If you are able to accept the recent contretemps in Chernobyl as just one of those things, this column isn't for you.
But if your mind, still mulling the what-ifs, the what-might-have-beens and the what-very-nearly-happeneds of that near catastrophe, is reconfirmed in its misgivings about nuclear power, I offer you solace. You are just another victim of the irrational fear that is distorting our national judgment.
The diagnosis isn't mine -- I'm scared too. It comes from Dr. Robert L. DuPont, the one-time authority on drug abuse who now teaches psychiatry at Georgetown University and runs the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Rockville.
Chernobyl hadn't happened when DuPont delivered his paper at the Council of Scientific Society Presidents last December, but his fascinating notion seems as valid now as then. It is this: You're not crazy to be frightened of the prospect of nuclear disaster, but you ought to be a lot more frightened of cigarettes and booze than of nuclear generators. And you would be, too, if it weren't for the media.
No, the man isn't crazy. Listen to him: "Why, after 26 years of operation of more than 200 nuclear power plants in 25 countries on four continents, despite the fact that not a single death has been attributed to radiation from these plants, do so many people still fear nuclear power? . . . How many Americans know that 30 percent of all deaths in the United States this year will be caused by the use of alcohol and tobacco?"
His idea is that you fear nuclear plants more than you fear the far more dangerous booze and tobacco for the same reasons you fear commercial flying more than you fear driving the Beltway.
For instance, there is the role of the media in exaggerating one set of risks while minimizing the other. " I have had a fantasy for some years," says DuPont, "that if we could get all 350,000 people who are going to die this year from cigarette smoking to come together and die on one day and in one place, then we would, with the help of the media, instantly end the problem of cigarette smoking in the United States."
In addition, there is your false sense of control. Even the worst driver imagines that he is in control of his destiny while he is at the wheel, but feels himself at the mercy of circumstances beyond his control while he is flying. Thus, no matter what the statistics on the relative safety of driving vs. flying, you feel less vulnerable at the wheel.
Then there is the question of familiarity. "If a risk is familiar, we accept it, almost no matter what it is. If it is unfamiliar, we do not want it." For that reason, DuPont argues, it would be better to locate nuclear power plants "in the middle of downtown, where we could see them all the time."
As for influence of necessity, he says the French, who know they don't have sufficient oil, coal or natural gas to meet their electricity needs, are far less frightened of nuclear generators than are Americans, who have plenty of alternate sources of electrical power.
Well, I don't. I am not at all interested in having a nuclear generator in downtown Washington. Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island is too close for me. DuPont's well-reasoned argument may make logical sense, but it does not (for me) make emotional sense. I am perfectly willing to accept that, statistically, I would be safer aboard the next space shuttle than I would be driving to Baltimore. But try getting me on that shuttle!
Nor is it mere irrationality. You can have major things go wrong with your car and still suffer only minor personal damage. But even minor problems with space shuttles and atomic plants can have disastrous results. And in the case of nuclear power generators, those disastrous results can last several lifetimes.
Sorry, Bob DuPont. I know that Americans are more likely to be killed by a handgun than by a bomb. But don't bother asking me which one I'd rather have in my nightstand when I go to sleep tonight.