by Catherine Sigmond

If you haven’t been paying attention to what’s been happening in Fukushima, Japan, recently, let me summarize the current situation: after the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant suffered a triple meltdown- the only incident other than the Chernobyl disaster to earn the highest rating of 7 on the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale. Since then, the constant pumping of cold water to cool the reactors has contained the meltdown. However, this process generates hundreds of tons of radioactive wastewater each day. There’s increasingly less space to store this contaminated water, and last month it was discovered that around 300 tons of it had leaked into the ground. The crisis, which in recent months had been bumped down from its initial rating of 7 to 1, was just increased to 3. In other words, there’s a lot of uncertainty about what to do, and the situation is nowhere near being resolved.

The recent resurgence of news about the Fukushima crisis has led me to think a lot about the ways in which museums deal with the subject of nuclear power. Nuclear power is a major source of the world’s energy. In France, where I lived last year, over 75% of electricity is created from nuclear power. Yes, that number seems shockingly high- it’s much more nuclear energy than is used in either Japan the United States- but how much does the public really know about how that energy is created, the risks and benefits of using it, and why so many nations choose to do so?

A combination of sensationalist reporting and the lack of public understanding of the science behind generating and utilizing nuclear power can lead to misinformed and emotionally driven policy making. This is a reality that any advocate for an increase in quality education on climate change understands all too well. Just like climate change, the use of nuclear power is one of the major scientific issues of our time. It has far-reaching political, social, and environmental consequences, and it can no longer be brushed aside by science museums.

Science centers and museums need to start confronting this subject on a larger scale if they are to continue to be leaders in not only working to increase the public understanding of science, but if they are to better position citizens to make difficult decisions regarding nuclear energy policy in the most informed manner possible.

Nuclear power appears to be a subject that museums have traditionally dealt with by placing it in a socio-historical context. (See the National Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas, for example). So why the lack of teaching in museums of the science behind deriving nuclear power? Alan J. Friedman, a museum consultant who originally trained as a physicist, identifies a few potential reasons for science museum educators’ hesitation in discussing the subject- in particular, the difficulty of explaining radiation levels and dangers well. Friedman argues that the public’s simplistic view of safety (people tend to conceptualize things as either safe or unsafe, rather than along a continuum), as well as the facts that radiation comes in many forms and from many different sources (from ordinary light, to radio waves, to plane travel), that the dangers of radiation exposure depend heavily on the quantity and type of radiation one is exposed to, and that there’s still no precise model for understanding how low levels of radiation exposure impact living systems all contribute to an unfortunate hesitation to teach such a complex topic.

But most people don’t really understand the science behind how this stuff works- after all, it’s incredibly complicated, and there’s a lot that scientists still don’t know in terms of long-term impacts. Regardless, science centers and museums need to start finding ways to make the complexities of nuclear energy accessible to the public. Its complexities don’t diminish its importance- it’s an issue that every member of the public must eventually deal with, and museums must work to better prepare people to do so.

Though I haven’t seen it, the Powerhouse Museum’s Nuclear Matters! exhibition appears to be a great start among museum attempts to address the issues surrounding nuclear power. The exhibition allows visitors to explore the complex world of nuclear science, medicine, and power, and features interactives where visitors can do everything from control a (very) small-scale nuclear fusion reaction and pedal a bike to generate electricity while comparing their efforts to nuclear and renewable power sources. And the Energy Encounters exhibition at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History seems to be one of only a few museum exhibitions to tackle the difficult topic of radioactive waste. Visitors to the exhibition will learn how waste is characterized, treated, handled, stored, recycled, and reprocessed, and explore the social impacts of dealing with this unavoidable byproduct of using nuclear power.

Exhibitions such as these are a fantastic start towards addressing a critical subject that influences our lives today, whether or not you self-identify as someone who enjoys science.

Scientists and non-scientist educators out there- what do you think are some of the challenges of discussing nuclear energy in a museum setting? How could science museums continue to address this issue in a thorough and meaningful way?