By Thomas Stephenson Contributing Writer October 7, 2014

The fear surrounding nuclear weapons, radiation, and radioactive materials has existed since the start of the Nuclear Era, compounded by ignorance and hysteria from the outset. The threat of global thermonuclear conflict during the Cold War, as well as the man-made disasters involving the nuclear power plants at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima contribute to legitimate concerns over the effects and risks of radiation. This concern is exacerbated by confusion and misunderstanding of radiation, radioactive material, and associated risks.

A September 2013 Pew Research Center survey of U.S. energy priorities found that 58% of the population opposed the promotion of increased nuclear power despite the benefits of nuclear power over hydrocarbon energy and green sources. Nuclear energy is much more efficient and cleaner compared to other energy sources; one uranium fuel pellet, for example, produces the same amount of energy as 17,000 cubic feet of natural gas, 1,780 pounds of coal or 149 gallons of oil. Nuclear power plants also use much less land to produce as much energy at a single confined location as a 60 square-mile field of solar panels or 15 to 180 square-miles of wind turbines. Further, nuclear energy achieves energy diversity and lower emissions of greenhouse gases. The lack of support for nuclear energy, in spite of its benefits, derives from misconceptions surrounding radiation and radioactive materials. To resolve these misconceptions, the U.S. government should partner with the private sector to create an educational program to expand the public’s knowledge regarding radiation and radioactive materials.

Nuclear power plants and nuclear waste disposal sites are classic examples of the “Not in My Backyard” phenomenon. At Yucca Mountain site, a proposed solution to store waste on 200,000+ year basis, opposition arose due to concerns over the stability of the salt dome and its proximity to water and populated areas. The Blue Ribbon Commission on America’s Nuclear Future did not assess the viability of the Yucca Mountain site, but it has noted the need for a long term storage site, and Yucca Mountain isn’t the only option. Although the site is a salt dome, it is geologically stable and isolated from water sources used for drinking or irrigation. In this case, concerns over many nuclear power plants and the fear of radiation are unfounded.

Public perception founded on misconceptions skews evaluation of risk and debilitates debate at all levels of society. False information constrains policy, as seen in the rejection of Yucca or opposition to safe new nuclear power plants. Worse yet, misunderstandings in public perception provide opportunities for exploitation by terrorists. Though the probability of terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant acquiring a functional nuclear weapon is remote, a different nuclear device—the dirty bomb—capitalizes on the fear of radiation.

Dirty bombs function by building a device that surrounds conventional explosives with radiological material more readily accessible than actual nuclear weapons. In 2013, two thieves in Mexico stole radioactive material from a hospital. Such material can be found in hospitals and universities, where it is used for medical treatment and research. Yellowcake uranium—a product of the uranium mining process—could also be used. Additionally, these materials can be found at the massive network nuclear reactors and nuclear waste disposal sites, where security is far more lax than at nuclear weapons storage facilities.

The persistent threat of varied terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, the Pakistani Taliban, Haqqani Network, and ISIL should raise concerns about radiological weapons. Terrorism incidents such as the Boston Marathon bombing would be made much worse, causing long-last-lasting psychological and sociological fear of radiation in addition to adverse health effects. An explosion containing radioactive material could make travel hazardous by irradiating the area or individuals in proximity to the explosion. A public awareness program would help rob dirty bombs of their psychological impact, allow the public to better respond to an incident, and aid in securing radiological materials.

To inform the public about the dangers and risks of radioactive materials and radiation, the U.S. Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, and the Nuclear Energy Institute should collaborate to create a program to educate and explain the basics of radiation-related topics. This program would use pamphlets, public service announcements, and workshops to elucidate the safety standards and benefits of nuclear power and explain the necessity of nuclear waste storage or disposal. It would also work to improve public awareness by ensuring that the basics of radiation, shielding, dosage, and types are understood. Improved understanding would allow the public to be able to identify when radiation exposure constitutes a health risk and to know what steps to take in the event of an accident or attack.

Increased awareness of the availability and vulnerability of radiological materials would contribute to better security and control of these materials while increasing cooperation and between the public and authorities by mitigating panic and maximizing understanding. An informed, prepared public is better able to respond to crises and can drastically improve outcomes of disasters, whether man-made or natural. The information gap on radiation can and should be bridged with action and effort.

Thomas Stephenson graduated from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs in Spring 2014 with a Master of Arts in Security Policy Studies. His concentrations were in Transnational Security Issues and Weapons of Mass Destruction. He has studied non-proliferation issues, transnational security, nuclear policy and weapons, and issues in U.S. national security.