Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The long grave dug?

Every time there is any kind of nuclear incident, the media does a hit job on nuclear power. People who support nuclear power and try to put things in the right context become "pro-nuclear partisans". The New York Times's reporting during the aftermath of the tsunami has been appalling. Not all the reporting was bad, but coverage of the tens of thousands of deaths from the tsunami and earthquake was relegated to the side-lines while alarmist headlines about the nuclear accident were splashed on the front page every day. Plus the paper did a masterful job of pitching contradictory facts. For a long time it stuck with the line that the accident was comparable to Chernobyl. It certainly was serious, but there was absolutely no evidence for the comparison, nor was there any discussion of the fundamentally flawed design of the Chernobyl reactor in comparison to the Fukushima reactor which stood up admirably to a 8.9 magnitude earthquake followed by a gigantic tsunami.

Then two days back, The Times blithely flashed the confusing headline that the Japanese have "upgraded" the level of the accident to Three Mile Island levels. This made it sound like the disaster was now considered worse than before, which was in complete contravention of the facts and a masterful piece of obfuscation. The fact that the Japanese considered the accident to be milder than TMI before makes the Times's constant comparison to Chernobyl absurd and shamefully alarmist. While The Times is no longer trotting out the line about Chernobyl, it has not made any sustained effort to educate the public about the completely benign nature of TMI in terms of the consequences. In addition the paper had another confusing headline yesterday titled "Radiation Plume Reaches U.S., but Is Said to Pose No Risk". As Rosie Redfield notes on her blog, the studied ambiguity in the statement (someone says the plume poses no risk, but we won't say that explicitly) does nothing to put the risk in the right context.

The New Yorker is no less biased. In the most recent issue there are two pieces on nuclear energy. One is a moderate critique by the environmentalist Elizabeth Kolbert while the other is a rather extreme and emotional critique by Japanese writer Kenzaburo Oe. While Kolbert does not go overboard, she casually throws around some opinions about how nuclear reactors are not protected against terrorist attacks. This is in spite of the fact that American nuclear power plants are well-secured, terrorists would have a very hard time stealing nuclear material from a power plant even if they overwhelm security, they would have a hard time getting away unnoticed, and the stolen nuclear material would be extremely dangerous to handle andcapricious in its behavior in a weapon. Of course all this just ignores the fact that terrorists are so much more likely to smuggle in a weapon from abroad than they are to foolishly attack a US nuclear reactor for making one. Kolbert also has biased critiques of lack of evacuation plans for people around a nuclear reactor (ignoring accident probability, radius of evacuation and the amount of radiation released) and spent fuel storage (no discussion of reprocessing, quotes from the Union of Concerned Scientists which has long-since vigorously opposed nuclear power).

Oe is worse; adopting one of the oldest tricks in the anti-nuclear playbook, he makes no attempts to separate nuclear weapons from nuclear power and constantly conflates the two ("Lessons of Hiroshima"). Basically there is no balancing pro-nuclear perspective. The New Yorker should be ashamed of itself for this one-sided reporting.

All this is keeping in line with physicist Bernard Cohen's extensive writings. Cohen has been a tireless and rational promoter of nuclear power for more than three decades and his articles and books are thoroughly readable. If you don't have time for his books, you should definitely at least read his essay in a recent collection of essays expounding on the relationship between science and politics (Politicizing Science, 2003). Cohen analyzed various accidents and their coverage in the New York Times in the 70s (even before TMI). He found that while there was a clear correlation between the number of deaths and the subsequent coverage for all other kinds of accidents (low number of deaths corresponding with low coverage), when it came to nuclear accidents the Times went ballistic. The coverage was all out of proportion with the number of deaths- zero. That's exactly what's happening right now. In addition Cohen recounts routinely being ignored and even reprimanded when he wrote letters to journalists whose coverage of nuclear power contained numerous factual (not literary) mistakes. Even trying to correct thescience brought forth responses like "I don't tell you how to do research so you don't tell me how to do journalism". As Cohen sums it up:

"To attack the nuclear power industry, activists needed ammunition, and it was readily found. They only had to go through the nuclear power risk analysis literature and pick out some of the imagined accident scenarios with the number of deaths expected from them. Of course, they ignored the very tiny probabilities of occurrence attached to these scenarios, and they never considered the fact that alternate technologies were causing far more deaths. Quoting from the published scientific analyses gave the environmentalists credibility and even made them seem like technical experts."

The situation seems to be no better right now. Needless to say this distortion of the truth is not just appalling but it could be a certain recipe for disaster even as nuclear power needs to be a healthy component of the mix for combating climate change. Liberals always like to complain about how the conservative media distorts and cherry-picks the science on global warming. The litmus test of the liberal media's scientific integrity would be its coverage of nuclear power. Sadly it seems to have already failed this test multiple times.

A hundred years from now when we are possibly writing the epitaph for the human race, I wonder if one of the turning points on the road to perdition would be seen to be our inability to rationally balance the benefits and risks of the greatest source of energy that mankind has discovered.

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