NEWS: Straight facts would have quelled public hysteria on Chernobyl

Next Thursday is the tenth anniversary of one of the worst disasters in the public’s perception of the modern industrial age. They call it Chernobyl. No matter that only 31 - less than one per cent of the annual death toll on Britain’s roads - died when the reactor blew its top in the Ukraine on April 26 1986, the public thinks Chernobyl was a mega catastrophe. Why? This is a question which neither PR nor scientists can ignore if they are to serve the interests of the human race in the 21st century. We cannot build the new Jerusalem on fear.

Next Thursday is the tenth anniversary of one of the worst disasters in

the public’s perception of the modern industrial age. They call it

Chernobyl. No matter that only 31 - less than one per cent of the annual

death toll on Britain’s roads - died when the reactor blew its top in

the Ukraine on April 26 1986, the public thinks Chernobyl was a mega

catastrophe. Why? This is a question which neither PR nor scientists

can ignore if they are to serve the interests of the human race in the

21st century. We cannot build the new Jerusalem on fear.



Part of the answer lies in the military origins of nuclear power.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the best start, even though the atomic

bomb dropped on them shortened the war and saved many lives.

Subsequently its balance of terror preserved an uneasy peace. But, in

beating nuclear swords into nuclear ploughshares, we maintained a

military secrecy over what was promised to be the source of limitless

supplies of dirt cheap electricity. We failed miserably to educate the

people about the new fuel and about radiation as a natural phenomenon. I

can still make people jump when I say that two years ago I got 150 times

my normal British dose of background radiation in the lee of the

stricken Chernobyl reactor. They think I’m mad when I add: ‘So what, I

got 50 times my everyday dose flying from Moscow at 38,000 feet.’



The attitude of some British scientists 20 years ago to PR chappies like

myself was: ‘Those who matter know; those who don’t know don’t matter’.

Such an attitude was not far removed from the initial Stalinist approach

to the Chernobyl explosion - to say nowt, as if the West would not

notice the radiation cloud passing over it and raining down on it. The

result is that the public’s trust in authority - scientific and

political - has been undermined. The populace is wide open to

scaremongers who for years have been claiming a Chernobyl death toll of

7-8,000; millions suffering from the effects of radiation; and babies

and animals born with unspeakable deformities. Yet, as was confirmed at

a UN follow-up conference I attended in Vienna last week, there is not

the slightest evidence for all of this.



Certainly childhood thyroid cancers, mostly treatable, are increasing in

the worst affected parts of the Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. Leukaemia

is likely to hit the worst exposed. But the real problem is ‘Chernobyl

syndrome’ which causes millions there to blame every ailment on

Chernobyl. In short, the problem is psychological. Yet the UN conference

squeezed the Chernobyl PR/communications problem into the last session

as a sort of add-on extra. The experts are not yet at first base. And

neither is the PR industry.



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