How to Deal With the Terror of Nuclear Terrorism


R. Johnson


Health Physicists may find that the greatest challenge in response to nuclear terrorism is dealing with people's fears rather than technical issues. We may be prepared to deal with the nuclear aspects of an incident, but how well prepared are we to deal with terror? Radiation is an ideal choice for terrorism because it invites fears, perceptions, and images of terrible consequences, such as cancer, death, harm to children and future generations, and damage to property. Even the prospects of a radiation incident are enough to trigger widespread radiation phobias. Phobic persons will have fearful expectations of extreme consequences related to questions of, "What if?" They will make decisions and react according to their fears of the consequences of "what if" rather than "what is." Telling a phobic person "what is" about a nuclear incident may NOT lead them to different actions, conclusions, or demands for protection. They may not believe your best data on "what is" and may doubt your motivation for telling them something contrary to their own fears and beliefs. Dealing with phobias and terror requires dealing with the underlying fears and images that fuel those fears. These fears and images can be identified by the question, "What's so bad about that?" This question has to be used with sensitivity, however, and should not be asked of a person in the midst of a fearful reaction. This question is best raised before people are terrified or after they have calmed down. The answer to this question is often about fearful consequences, such as dying or loss of health, loss of self, loss of control, loss of income, loss of family, loss or employment, etc. The most effective response to terror may be to address the images of losses that phobic persons anticipate rather than the technical aspects of the nuclear incident.


This abstract was presented at the 36th Annual Midyear Meeting, "Radiation Safety Aspects of Homeland Security and Emergency Response", Radiological Incidents, Part 2 Session, 1/26/2003 - 1/29/2003, held in San Antonio, TX.

Index of Midyear Meeting Abstracts