During the past nine days since the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, newspapers and television screens all over the world have been painting apocalyptic scenarios of nuclear meltdown, and predicting huge clouds of radioactivity which will rain down with fatal consequences for millions of people as a result of the crisis in the Fukushima reactor.
Why do they concentrate so much on a hypothetical calamity which might be caused by the reactor? An even more horrific situation which has left thousands and thousands of people dead – and even more people missing is being played out right now – all as a consequence of a disastrous NATURAL event. The number of deaths and illnesses which might ensue from any radioactive fall-out pales into insignificance compared with the current crisis in north eastern Japan.
Because fear fills the gap between ignorance and imagination, rumours can spread like wildfire, and these rumours further inflame people’s fears.
Here in China there has been a widespread rumour that if you take salt it will help guard against radiation sickness. This belief – combined with a different rumour (that the seas around Japan and China will be contaminated with radioactivity and therefore any salt produced from now on would be contaminated too) has let to panic buying of salt in shops and supermarkets across the country. Now one cannot buy salt for love nor money as the shelves are bare. Of course both these rumours are completely false. Firstly you’d have to consume vast quantities of salt which would make you very ill, and secondly most salt in China comes from inland salt mines and has nothing to do with the sea, in any case, the seas are not contaminated.
Another enterprising chap has been hawking a particular potted-plant round the streets of Shanghai, claiming that the plant will absorb radiation and keep you safe. I’ll bet he’s made a kuai or two this week!
The anti-nuclear lobby have been almost gleeful as events have unfolded as they think this a god-sent opportunity for furthering their cause. They have been quick to howl down any of the experts in this extremely complex scientific field who have tried to give balanced assessments of what is happening and what the likely outcomes might be. Frankly both the media and the anti-nuclear brigade love a worst-case scenario.
For my own part, I can see that nuclear power is here to stay – we need it. We can’t go on burning fossil fuels and damaging the environment. Wind and wave power will not provide the amounts of energy we all require to keep our lives running smoothly. I want my lights at night, my washing machine to work, hot water when I need it etc – and I am not alone in wanting these things. We need lots of energy to provide them. Nuclear power has its dangers – so do other things – and therefore one has to weigh up the risks and balance them against the advantages. Over the past 50 years there have only been a handful of nuclear incidents, and yet the nuclear energy that has been produced and used in that time has been immeasurably beneficial.
At the moment I’m taking all the rumours with a large pinch of Chinese salt.