Nuclear Experts Assess How Well Media Covered Fukushima

July 15, 2011

Feature

By JENNIFER WEEKS

(Hint: A little foggy)

 

Tsunami waves overtop a protective wall and approach oil storage tanks at the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in this photo taken by a company employee on March 11, but not released by TEPCO until May 19, 2011. Photo: Tokyo Electric Power Company.

 

By any standard, the explosions and partial meltdowns at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear plant were a challenging story. Not only did they happen thousands of miles away, as the result of a disaster that devastated an entire region — they also were an evolving crisis, centered on one of the most technically challenging issues on the environmental agenda, nuclear power.

Reporters struggled to parse official statements, describe the potential risks accurately, and find knowledgeable experts who were willing to comment about the accidents and what they might mean for nuclear power elsewhere.

SEJournal asked two experts on nuclear power and nuclear technology for their assessments of English-language media coverage of Fukushima in March and April, 2011:

  • Lake Barrett has more than 30 years’ experience in nuclear safety and management of high-level radioactive waste. Before retiring from the Department of Energy in 2002, he led DOE’sYucca Mountain geologic repository program through the site characterization and selection process, culminating with President Bush’s recommendation to proceed with submitting a license application to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Barrett also held other positions within DOE’s High Level Waste program and at DOE’s Rocky Flats site in Colorado, and oversaw stabilization and cleanup at Three Mile Island Unit 2 after the accident there for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Barrett received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical and nuclear engineering from the University of Connecticut.
  • Charles Forsberg is a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of MIT’s Nuclear Fuel Cycle Study. Before joining MIT he was a Corporate Fellow at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Forsberg received the 2002 American Nuclear Society Special Award for Innovative Nuclear Reactors,and in 2005 he received the American Institute of Chemical Engineers’ Robert E. Wilson Award in recognition of chemical engineering contributions to nuclear energy. He holds 10 patents and has published more than 250 papers. Forsberg holds master’s and doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering from MIT.

These interviews took place separately on April 27.

Overall, how well do you think the media has covered the Fukushima disaster? What aspects do you think the media has explained best? What angles has it done worst at covering?

Barrett: It’s gotten better with time. At the beginning nobody knew anything about what was happening in the buildings, although people like me who understood reactors could look at the TV footage and say “They’ve had a hydrogen explosion.”

It’s a complicated subject with many facets. Most reporters I’ve talked to have done good jobs, but I’ve seen some other reports that went way off track. My sense is that it was hard for reporters to sort out what they were hearing, which is understandable, since there’s a wide range of views from the Nuclear Energy Institute to hard-line anti-nuclear groups. Everyone was trying to do their job well, but some inappropriate sensationalism crept in. TV was worse than print, which is usually the case.

For example, I did a live interview with CNN on the so-called Fukushima 50 [workers who went into the plant in shifts in the first days after the disaster to assess and try to stabilize the damaged reactors and spent fuel pools]. The reporter started off with what I thought was a political statement about how they were all going to die, and then asked a question that was somewhat related. I felt like that was a setup, and I had to politely disagree with her. Some reports played up the Chernobyl parallel and speculated that workers at the plant were knowingly committing suicide, but that was inaccurate. Many workers were being cycled through the plant.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that many sources who aren’t necessarily pro-nuclear answered questions very responsibly. Ed Lyman and Dave Lochbaum at the Union of Concerned Scientists did a very good job. There was a lot of uncertainty, and many experts who had commercial interests — for example, people at nuclear utilities or companies like Bechtel that build nuclear plants — weren’t saying much because they didn’t want to discredit their organizations. Some groups on the far left took shots at nuclear power, but for the most part, comments from the center-left were pretty fair.

Forsberg: At best I’d give the media coverage a B-minus. The worst aspect was reporting on radiation releases and exposures. When a story says that radiation is X units over an allowable limit, that’s like telling me the temperature on Mars. Safety standards are set based on lifetime exposures, so that fact that a dose is ten times over a standard is probably totally irrelevant. Describing radiation relative to background levels is more relevant — it lets the audience know that there’s a standard, and it lets them do some comparisons. You also have to pick a standard of comparison that the audience has some clue about, and convert it to understandable units, which for most of us is not millisieverts. This isn’t just a problem in stories on nuclear power, but it becomes really obvious on this issue.

