by Zenobia Homan
Exploration of enriched nuclear materials inaugurated a new chapter in human history. What is more, since we only recently harnessed the power of atoms, the legacy of this field is still virtually incomprehensible. Therefore, we have a unique opportunity right now to track, monitor, and influence how we communicate about managing the risks from what is arguably still the very beginning of the nuclear era. So how do we discuss nuclear security, what language do we use, and which words should we choose?
The origin of nuclear physics and the terminology of atomic theory barely dates back to the 19th century. These disciplines are almost uncharted, compared to, for instance, chemistry, biology, and music. While both the views and vocabulary of nuclear science have their origin in ancient Greece or earlier, plutonium and uranium were first identified in modern laboratories. The field of nuclear security is even younger. Discussion on fissile materials commenced in various departments of Defence during the 1940s, followed by treaties, laws, and policies influenced by the devastating effect of the World Wars. The earth-shattering impact of attacks such as 9/11 lead to a discussion on nuclear terrorism, which culminated in the 2010-2016 Nuclear Security Summits. This means that the language of nuclear security has essentially existed for only two decades. Two decades, compared to at least six millennia of development in fields such as mathematics, geography, and astronomy.
Despite the youth of the nuclear sector, examples of severe miscommunication already exist. In the 1980s a Soviet officer only just prevented an escalation of the Cold War by correctly identifying a false alarm in the satellite command centre; and the 2011 issues at Fukushima partially came forth out of a culture-communication issue. Not to mention, last year there was a mistaken missile alert in Hawaii causing widespread public panic. Cases like Hawaii also highlight the relevance of raising awareness of nuclear knowledge: many people do not know what nuclear means; when it is harmful, when it is not; and how to respond to incidents ranging from serious to completely innocent. Nuclear energy and nuclear security are not an every-day topic of discussion among the general public, nor does it feature regularly in school curricula.
Nevertheless, it is possible to take lessons on transmission from other new industries, such as aviation. Its first successfully executed concepts date to the dawn of the 20th century, but early airplanes collided mid-air or crashed as a result of communication failures. Sometimes they still do. Eventually, it was decided that it was necessary for every pilot to learn and speak English. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) maintains official ‘Aviation English’ with a test that must be passed – not only by non-native speakers. However, a common language does not necessarily overcome obstacles such as economy, geography and culture. Just as religion and food may hold different degrees of significance, so do nuclear issues. For example, while the United States is a historic nuclear weapon nation, the Netherlands is not. In the first, ‘nuclear knowledge’ might mean being able to name all the nuclear-weapon states, while in the second it might mean knowing whether there is a power plant nearby.
Knowledge goes hand in hand with language when it comes to distinctions based on region or nationality. For instance, in English there are separate words for ‘security’ and ‘safety’, and, while near-synonyms, people generally interpret them as a difference between intentional and unintentional harm. However, many languages do not distinguish between these two words, or even the concepts. In some cultures, it is common to think of security as certainty or being careful; or it might have a strong military association. This is not to argue that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) must also begin to maintain a ‘Nuclear English’. What ‘Aviation English’ really illustrates, is that a new industry comes with a new professional language (in any language) and, inevitably, unexplored sources of confusion. In some cases, this carries more weight than in others. Think of language conceived for fictional worlds like Harry Potter and Pokémon, or vocabulary acquired by sommeliers and cricket players – and then compare to industries which involve gigantic machines taking on the skies, or the danger of radiation. In some fields, communication can directly affect global security.
When communication is not on par, this can lead to misperception and misunderstanding. The term ‘understanding’ should convey that two or more people share the same meanings about certain words or phrases, but reality differs. Security and safety personnel often have different educational backgrounds; as do engineers and regulators. Even when people speak the same language – which they might not, due to the international character of the nuclear sector – they do not automatically express or comprehend concepts equally.
It is possible to address these issues of language and communication. The international framework is in place: we can utilise the IAEA, especially its International Nuclear Security Education Network (INSEN) to foster and strengthen mutual understanding. We must eliminate miscommunication in the nuclear arena amongst the public (i.e. educate people and bring nuclear issues to the forefront) as well as experts in the nuclear field (in order to avoid miscalculations and disasters). Examples of glossaries are the IAEA’s ‘Nuclear Security Series Glossary’ as well as the ‘P5 Glossary of Key Nuclear Terms’ and progress is slowly being made on translations.
However, words and translations are not the same as language and understanding. ‘Nuclear Language’ is a matter of adult language acquisition. When we consider education and design professional development courses, we cannot simply impose words and concepts; we have to discuss their meaning, across backgrounds and borders. We have to start keeping records: who uses which words, where, and why? We have to begin analysing this, so that we can see where confusion persists. We have to test how to most effectively tackle misunderstandings, and how to teach new approaches; so that we know what works and what does not. These strategies will not only help us manage language-use, but also advance nuclear awareness, knowledge, and resilience.
It is easy to recognise a colleague working in the nuclear industry. They will be that person casually inserting unnecessary acronyms in conversation, holding the railing as they walk down the stairs. Discussion, explanation, and interpretation of language should come just as naturally, eventually. Some call the period we live in today the space age, others the atomic era. Either way, we are still in it; and its history is being written as we speak.
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Dr Zenobia Homan works at the Centre for Science and Security Studies (CSSS) and King’s College London (KCL) where she coordinates international professional development courses and training on nuclear and radiological security. She currently conducts research relating to security culture and CBRN terrorism, with a particular interest in the language of nuclear security.