This is why linguistic anthropologists and other researchers interested in cognition have been interested in words for color. Physicists can tell us that light of a particular wavelength produces what we call "blue" or "green" - but without words for "blue" and for "green," is making such a distinction meaningful?
In the 1930s, anthropologist Edward Sapir wrote: "We see and hear and otherwise experience very largely as we do because the language habits of our community predispose certain choices of interpretation."
This quote appears at the start of Benjamin Whorf's 1939 essay, "The Relation of Habitual Thought and Behavior to Language," which today is regarded as a classic articulation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis or linguistic relativity.
Whorf begins the essay with an example drawn from his day job as an analyst at a fire insurance company. (Which is itself fascinating to consider!)
My analysis was directed toward purely physical conditions, such as defective wiring, presence or lack of airspaces between metal flues and woodwork, etc.... But in due course it became evident that not only a physical situation qua physics, but the meaning of that situation to people, was sometimes a factor, through the behavior of the people, in the start of the fire. And this factor of meaning was clearest when it was a LINGUISTIC MEANING, residing in the name or the linguistic description commonly applied to the situation. Thus, around a storage of what are called "gasoline drums," behavior will tend to a certain type, that is, great care will be exercised; while around a storage of what are called "empty gasoline drums," it will tend to be difference - careless, with little repression of smoking or of tossing cigarette stubs about. Yet the "empty" drums are perhaps the more dangerous, since they contain explosive vapor.
Initially news reporting on the condition of the Fukushima nuclear reactors seemed to have been focused on the active cores of the reactors. However, the focus of concern now seems to be on the "spent" fuel.
Not being a speaker of Japanese, I am interested to know how the idea of "spent" fuel is communicated in Japanese. Certainly in English, "spent" fuel suggests inactivity. In other words, no risk and no need for additional precautions.
Indeed, here is David A. Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists, quoted in The New York Times: “The reactor is inside thick walls, and the spent fuel of Reactors 1 and 3 is out in the open.”
However, coverage in the Times, including another report today, emphasizes the dangers that "spent" fuel poses:
The spent fuel pools can be even more dangerous that the active fuel rods, as they are not contained in thick steel containers like the reactor core. As they are exposed to air, the zirconium metal cladding on the rods can catch fire, and a deadly mix of radioactive elements can spew into the atmosphere. The most concern surrounds Cesium-137, which has a half-life of 30 years and can get into food supplies or be inhaled.
The news reporting makes clear that the design of the nuclear reactors itself had been criticized, but not necessarily the design of the spent fuel pools.
However, as scientists and citizens alike ask questions about the future of nuclear power, it might be worth attending to the language that we use to talk and think about - and act upon - it.