Mutant daisies, Godzilla, and The Incredible Hulk: The pervasive lack of expert opinion in Hollywood and pop culture

September 30, 2015, 7:45PMANS Nuclear CafeBrett Rampal

It is often said that "knowledge is power," but in America it can just as easily be said that "knowledge is frustrating." In today's popular culture-oriented America, the knowledgeable can sometimes find themselves at odds with much of the general population as hysteria and hype override common sense and expert opinions. This is particularly true for the nuclear industry and its associated technology, which often seem to be the scapegoat for Hollywood, comic books, and the Internet.

Earlier this year, photos featuring mutated daisies (multiple stems, conjoined centers, and odd petals) near the site of the Fukushima accident were making the rounds on social media and the Internet. The photos were being shown as evidence that radiation-induced mutations were taking place in the area following the March 2011 disaster. However, doing 20 minutes of research would have led people to the topic of Fasciation, a relatively rare condition potentially caused by any number of sources, such as genetics, viruses, bacterium, fungi, or other causes. Examples of fasciation can be found all over the world in many different plant varieties. The easy answer and scapegoat, however, was radiation from the Fukushima accident.

Unsurprisingly absent from the posts discussing the photo of mutated daises was any context related to radiation levels and their potential danger in the area where the photo was taken. The dose measured by the photographer, which can be found on the original photo, was 0.5 μSv/hr (after translation). However, for many in the public, that value means nothing without further context, which typically is not given. Consulting a radiation dose chart gives the needed context, showing that the dose rate measured from the photograph is 10 times less than the dose rate received while traveling in a commercial airliner (5 μSv/hr vs. the 0.5 μSv/hr in the photograph). Without expert opinions offered and the relevant context, hysteria and hype were the orders of the day following the photo's march around the internet.

The tsunami wave amplitude map made by NOAA is another great example of public fear unchecked by expert opinion. The map was incorrectly spread around online as a 'Fukushima Radiation Map,' and, even today a Google image search for "Fukushima radiation" returns the wave amplitude map. The plot's legend (in units of centimeters) was completely ignored, yet was shared thousands of times since the picture looked real and compelling, thus spreading inaccurate and misleading information to the general public.

Hollywood can be just as guilty as social media and bloggers of presenting information without sufficient knowledge or background. The 2014 movie Godzilla featured an impressive misunderstanding of nuclear power plant operations. One scene inaccurately depicts engineers attempting to outrun a large break loss-of-coolant accident within containment. A high pressure release to containment is not only deadly and impossible to outrun, but personnel would never be in that situation. Perhaps filmmakers would have adjusted their story line had they contacted anyone slightly knowledgeable, rather than treating moviegoers to the highly unrealistic scene of engineers racing to beat a wall of water (which in fact should have been steam).

The lack of expert opinion is not solely relegated to the nuclear industry. The 2012 movie Prometheus managed to enrage astrophysicists due to mischaracterizing a distance from Earth by boiling down 35 light years (over 200 trillion miles) to "half a billion miles." While this might have been just a general exaggeration, Neil deGrasse Tyson felt suitably offended to address the inconsistency.

The comic book industry also always seems to incorporate aspects of the nuclear industry into its story lines. From gaining powers from radiation or nuclear activities to having radiation-based powers, nuclear technology and science seems to be at the forefront of the comic industry. Nuclear technology is, by far, the most prominent form of power generation and advanced technology in comics; for instance, few superheroes exist in fiction with powers based around coal, hydroelectric, or electric cars. Examples of nuclear technology in comic books is widespread, including radioactive spider bites (Spider-Man), gamma radiation exposure (The Incredible Hulk), nuclear physics accidents gone wrong (Doctor Manhattan), and having nuclear-based powers (Captain Atom). The use of aspects of the nuclear industry in comics transcends company lines and decades as nuclear-based heroes and villains have gone toe-to-toe with the likes of Superman or Iron Man, both in print and on the big screen. While nuclear science and technology serve as great story devices for the likes of Stan Lee, some could be deeply concerned with the misrepresentations of our industry based on the influence of one of the most widespread entertainment genres.

As a small group of experts on a topic that is not widely understood but is often highlighted by the general public, frustration can easily lead to anger and the desire to lash out with facts and statistics to prove a point. However, as previously discussed on this blog, science-based communication needs to focus on consensus building and positive reinforcement, rather than confrontation and opposition. Members of the nuclear industry must not stand at odds to the general public, but rather step outside of our confront zone to help others see what may seem like second nature to us. We must also recognize that winning an argument should not be our goal; instead, we should focus on the long-term goal of changing hearts and minds. Accomplishing this will require making use of the vast reservoir of knowledge in this industry with tact, restraint, and a positive attitude.

Brett Rampal of YMGBrett Rampal is a nuclear engineer for NuScale Power in Charlotte, NC. Brett received his master's and bachelor's degrees in nuclear engineering from the University of Florida and is the current American Nuclear Society Young Member's Group vice chair and a standing member of the ANS Student Section and the Professional Development Coordination and Membership Committees.