EDITORIAL: Schools need to encourage children to think about nuclear power

October 31, 2011

School teachers across Japan have been grappling with how to deal with topics concerning nuclear power and radiation in their classes since disaster flared at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant in March.

There has been a long hiatus in Japanese education on nuclear energy.

Japanese in their mid-40s and older learned in junior high school that atoms of radioactive elements change into atoms of different elements by emitting radiation.

Since the 1980s, however, the topic of radiation has been dropped off the science curriculum under a government policy of making school education free from pressure, which has significantly reduced educational content.

On the other hand, the government has been promoting education on nuclear power generation in line with its policy of expanding the use of atomic energy.

The education ministry often points out what it thinks are problematic descriptions concerning nuclear power generation in its screening of school textbooks.

The government also distributed supplementary readers containing statements stressing the safety of nuclear power generation, such as "Nuclear power plants are designed in a way that ensures they don't release radioactive materials into the environment."

But few teachers have shown any enthusiasm for this teaching method. There has been a tendency among teachers to avoid touching on divisive issues where they are widely different views.

It can be argued that this trend has produced a large number of people who are indifferent to nuclear power generation and its problems. The education community ought to engage in some soul-searching with regard to this situation.

New curriculum guidelines for junior high school that will be fully introduced next spring bring the topic of radiation back into science classes for third-grade students.

The new syllabus, which was drawn up before the nuclear accident took place, stresses the usefulness of radiation. Students will learn that there is radiation constantly present in the natural environment, and that radiation is used in various medical treatments.

In response to the crisis at the Fukushima plant, the education ministry has compiled three new supplementary readers for classes on radiation at elementary, junior and senior high schools, respectively.

Unsurprisingly, these books don't contain statements that emphasize the safety of nuclear power generation. Much space is devoted to descriptions about the effects of radiation on human health and protective measures.

One of the readers says it is not clear whether exposure to low levels of radiation raises the risk of cancer.

The supplementary readers do not address problems that arose when radioactive fallout occurred following the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant.

The knowledge and information imparted about nuclear power and radiation to students under the new curriculum is still far from sufficient to fill the gap left by many years of neglect.

Clearly, new ways must be devised to teach this topic. This could best be accomplished through research, practice and conversations with local communities.

What is the difference between radioactivity and radiation? It is not easy to help children understand such concepts.

But questions like this can be a starting point for children to learn what is necessary to protect themselves.

It is also important to make sure that classes on nuclear power and radiation do not trigger unnecessary anxiety and prejudice among students.

With appropriate care and caution, teachers need to teach students both the dangers and merits of radiation.

They should also encourage children to think and talk about the accident, as well as various issues concerning nuclear power generation. Efforts should be focused on helping children to acquire the ability to understand different views, make their own judgments based on scientific knowledge and act on their own.

Japanese teachers have traditionally been rather weak in helping students learn about problems to which there is no definite answer or those which have unclear elements.

But facing the risks of radiation and thinking about nuclear power generation is of vital importance for future generations.

Education has a crucial role to play in helping children tackle this challenge.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 30

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