Secondly, I don’t think most people understood just how severe this event was in Japan, including some U.S. government officials. An earthquake that measures 9 on the Richter scale is 100 times greater than the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco, and the tsunami was 54 feet high. The area around the reactors was like a war zone. Japanese rescuers’ first priority was finding injured people, and their second priority was getting survivors to shelters and out of the rain and snow. The nuclear plant was third or fourth, and that’s how it should have been.

The Internet has speeded up the news cycle and made it possible to update unfolding stories almost constantly online. Do you think that online coverage of the situation at Fukushima made more information available, or did it just repeat what officials said at press briefings?

Barrett: Today there’s much more demand for instant information, and expectations are much higher. But with an accident like this, information doesn’t flow — it’s a fog, like that famous quote about the “fog of war.”¹ I don’t think Tepco was hiding information about what was happening in the core — I think they didn’t know. There was a long communication chain from the reactors to corporate communications staff.

At Three Mile Island, our decisions ran three to four days behind what was happening at the plant. Fukushima is running weeks behind what’s happening at the plant. Gathering basic information is the slow part. It takes time for people wearing boots and protective suits on the plant floor to obtain information.

Culture is also an issue. Japanese culture is very different from ours. They are reserved, very disciplined, and they verify and make decisions by talking about the problem and thinking about it. They are always aware of how what they do and say reflects on their superiors and their loyal subordinates. That means that the Japanese won’t speculate, whereas in the U.S. we do that all the time. In Japan they don’t want to verify anything immediately: instead of saying that a building blew up, they say that white smoke appeared above it, and they will verify later what actually happened. We see that as a corporate cover-up, but you have to understand how their culture works, and the fact that Tokyo Electric Power Company and Japanese regulators and the government are much more closely interconnected than their U.S. counterparts.

Forsberg: Online coverage definitely speeded up the cycle. Accidents at light water reactors develop slowly, which is good news for rescuers because they have time to get people out of the way. But it’s really bad in terms of public relations, because it means that news drips out slowly.

In any kind of complicated industrial accident there’s massive confusion at the start, and it takes a while to figure out what reality is. It’s easy to assume that there’s a conspiracy, but at the outset no one knows what’s going on. And then when you translate it from Japanese into English, things get more complicated, especially for outsiders who don’t understand Japanese culture. A literal translation from Japanese to English isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

Do you think that news reports have presented an accurate explanation of risks from the Japanese plants, whether those risks applied to the local area around the reactor, greater Japan, or possible risks to the U.S. from radiation transport?

Barrett: The really outrageous comment about risk was when the U.S. Surgeon General [Regina Benjamin] said that it was appropriate for Californians who were worried about radiation transport from Japan to buy potassium iodide pills.² That statement was flat wrong and incompetent, and she should have been asked to resign. Reporters printed what she said, which was legitimate news, but they didn’t hold her accountable when the administration retracted the comment later.

Forsberg: The idea that west coast residents received significant radiation exposure from Fukushima reflects historical amnesia. Compared to years of nuclear testing in Nevada, any radiation doses from Fukushima are insignificant.

There are two things to remember here. First, we’re really good at measuring radiation — we can detect and trace it at much lower levels than other substances, like airborne mercury. When I was a graduate student at MIT in the 1960s and 1970s, we had a couple of scrams at the university’s research reactor because its sensors picked up radiation from Chinese atmospheric nuclear tests. But just because you can measure something doesn’t mean it’s dangerous. Second, when you have any kind of accident at a refinery or a chemical plant or a reactor, there’s fallout. Fallout is associated with any kind of industrial operation, not just with nuclear releases.

