Friday, March 18, 2011

The Fukushima Nuclear Crisis, and a Crisis of Journalism

This was not what I had intended to write about in this blog, but better to begin writing in it than not writing in it, I suppose.  I will turn soon enough to matters of urban ecology, bees, soil preservation, and all manners of such goodies.

But right now I will be talking about Japan, nuclear power, and journalism.

Because frankly, much of the coverage of the situation has been deeply infuriating, as it boils down to a great deal of uniformed fear-mongering, at a time when there are other aspects of the disaster could bear more focus.  Even my beloved PBS Newshour has been guilty of this to some extent, though they have for the most part been quite reserved in their pronouncements, and their experts have mostly actually been experts.

But it's a clear indictment of the state of mainstream journalism, that they mostly can't get it together, and are choosing to focus on what is the flashiest, but ultimately likely to be the least important aspect of the aftermath of the Japanese quake and tsunami.

Refineries and natural gas plants burned down in the wake of the quake and tsunami, releasing tons of carcinogens into the air and water. Not to mention the contamination and destruction wreaked by the damage to their delivery infrastructure, and the impact this will have on the future of the country.  Dams have failed, due to the quake, washing away towns.

Hundreds of thousands of people are without homes, without power, and may be without access to clean water, sanitation, and so on, for many, many days.

I realize that a crisis at a nuclear power seems scary, especially if you don't know what exactly a 'meltdown' means, or how much risk is posed by a microsievert of radiation exposure, let alone the details of reactor construction.  I happen to be interested in such things, and I was still used to milli-rems as a measure of exposure (of course, I do live in America, where the foot and Fahrenheit still rule the land).

And in a better world, this is where the media should be stepping in. They could be serving to educate, however slightly, the general public on this matter.  They could be saying "A meltdown means that the fuel rods in the reactor are overheating, due to a lack of coolant, and are in the process of melting." And then they should explain the difference between a meltdown and a loss of containment, and previous instances of meltdowns, how those events differed from what is happening now, and what the end results of this situation are likely to be, based on available data.  When they talk about releases of radiation, they could tell us about equivalent exposures, how long the emitted isotopes are likely to persist in the environment (in the case of iodine, one of genuine concern, not very long at all), and that the hydrogen explosions at the reactors don't indicate a loss of containment.

The NYT has an okay-ish infographic and timelines, decent for anyone with a good handle on the terminology, the layout of the reactors in question, and more details (For instance, the potential damage to the containment system for reactor 2 does not refer to the pressure vessel of the reactor, and is probably not a big problem unless the containment building fails, which is very unlikely).

They should also be clear, when they bring on some talking head or another, whether this person is a nuclear scientist, an engineer, a bureaucrat, or an activist with an ax to grind, and they should maybe consider fact checking what these people say, so that foolishness like this doesn't get propagated as facts and news (Mr. Gunderson starts out okay-ish, but after the first interruption, it goes downhill extremely, extremely quickly. Possibly because he has a penchant for being a bit fast and loose with the facts).

I also have concerns when supposed experts such as Dr. Michael Allen (and he really is quite credentialed) don't seem to have a firm grasp of the facts on the ground before they give interviews.  In this case, two of the six reactors are shut down, and are in no danger. Nor does his description of the results of a primary containment loss match up with other descriptions of the research. This apparent conflict from on high does nothing to ease the minds of the general public, who don't know who to believe.  This is why it is urgently important for the press to fact check, consult widely with genuine, active experts in the field, and then report back on this to the public.  I have seen precious little of this thus far.

Three Mile Island suffered a far more serious meltdown than the majority of the six reactors Fukushima  are enduring now (two of which weren't online at the time of the quake, and all of which were shut down as soon as the quake was detected, and are no longer fissioning) without a loss of containment.  The molten core did not, in fact, melt through the steel pressure vessel "like butter" as Dr. Allen might suggest, and the public suffered no consequences from that meltdown, as there was never a loss of containment, and only minor releases of radioactive material

This isn't going to be Chernobyl, or worse, for reasons too many to enumerate here.

It makes me pretty damn angry to see this kind of mindless, sensational crap propagated, because it is shifting the emphasis from where it needs to be (on the efforts to take care of the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by the tsunami and earthquake), and is scaring the shit out of a lot of people who are in zero danger.

The good news is that there are a few places to get good info.  A great place to keep up with the news of what's going on at Fukushima, and learn about nuclear power, while you're at it has been put together by the folks at MIT:

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