If you ask young children around elementary schools in southern California what to do during an earthquake, they will enthusiastically demonstrate how to hide under their desk (as an adult this may be much more difficult than it sounds) and how to get outside quickly to their teacher’s meeting point once the shaking has stopped. In Kansas, students start drilling for tornados a minimum of three times per school year and know where to find safe rooms or shelters. However, if you were to ask residents from these communities what their plan would be if a radiological hazard occurred, such as a radioactive accident on the interstate or a terrorist attack using a radiological dispersal device, their answer would likely be more along the lines of “huh?”
The world we live in today is a complex one, with many different threats from natural disasters or terrorists who wish to harm others. A major component of terrorism is the ability to instill fear in a population, and people fear the unknown. Yes, Californians still fear the “big” earthquake, and Kansans are wary when dangerous storms cross their paths. Nonetheless, having a better understanding of threats and knowing what to do in emergency situations allows people to make safer decisions and makes them less likely to panic. Experts in the radiological emergency response field and agencies prepare to respond to radiological emergencies, but widespread and general knowledge on the topic could be improved. When thinking about preparing for a radiological emergency in the future, the following questions come to mind:
- How can we effectively start discussing the basics of radiation science among the population? There is more unfamiliar science here than with earthquakes or tornadoes, and the message needs to be clear and understood.
- How best can these concepts be socialized without instilling fear that a terrorist attack or other radiological threat is imminent? Just because this could happen does not mean it will happen tomorrow or be the end of the world as we know it.
- What is the long-term plan for raising the overall level of radiological awareness in the United States? Like all public safety programs, this is not something that will happen overnight.
Just like with earthquakes and tornadoes, education about radiation science at a young age will increase awareness and lessen fears. If more information is needed to answer these questions, recommendations might include creating forums where topics can be discussed (similar to the CSIS PONI Nuclear Scholars Initiative), utilizing graduate-level students to conduct in-depth research, or learning lessons from other nations with insight on implementing a similar curriculum for young students. Combining expertise of professionals in the fields of security, risk, emergency management, and communication is another possible path forward.
Past emergencies, such as the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, have shown that people panic when faced with a complex radiological disaster, and this anxiety increases the psychological impact on those affected. However, there is a delicate balance when trying to inform people of a threat while avoiding feelings of apathy for something they perceive will never happen. Radiological emergencies have occurred in the United States in the past, and, unfortunately, the odds that all such events are behind us are probably slim. Being better prepared and less inclined to panic would serve communities involved and could save lives.