A new vocabulary is gradually being learned, a vocabulary of crisis. A very particular crisis. The tsunami and earthquake in Japan shattered the reactors of the Fukishima-Daichi nuclear power plant north of Tokyo on the country’s east coast. If you haven’t heard about this then perhaps you should change the channel on the television or read a different newspaper. With the damage to the plant came a universal threat to everyone, especially those closest to the power plant. Radiation, a slow and silent killer, has been seeping into the air and Pacific Ocean.
With this crisis new words have been constantly reappearing in the media at a frequency I’m unfamiliar with. These are words that determine our understanding of the severity of the situation. Words like radionuclides, radioactive silver, iodine 131, milliseverts, containment, cesium 134 and cesium 137. These words carry very particular meanings and their existence in our lives carries very particular consequences. These words may appear understandable when directly translated, but their actual meaning relies on more than the best your Oxford English dictionary can muster. These words have been absent from our vocabularies thanks to our own ignorance.
For me, and many other people around the world, the threat of radiation and nuclear disaster has not been a feature of any part of my life. Many will remember the meltdown at the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine in 1986. I don’t, I was five years old. Fewer still may recall the Three Mile Island incident in Pennsylvania in 1979, or maybe not. These are the two events which I have heard being compared with the Japanese’s problem. Perhaps these words are more familiar to those who remember clearly both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island.
One thing I have noted while researching this post is the change in attitudes towards nuclear energy since the power plant was crippled. For some time nuclear energy had been seen as a viable alternative to fossil fuel powered energy. The events in Japan have changed many opinions. Nuclear energy had been considered ‘safe’, but even the tiniest of Wiki-source-of-everything-I-know-pedia searches will show that much of the safety based around nuclear energy is buried under the clouds of misinformation.
With so many sources of information available to us in the twenty-first century, if you don’t hear about something, surely it must be expected to not exist. But that’s the problem. Because there is so much information our suppliers of information prioritise the information we receive in terms of its value as reading material.
Since 1986, when the meltdown in Chernobyl occurred, there have been fifty-seven serious nuclear accidents around the world. That’s over two every year. How many have you heard about since Chernobyl. I know my count is somewhere around the figure ‘1’ – the Fukishima-Daichi plant in Japan in 2011.
The crisis has forced me, and many others, to scramble for our dictionaries and secondary school textbooks in the hope of finding some solace in the proclamations of the newscasters who report on the amount of radioactive material pouring into our atmosphere. Of course knowing not to trust the news too much is as important as having a good coat in your possession at all times in Ireland. With that in mind it doesn’t help to not have a clue what they are talking about and not to have an idea of the stipulations of their proclamations. The biggest problem with scrambling for school books and dictionaries is that they probably don’t have the answers needed to help you rest at ease.