Seawater from the earthquake-triggered tsunami rushes into the Tokyo Electric
Power Company’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, as seen from the fourth floor
of the radioactive waste disposal building in this photo taken by a company
employee on March 11, but not released by TEPCO until May 19, 2011.
Photo: Tokyo Electric Power Company.

Are there important angles to this story that media reports have overlooked?

Barrett: I was surprised that issues of water contamination have gotten relatively little play. Eventually there will be cesium-137 in the water throughout the northern Pacific, and it will show up in seafood. It’s already there from nuclear testing in the 1950s, but levels will jump, although they’ll still be safe. Discharging contaminated cooling water from the Fukushima reactors is a slower process than Chernobyl blowing up, so maybe it’s not seen as newsworthy. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think it’s interesting that it hasn’t received more attention.

Forsberg: The reactors got a lot of attention, but Japanese officials were dealing with a much wider universe of issues. For example, the plant probably had six shifts of workers, but five of those crews were at home when the quake hit. What happened to them, and what kind of situation did that create for the plant operators?

And it wasn’t just nuclear plants that went out. All of the non-nuclear power plants near Fukushima went down too, and a dam broke and washed out homes, but got much less coverage. Reactor accidents sell, but their problems are much bigger.

There also doesn’t seem to be much historical understanding of why Japan invested so heavily in nuclear power. Japan ran out of oil in southeast Asia during World War II, and their alternatives were much worse. They looked at every kind of energy alternative after the war, and as nuclear power became available, they pushed it very hard. They also have invested in a lot of other resources.

What aspects of the situation in Japan do you think are most relevant to decisions about nuclear power in the U.S.? Any suggestions for journalists covering U.S. nuclear plants?

Barrett: Ask your local utility to tell you what Fukushima means to your local plants, and to describe what’s similar and different. Talk to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and watchdog groups like UCS, and companies like General Electric that build reactors, and universities — ask for people in the nuclear engineering departments who don’t have axes to grind.

It’s also important to distinguish between risk and safety. Risk is a scientific term, but people make personal assessments about safety. I once met a man who lived near Three Mile Island and drove race cars on dirt tracks in Pennsylvania, which is hugely risky, but his big fear was that he’d gotten a skin rash because he lived across the river from the reactor.

And when you talk to a technical source who’s not media-focused, let them know in advance whether you’re looking for a 10-second answer, a 90-second answer, or what your time frame is. Press officers know that, but scientists who aren’t media-savvy may not. If you let them know how much depth you want, it will help them frame their answers.

Forsberg: I'm not sure there are major lessons to be learned for the U.S. We don’t normally locate reactors in places where they can be hit by a 50-foot wall of water. There will be lessons about how to make reactors more resilient. New designs are very different and resistant to what happened at Fukushima: for example, diesel generators are spaced out on opposite sides of the plant instead of being located all together. And there are areas where we can do things better, such as replacing zirconium fuel cladding with something that doesn’t generate hydrogen.

Overall, though, this was a very strange accident. If you’d told me that you could melt down three reactor cores in a row and no one would likely end up dead, that would sound pretty good. I expect that within ten years the Japanese will have decontaminated virtually the whole neighborhood around the plant. You have to consider what kinds of events are predictable and which ones are acts of God.

Editor’s update: As noted above, these interviews were conducted in late April. Since, much has developed around the world regarding nuclear power. In Japan, Prime Minister Naoto Kan has temporarily shelved any plan to expand nuclear power production in his country, bucking for now the country’s powerful nuclear establishment. While cleanup and an investigation into the extent of contamination in Japan continues, the German government announced in late May that it would phase out its 17 nuclear plants in 11 years.

Jennifer Weeks is a Boston-based freelance writer and an SEJ board member.

¹ In his classic text On War (1832), Prussian military analyst Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “The great uncertainty of all data in war is a peculiar difficulty, because all action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently — like the effect of a fog or moonshine — gives to things exaggerated dimensions and unnatural appearance.”

² Benjamin made the comment on March 15. On March 17 the Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement that the Surgeon General was not recommending that Americans take potassium iodide.

* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2011 issue.