PARIS, April 24, 2011 (AFP) – Nuclear radiation is frightening stuff. A quarter century after Chernobyl, and more than 65 years after atomic bombs laid waste to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, fatally sickening thousands not killed outright, even unfounded fear of radioactive contamination can spark panic. The explosions at the Fukushima nuclear plant following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated a large swath of Japan emptied pharmacies in North America and Europe of anti-radiation pills despite reassurances from all manner of experts that the danger was nil. There are any number of agents — cancer, AIDS and auto accidents, to name three — that claim millions of victims every year but do not inspire that same kind of terror. People still smoke, practise unsafe sex and climb into their cars every day. So why is nuclear radiation so fearsome, and what determines how we react when faced with a threat, imagined or real? The answer is complex and laced with contradictions, starting with the fact that most people don’t even think twice about absorbing radiation doses delivered through medical X-rays or scans. But put the words “nuclear” and “accident” together, and suddenly the idea that sub-atomic particles can slip…
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