We are woefully under informed
Radiation 13th October 2015
By Annie Dickinson
Writing as somebody from outside the world of nuclear research, I (and I’m sure that many others would agree) feel woefully under informed, not only about the risks associated with ionising radiation, but about ionising radiation itself. My knowledge of the subject comes partly from a barely remembered GCSE in physics, but mainly from the media and from cultural representations of radiation. The influence of these cultural representations means that to the uninformed mind the word ‘radiation’ conjures up a series of terrifying scenarios. Twentieth century Hollywood cinema is full of films that both play on and exacerbate a public anxiety about the dangers of ionising radiation. As well as those which deal directly with the issues, such as the 1979 thriller ‘The China Syndrome’ or Kubrick’s ‘Dr. Strangelove’ (1964), there are a whole host of films which use nuclear fallout as the basis for the dystopian futures they depict. The critically and commercially successful ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ (2015), for example, presents a post-apocalyptic desert wasteland populated by two-headed lizards and grotesquely mutated human beings. Even Godzilla, in the first Japanese version of the film, was awoken by nuclear testing!
‘Real-life’ ionising radiation fares little better in the news media: everybody remembers the much reproduced photograph of the hospitalized former secret service agent Alexander Litvinenko, poisoned with a cup of tea containing radioactive isotope polonium-210, and more recently, photographs of malformed and apparently ‘radioactive’ daisies growing near Fukushima went viral on social media. The fact that these mutations were likely caused by the biological phenomenon fasciation, noted in flowers all over the world and not just radioactive sites, and that the level of radiation at the Fukushima site has actually been classified as ‘safe for “medium to long term habitation”‘, seemed to escape most people’s attention, something which goes to show the place of radiation in the popular cultural imagination; it is associated with the Cold War, mutation, and the threat of nuclear disaster. The idea that there might be a safe amount seems counter-intuitive.
Yet it takes only a perfunctory Google search to discover that exposure to small amounts of ionising radiation is relatively low risk, and is frequently used in medical tests. Having had two x-rays myself I, like many other people, have been exposed to ionising radiation as a matter of course. Hollywood would have us think that ionising radiation is a force almost beyond human control, that Dr. Frankenstein-like, nuclear researchers have awoken a monster – in the case of Godzilla, literally – when in fact the far more common medical uses of ionising radiation paint a different picture, revealing it as a helpful tool rather than a destructive force.
Annie Dickinson is a literature Ph.D. student at the University of Manchester.