Nuclear Whiplash Journalism

A commenter sums up the media’s schizophrenic coverage of Japan’s nuclear disaster (as communicated via expert opinion) :

“It’s horrible!” “It’s no big deal” “Worst thing Evah” “No, it’s minor and under control” “Run for your lives!” “You’re fine.”

You can actually see the frustration on the journalists faces. “Science” says everyone’s dead and everyone’s fine. Which is it?

Part of the reason for this confusion is that we’re in uncharted territory with this nuclear meltdown story, and another part, I think, is the “whiplash” nature of journalism (something Andy Revkin has frequently talked about with respect to the climate beat), which is playing out now in a high alert, real-time, 24/7 manner.

Those of you lost in what Clive Crook calls the media’s “nuclear fog” can share his frustration here. He’s trying to navigate his way to clarity, with mixed results.

39 Responses to “Nuclear Whiplash Journalism”

  1. Howard says:

    Check out James Fallows latest in the Atlantic Learning to Love the (…, …, …) New Media.
    The commercial nature of all media in the age of Snookie and Trump is driving sensationalistic headlines and stories, in my humble opinion of your scribbling profession

  2. Keith Kloor says:

    You mean this, I presume.

  3. Howard says:

    Yeah, I missed that discussion.  Just got my dead-tree copy of the Atlantic yesterday.
    One of my best friends, a successful entrepreneurial scientist and engineer, called me on Monday saying we should fly our families to Costa Rica for a month to avoid the fallout (we are on the left-coast).  It truly shocked me that someone so skeptical and logical would believe that shit.  My wife went out searching for KI pills (all sold out as of Monday) and was gratified to get the last available bottle of kelp pills.  I kept telling her that Huff Po was selling page views, not news.
    Is it Miller Time yet?  I need a beer.

  4. StuartR says:

    I think “Uncharted territory” is something that can only convincingly be talked about after bravely travelling there and coming back. Most of the media is still going through the well-worn practice of staying in the comfort zone of writing the “There be dragons!”  pieces.

    I find myself unsurprised by most of what I am reading at the moment, from all sides of all divides, writers are bolting on the end of this disaster whatever pre-packed overarching theory of everything they or opinion formers have today, that “explains” how it happened, and “explains” where we are going.

  5. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    It would be interesting to apply the same kind of analysis to nuclear experts’ attempts to communicate with the public that you’ve been applying to climate experts.

    Josef Oehman’s “Why I Am Not Worried About My Hair Being On Fire” reaction seems exactly the wrong way to send a message, and it exemplifies a lot of what I see going wrong there: They’re telling the public that defense-in-depth is working properly as buildings are exploding, fuel rods are melting, and workers are heroically enduring dangerous irradiation. This seems to me to send a message to the public that nuclear engineers’ idea of “nothing to worry about” is very different from yours and mine, and undermines their credibility in the public eye.

    Nothing will set off John Q. Public’s bullshit detector faster than suggesting that exploding buildings are no big deal. It sounds too much like Bubba falling on his face and saying, “I meant to do that.”

    The facts are, indeed, as Monbiot describes them in the bit you linked in an earlier piece: awful nuclear accidents are less dangerous than coal-plants functioning as designed. But if the experts imagine that public fears can be allayed simply by filling an information deficit, they will be sorely disappointed.

    Someone needs to address the question, “if you guys know what you’re talking about, and if two tsunamis much larger than this one hit that coastline in 1896 and 1933, why did this happen?” For instance, the mobile generators were unable to run the cooling pumps after the main ones failed. Did they never do drills on this?

    I predict that the experts are going to emphasize the safe outcome: the general public (as opposed to the heroic folks putting out fires and keeping the fuel assemblies cool) didn’t suffer deaths or illness. The public will be interested in a different question: “Do we trust these guys to run a very complex system 24/7 for half a century without ever letting their guard down or cutting corners?”

    Meanwhile, the more important decisions will be made on the trading floors as investors learn once again Peter Bradford’s lesson about  the speed with which a multibillion dollar asset can be transformed into a multibillion dollar cleanup job.

  6. Stuart Lynne says:

    It boils down to unreasonable expectations….
    100’000’s of thousands killed in an earthquake because of under engineering (Haiti and lots of other 3rd world examples). Why, not enough money spent. That is a tragedy but what can we do.
    some people killed and a some more possibly at risk, again because possibly not enough money spent on making it safe. Ah that is not acceptable. Turn off all the nukes. They are going to kill us all!

