japanese plants can be found yet is unaware that current reactor safety systems are much more advanced than those on the aging Japanese plant and are continuously being improved.

It would seem that most people’s knowledge of nuclear energy is lacking. Yet there is ample opportunity for the general populace, the media and politicians to learn about these facts. There are many credible experts who are willing to make statements as to the truth of the situation. Even the Wikipedia page on nuclear energy, a source that should in almost every case be questioned, provides an honest, easy-to-understand basic level of knowledge. But the uninformed voices are clamoring louder than ever and are unfortunately influencing the world’s policymakers.

Nuclear power is but one of many technologies misunderstood by the general public. This misunderstanding leads to fear, and fear causes the rejection of a potentially beneficial discovery. Vaccines, climate change, even wind and solar power have all been misunderstood, have all been subjected to fearful, knee-jerk reactions and have all suffered because of it. And appeals in the court of public opinion are almost impossible to win.

The fact is that the future of science and technology is controlled by people who 1) have no understanding of it, 2) believe false things about it and 3) have no desire to correct points 1 and 2. Even at Tufts, where interdisciplinary study and broad interests are the norm, it is a rare political science major willing to take a course on biotechnology, fuel-cell design, or hazardous-waste management. How can we hope to face these issues if we know nothing about them? This trend must change. The degree sheet for a Peace and Justice Studies major should list fewer courses like “From the Big Bang to Human Kind” and more courses like “Clean Energy Technologies and Policy Issues.”

However, this works both ways. Mechanical engineers need to study economics if they want to understand the financial ramifications of their new device. Biochemists must learn the ethical dilemmas of genetically modified food. And most importantly of all, everyone in a technical field needs to learn how to communicate their ideas effectively, because it is through this communication that misinformation can be fought.

Scientists and engineers must step up efforts to combat technological ignorance. We must become more involved in politics and policy. We must not remain quiet when we hear a fallacious discussion in our area of expertise. We must expand educational efforts, not just to those still in school, but to all people who lack a solid understanding of a subject. Only then will there be a chance to curtail the all-too-common backlash against new technology.

Because my greatest fear is not nuclear energy creating three-eyed fish, global warming destroying the planet or even being hit by a car while crossing College Avenue in front of Anderson Hall. My biggest fear is for a potentially life-changing technology to be kept from use through easily preventable scientific ignorance.

Author: Sidechain Bob

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