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.