  7. David Palmer says:

    Regarding the elevation of the risk associated with the nuclear reactors in comparison to the likely death toll running into tens of thousands from the destructive force of the tsunami on coastal communities – in a way we are reaping the consequences of the inculcation of fear into our own populations, especially and regretably the young. In the 60’s and 70’s we were going to be wiped out by nuclear bombs, now it is irreperable damage to the environment, spoiling our children/grandchildren’s future lives.
    As someone else recently <a href=”“>said</a>, “The whole situation has been all too predictable, but still most disappointing. It has reinforced one of the great truisms in understanding how we humans deal with risk: We are outraged and hyper-fearful of that which we do not understand, rather than that which is likely to do us harm. Rarely if ever are they the same thing”.

  8. Dean says:

    I don’t know how you find the right balance. Some nuclear advocates are trying to explain it away as nothing so significant, but the news seems to spend far more time covering the reactors than everything else Japan is suffering.
    And if lots of Japanese people in distant parts of the country fee to other countries, that will make it worse. They need to get their economy running in areas that were not devastated. Folks in southern Japan need to support the north, not run to the US or elsewhere.
    Btw, will the iodine tablets that I have to purify water on hiking trips save me from radioactive iodine?  😉 😉 😉 😉 😉 😉 😉 😉 😉 😉

  9. David Palmer says:

    Continuing on,
    What I find considerably ironical is the possibility of the Fukushima meltdown, assuming this indeed has occurred, stymieing moves to install more nuclear power generation and thereby actually setting back the long term prospects to limit CO2 emissions.
    Whilst there remains the possibility to ramp up nuclear powered generation, the feebleness of renewable sources such as solar and wind power could be papered over. If nuclear energy takes a king hit over Fukushima then the renewable sources will be highlighted for what they are – very expensive magical toys masquerading for what they very clearly are not: real solutions to restraining CO2 emissions.
    Well, I may be getting ahead of myself, and Fukushima may be just a helpful blip on the way to the development of a new generation of nuclear power stations. In the meantime the prospects for fossil fuel electricity generation have just been enhanced.

  10. I mean, this is such a gimme I wonder if I’m being set up for something, but out of sheer curiosity I will take the bait. Clive Crook also here in the precursor article.
    So, apparently it is OK for Clive Crook to say things like:
    The Times cites, without further comment or context, a 1997 study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory:

    [The study] described a worst-case disaster from uncovered spent fuel in a reactor cooling pool. It estimated 100 quick deaths would occur within a range of 500 miles and 138,000 eventual deaths.
    The study also found that land over 2,170 miles would be contaminated and damages would hit $546 billion.

    I’m interested to know that, but as this stands it is another semi-digested fragment of analysis. What does “land over 2,170 miles mean”? Land within a radius of 2,170 miles? What does “contaminated” mean? Why the specious precision over distances and costs, yet zero guidance on how to interpret the numbers? Above all, is this is a plausible analogue? Might the situation at Fukushima be worse than this? What is the reader to make of this information?
    Where are the science and technology writers when you need them? And where are their editors?
    and things like:
    With apologies, though, I cannot resist clipping this Reuters piece, Japan scrambles to pull nuclear plant back from brink. (The brink of what? That’s my question. No answer, needless to say.) The piece does actually contain some information, so thanks for that, but then it concludes:

    “This is a slow-moving nightmare,” said Dr Thomas Neff, a physicist and uranium-industry analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    Get an expert on the phone, and make a careful note of the most useless thing he says. End your piece with that. I hereby close my collection of Triumphantly Worthless Expert Quotations. I don’t see that one being surpassed.
    Well, yeah, obviously. But, how come when Clive Crook (whoever he is, he seems to be a well-known journalist) says things like this, Keith sympathizes, but when I say things like this, I am an oblivious dead-ender?
    In the present case, I am by no means an expert. I’m inclined to go with Barry Brooks, since after all, he is on my blogroll. And Brad DeLong also notes (and, now, remarkably, I am linking at fifth hand, quoting DeLong quoting Crook quoting David invoking a blog):
    I cannot help but note that neither Crook nor David recommend anything from the news organizations that they work for but rather recommend… a weblog: It is a very good weblog. But it does underscore how the ecology of information is shifting away from the purveyors of Triumphantly Worthless Expert Quotations and Opinions of the Shape of the Earth Differ.
    But what’s the point here? Who exactly is entitled to observe that even the most serious members of the press habitually bash quantitative issues into dreamlike emotional semiotics lacking in substance, and who is a hopelessly stubborn geek for doing so?
    Keith, seriously, did you not think for a moment that this would bug me a bit?

  11. intrepid_wanders says:

    Jonathan Gilligan #5:

    You are typing nonsense.  Other than “non-technicals” (ie reporters), nobody has said “We meant to do that”.  These are exceptional events that set the bar of learning.  I am sure you might have experienced a paradigm shift in you education a couple of times in you lifetime.  “What-if” statements are only useful with boundaries based off of historical records.  Using Japanese art depictions of huge waves are not very useful to the engineering types.

