Crime of opportunity, science literacy, security, and public panic

UPDATE: Act 304 for enhancing the security of radioactive wastes is being drafted by the AELB.

Although the case of two stolen canisters containing iridium-192 was reported last week, I only got around to giving my two cents on it. Of course, the report, which came out in the Malaysian Star Newspaper, was written as if it was the report of any other crime, with no sense of how this event (yes, it is an event) for engaging in a bit of science communication. Maybe there is a follow-up report on this later, when the reporter has a chance to mull things over, but probably not.

If we time travel back three years, such a crime is not unprecedented, as it has happened in countries with more matured deployment of nuclear technology (carelessness aside). But that we are faced with natural radioactivity day in and out is not even a matter of discussion, or that the dumping of medical wastes into rivers and other forms of legitimate forms involving the reprocessing of nuclear wastes should be more a case of worry. Maybe, this is a chance to educate future would-be thieves on the importance of knowing the product you are trying to steal, and not do something as stupid as stealing something you don’t quite know how to work with.

In addition, The Guardian article I just cited, its tongue-in-cheek humour aside, gave more of a background and explanation of the science (and the handling/mishandling of the ensuing technology) in a way that The Star report does not. The panic button reporting in this article “ACP Alzafny said AELB informed police that the stolen items were hazardous and could cause death if handled wrongly” does not help matters because I am sure the AELB (the Atomic Energy Licensing Board of Malaysia) is a board consisting of smart people who would say a lot more than that. Misreporting, or careless reporting on such matters, produce points of public unease who already find it hard to differentiate between the pseudoscience of today’s ‘infomercial’ marketing from science, let alone between real disasters and the Chicken-Little variety. There is a line in the article “The radiography projectors are used to detect leaks in soldered pipe joints” but those without a STEM background (and even those with some) is not likely to pay much of an attention. Now, the readers are going to extrapolate criminal behaviour of some ignorant and there-for-a-quick-buck thieves with lack of attention and wilful negligence when it comes to security of all things radioactive.Secrecy and ignorant politicians will just make the matter worse.

Perhaps, this is also a good time to do a little investigation into the disposal of radioactive wastes in Malaysia, and how it is actually done? I hope to do that sometime, but this would require me to go back on the field, which I hope to be able to do soon.

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