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Facing Pandora's Box Of Nuclear Myths And Prejudices

Our Friend The Atom?
by Wayne Smith
for NuclearSpace.com
Brisbane - Feb 12, 2003
Movies such as 'Star Wars' and 'Lord of the Rings' have set a new standard in film making. Demonstrating that old favourites can be counted upon to attract moviegoers if you do it right and sequels even pre-planned. New favourites can also be relied on for repeat returns on an investment. Harry Potter had no less than seven sequels lined up. But it has to be said that some stories never seem to lose their appeal.

One such old favourite for example is marvel comic books world reknown webslinging super hero 'Spider Man'. Much of the enduring success of Spider Man can be attributed to his originality. There is no other super hero quite like him. His popularity has hardly waned in the 40 years since he was first created.

As a child I looked forward to my weekly installment of 'The Amazing Spider Man' with much frustration. Eager to discover how he would somehow escape from the previous week's cliffhanger ending. Not even realizing it was a selling ploy. Not caring if I had known, I suspect. We all need our hero's and Spider Man is beyond a doubt one of the most popular fictional hero's of modern times.

Not that the production team were going to take any chances ofcourse. They might have been overly creative and made drastic changes to the original storyline, but they didn't.

They stuck with the proven winning formula. Spider Man's dual personality is as much a factor of his success as is his trademark powers and suit. His character was shaped by those around him and the list of tragedies Peter Parker suffered before and after becoming 'The Amazing Spider Man'.

So the script writers kept quite close to the original storyline. Some changes had to be made simply because the setting was contemporary New York and not the New York of decades past.

These changes were mostly minor background alterations such as modern cars and people using mobile phones, but there is one major shift which completely dispenses with the most pivotal event of the story. How Spidey got his powers. The original Spider Man was bitten by a radioactive spider you see. Not a genetically manipulated super spider.

This is a sign of the times. It seems that the 'Radioactive Bogeyman' might finally have passed his baton on to a new demon. This new 'Genetic Modification Monster' will have some big shoes to fill I'm quite certain. It may well mark a new era in Hollywood gutter science.

The transition has been underway slowly for quite some time now. Spider Man, a major Hollywood icon, was a turning point. Radiation has been a gap filler for explaining questionable magic science since the 40's.

In fact, much of what the general public thinks it knows about radiation can be largely attributed to Hollywood B-Grade movies I'm sad to say. Radiation was a godsend to writers trying to explain away the impossible. It was invisible and poorly understood by everyone except professional scientists. It was perfect.

Two generations of bad press leaves its mark. You hear the same kind of nonsense over and over again and it gets engraved on your brain whether factual or not. Hollywood, never one to miss out on a revenue making idea, long ago recognized the selling power of fear. Whether or not the fear can be justified is absolutely irrelevant. After all, the first rule of moviemaking is not to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

The list of past monsters and super heroes who owe their existance to radiation is impressively long but new ones are becoming less frequent. The 'Hulk' and 'Godzilla' were both created by exposure to an atomic bomb. So was 'Radioactive Man' of Simpsons fame (Bart's favourite comic book hero). Now although the most recent Godzilla flick did stay true to the 'Radiation Bogeyman', the upcoming 'Hulk' movie has apparently moved away from it just like 'Spider Man' did.

Now both Super Heroes are the result of laboratory experiments gone wrong. God alone knows how many giant radioactive insect monsters have been dreamed up over the years but the relatively recent 'Eight Legged Freaks' dispensed with radiation altogether as a cause for its monstrous spiders.

Remember the 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles', they came into contact with nuclear waste and became more human as a consequence, a radical alternative to humans changing into something else.

Then ofcourse, there are the post apocalyptic mutants and undead such as in 'The Day of the Dead'. Pitifully slow and mentally challenged dead people who start taking over the World by eating us. 'Terminator', 'Mad Max' and 'Planet of the Apes' were all testament to the evil of nuclear power.

We were warned over and over again in movies like 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'. In this early pseudoscientific flick the Earth is visited by an alien who warns us to keep space travel and atomic power separate or face a severe slap on the wrist, extinction at the hands of murderous robotic interstellar police.

The bottom line is that we have grown up under the shadow of atomic propaganda. It wasn't meant to be an attack on nuclear power. It was purely a sales ploy. That doesn't change the facts though. The question is whether such fears are really justified.

Some people are so averse to radiation that they now believe any degree of it to be dangerous.

This is obviously untrue. Our sun, that big yellow ball in the sky we depend on for our existence is in fact a huge nuclear reactor. It showers us in radiation constantly. Our eyes evolved to convert the visible part of its spectrum into colour images. Radon and other natural sources in rocks beneath our feet make up almost all of the radiation around us. Man made sources are negligible by comparison.

