My colleagues and I were having lunch whilst the TV screens were showing the BBC news one day last week. The news was coming in about an explosion in a furnace at a nucler installation in the South of France. The news reader may well have said ‘at a nucear power plant’ but I can’t verify that. I and my colleagues immediately thought ‘Why would there be a furnace at a nucler power plant?’. All the non-engineers this bulletin would probably have been thinking either ‘Surely not another accident at these dangerous nuclear facilities; is it another Fukushima?’ or ‘Nuclear + accident just conforms my view that these things are just too dangerous’.
Those bothering to follow the story like myself and my colleagues soon discovered that our bewiderment was significant. This was an incident at a facility melting down irradiated metal from a nuclear power plant; so called low level waste. The heat needed to melt the metal was being supplied by a furnace using a conventional fuel and there had been a explosion in the conventional furnace as can happen anywhere there is a furnace. There was very little chance of a leak of dangerous material and the amount that could escape was also small.
On a scale of 0 to 10 where Fukushima might be an 8 and Chernobyl a 9, this was a 1 or 2. Yes an exclusion zone was set up round the plant but this was precautionary whilst measurements were taken. It was not really worth reporting on the BBC news, in hindsight, but ‘Nuclear’ is a trigger word for the press. This means nuclear incidents get over reported and the general public may well therefore get a false view of the number and seriousness of nuclear related incidents. A newspaper report that reflects both the overreaction and the facts can be found here: http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/france-on-edge-after-accident-at-nuclear-site-2353692.html
Several years ago I was a lecturer in Chemical Engineering at the University of Cambridge and one of my colleagues won a grant to build the UK facility for the use of MRI scanners to explore problems in chemical engineering science. Not many members of the general public would think twice about placing themselves in an MRI scanner at a hospital. It is much safter than having an X-ray or a CT scan both of which use ionising radiation and increase the patient’s risk (very slightly) of cancer. So why, you may ask ,were there vociferous and emotional objections to planning permission for this new UK facility that was going to bring jobs to Cambridge and enhance the reputation of the University? The answer is becuase the correct name for the phenomenon behind MRI scans is Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR). The people living in the houses nearby to the proposed site of the facility saw the word ‘Nuclear’ in the planning application and knew it must be dangerous. They were wrong. What causes cancer is ionising radiation. We are all surrounded by and made of stable nuclei. We live in a nuclear environment. NMR tickles those nuclei. It does not cause ionising radiation to be emitted.
What is the lesson to learn?
One lesson is that engineers and scientists have to be smart when speaking to the general public. The medics call their NMR imaging machines, MRI scanners quite deliberately. They know that ‘Nuclear’ is a trigger word for the press and the general public. They don’t use ‘Nuclear’ for the very best of reasons becuase it might stop patients from submitting themselves to scans that save lives.
A second lesson, for the press and the general public, is that a proper understanding of certain issues cannot be obtained without effort and time. This applies in science, engineering and medicine but also more widely.