Potassium Iodide and Nuclear Weather

As the BBC reports, a nuclear survival online retailer nukepills.com, received 3,800 orders for potassium iodide (mostly from American citizens) in just 18 hours following the Fukushima disaster. The interest, however, is not limited to ordinary folk– even state governors have contacted the supplier. The idea that one might survive exposure to radiation thanks to a pill– a ‘nuke pill’– is a powerful one, far more powerful than potassium iodide’s actual capacity to stave off the negative effects of radiation.

The search for potassium iodide in countries where there is zero threat of contamination from Fukushima is telling: for people are stockpiling the pills as they would stockpile rations in anticipation of a natural disaster. Nuclear disasters are today viewed as infrequent yet inevitable, not unlike extreme (and deadly) weather, and most important of all, as essentially blameless events. If the persons stockpiling potassium iodide felt that there were persons in the world genuinely accountable for nuclear safety, their money and attention would be directed towards eliminating the threat. But for many Americans, the awesome power of the earthquake and the hideous threat of nuclear catastrophe appear both as fated, natural, and inescapable. A look at the map on nukepills.com confirms this– danger zones for radiation are represented like storm fronts, and nowhere on the website dedicated to arming citizens against radiation sickness is there information on how we might strive to close and shut down the plants in question. Those who buy potassium iodide buy it out of an unshakeable feeling of being next, of feeling that a nuclear power plant, much like a fault line, is an inevitable feature of the Earth’s geography, set to explode at any time.

Merleau-Ponty, in his essays on communism (to be found in the volume Signs), frequently returned to the theory that communist power remains intact only by zig-zagging from imposing total discipline to inviting consultation and discussion. Today, we zig-zag as well in our relationship with the deciders of our nuclear policies: at times we are handed down ready-made viewpoints as to the safety and necessity of nuclear power, at others we are invited to air and give voice to our fears and reservations. The two modes of relationship are contradictory and incompatible, yet we tolerate the contradiction and easily accept it.

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