Not that excessive amounts of radiation wont harm you. It can kill you. Of that there is no doubt. Everything kills you in excess. The chlorine in your swimming pool is a deadly poison. You still swim in it though. The same goes for all toxins.

Arsenic is used in controlled doses as a medicine for various ailments. Plutonium is often cited as being the deadliest substance known to man by anti-nuclear extremists. In truth there are many substances more toxic. One incredibly enough is caffeine.

Recent research into radiation hormesis indicates that radiation does in fact have a beneficial effect on health. DNA repair requires radiation and is in fact triggered by it. We cannot reach our full growth or remain healthy without our minimum daily intake of vitamin 'R' it seems.

It's all a question of dosage. In the past we relied on the results of people exposed to massive radiation from atomic bomb blasts to calculate 'safe' levels. We drew a straightline graph and assumed it to be correct but it wasn't.

No more correct than predicting a 20 degree outside temperature would kill 10% of the human body with the reasoning behind this outlandish claim being a reference to 200 degree temperatures entirely killing people. Such an extrapolation just doesn't work.

Technology has always been a target for fearmongers. This is because we have always feared the unknown. This trial by fire can be a good thing but sometimes we go too far. Back in the middle ages, midwives were either burned alive or tied up then thrown into a river. If they swam then they were witches. If they sank and drowned then they were innocent.

Perhaps it's time to rethink our nuclear prejudices. Maybe, it's time we looked to experts rather than Hollywood script writers for our political opinions. When Pandora's box was opened, so the legend goes, all the evils of the world were unleashed.

In horror, the box was quickly closed, but it was too late. That wasn't the end of the story however. A final look in the box revealed one last thing which still remained. 'Hope'.

We released the nuclear genie and were astonished at what we had accomplished. We marveled at the possibilities. Then we shrank back in horror. We tried to close the box. It was ofcourse futile. You can't uninvent anything. Merely knowing it is possible and can be done means you are halfway to accomplishing it.

A few years ago India and Pakistan joined the nuclear club. Other countries are also thought to have this technology but are keeping silent about it. The list of rogue states is longer than the official nuclear club members list.

There have been reactor accidents. This was to be expected. Any new technology will have its share of problems but the loss of life from nuclear power pales in comparison to the annual number of deaths attributed to fossil fuel use.

These disasters were over-sensationalised in any case. The worst accident at Chernobyl resulted in 26 deaths. The worst in America was 3 Mile Island and that resulted in no fatalities at all.

It did not even lead to an increase in cancer deaths among people living within a five mile radius. More recent designs for nuclear plants such as the pebble bed reactor now being tested in Africa are believed safer and with experience we have learned respect for nuclear power.

The shocking lack of precautions at Chernobyl was the cause of the disaster that took place there. Simple commonsense safety protocols would have prevented it from ever happening.

The oldest plant in the World recently celebrated its 60th birthday and many plants are having their licenses extended after 40 years operation. Eventually they will all need replacing and there is no shortage of new and better reactor concepts waiting to step in and take their place.

To throw away a new technology after painfully learning how to better control it is just plain silly. Especially when fossil fuel reserves are increasing in cost and we face the threat of global warming from greenhouse gases. Waste that isn't produced by nuclear power plants.

We wouldn't have any waste from nuclear plants if not for the work of environmentalists pressuring President Jimmy Carter into banning reprocessing back in 1979. In one pen stroke the nuclear industry was almost completely destroyed.

Recycling of nuclear waste was deemed an essential part of the nuclear energy program and when stopped it left us with the task of getting rid of it some other costly way.

Now the environmentalists complain about the nuclear waste problem they in fact created and we have lost over 20 years further research into perfecting the recycling process. We could have had unlimited clean energy.

Some people are surprised when told that coal plants release far more radiation into the environment than nuclear plants do. It comes as news to hear that coal beds actually contain both Thorium and Uranium. Both of which get burned up and pumped into our air supply during the coalburning process.

Maybe we should reopen the box and take another look at what is still inside. Therein may lie hope for the future. All technology is a two edged sword remember. That is no excuse to ban a technology altogether.

Fire has claimed untold numbers of lives yet where would we be if the fire driven engines of the industrial revolution had been banned. Instead of hiding from nuclear power we should perhaps consider embracing it.

Peaceful applications for nuclear power have hardly been explored yet. Compact nuclear energy could concievably take humans to other Worlds such as Mars and Saturn. Nuclear power may yet prove to be a 'Super Hero' to an energy starved planet.

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