    I think that TEPCO is doing very well managing an Apollo 13 event.  Most neglect, malfeasant, ignorant or deliberate events have a quicker pace.  Everyone that has that urge for “Captain Hindsight”, stow your cloak for another day.

    It sickens me when people that can barely manage the crisis of a water cooler running out of water, giving an opinion on something of this magnitude.

  12. Keith Grubb says:

    People in white suits and respirators always sells news. One observation I’ve had through all of this, containment vessels to prevent another Chernobyl, good idea, storing spent rods on site with no containment, very bad idea.

  13. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    @intrepid_wanders (#11): It’s not just non-technicals.
    Barry Brook wrote, “There is no credible risk of a serious accident.”
    Josef Oehman wrote, “I am writing this text (Mar 12) to give you some peace of mind regarding some of the troubles in Japan, that is the safety of Japan’s nuclear reactors. Up front, the situation is serious, but under control.”
    The 1896 and 1933 tsunami heights were measured (at 38.2 meters and 28.7 meters, respectively), not estimated from art depictions.
    Am I missing something here? I post under my real name and I take responsibility for my errors. I also try to stick to the issues and avoid insults. If you’re going to insult me and accuse me of sloppiness, it would be helpful if you’d support your accusation with some facts and citations. If I’m wrong, I’ll be happy to admit it and apologize.

  14. Keith Kloor says:

    Michael (10),

    I don’t know what you’re going on about. Are you equating your habitual criticism of the press with Crook’s beef in this instance? As I and John Fleck have repeatedly pointed out to you, your sweeping, oft stated, generalized critique bears no resemblance to reality. That there are going to be instances where journalism is lacking does not automatically affirm your own monolithic critique.

    Here’s what Christine Russell, Crook’s colleague at the Atlantic, and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, has also said:

    “This seesaw story has swung rapidly between peril and promise and back again, or as a colleague of mine once said, between no hope (catastrophe) and new hope (it’s under control).

    The challenge for the press and for government, seldom achieved in this crisis thus far, is to sound an appropriate alarm for those who are at greatest risk — workers and local residents — while calming those at little or no risk. (The challenge is intensified when instant global communication turns everyone into an observer, reporter, and worrier all at once.)”

  15. Hannah says:

    Christine Russell sounds imminently sensible :o) and it is worth noting that once you read further than the headlines what quite a few newspapers are actually saying (from The Guardian to The Telegraph) is that nuclear energy in general should not be judged by what is happening in Japan at the moment, however horrible. Simplistic, scary headlines sell newspapers, simple as that. The World itself is complicated, simple as that. You can, quite reasonable, take a totally different approach to most things in life including the death toll caused by Chernobyl (approx 50 by 2005) it can either be completely unreasonable (well, if one of my daughters were affected by anything similar it sure as Hell would be) or you can say that it is actually not that bad, compared to what is gained and/or the alternatives or how many people die of other causes all the time. The more I think about it the more I become convinced that you with sources of energy (as with many other things in life) end up with having to make a pragmatic “on balance” decision based on the facts available at any given time (even poor George Monbiot seems to have arrived at this conclusion) but of course if you happen to be a politician with an election coming up and a bunch of scared voters it might not be as simple as that”¦..:o)

  16. jeffn says:

    The excuse for airing the end-o-the-world version of the nuclear incident now seems to be that, while maybe not likely, the story is a technically possible “worst case scenario.”

    Which begs the questions everyone on this blog are familiar with- what is the likelihood of the disaster (the uncertainty question), what’s the danger – in context (are we seeing doses of radiation higher than those received in long flights or trips to the dentist?), what’s the prudent course of action (shutting down nukes in Germany? Really?). Note also the story line that anyone who disagrees with the end of the world scenario has “a history” of “lying” or has “connections to the industry.”

    If this story turns out to be nothing, the failure of scientists to challenge the activists (or of the media to let them) is going to be a serious problem for science. This comes on the heals of the Gulf oil spill communications disaster – remember the claim that Virginia shores would have oil slicks?

    One good thing could come out of this- rather than trying to find new and exciting ways to yell “idiot” at anyone who “denies” the absolute certainty of the worst-case-scenario, we could start figuring out how to communicate uncertainty, risk-in-context, and prudent action.

  17. Barry Woods says:

    Rajenda Pachauri (IPCC) – Friday 11th March 2011

    according to Indian Times:

    “Given that human actions are increasingly interfering with the delicate balance of nature, natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and tsunamis will occur more frequently, said Dr Rajendra K Pachauri, director general of TERI, and the chief of the inter-governmental panel on Climate Change.”
    Tsunamis are by definition caused by events like earthquakes”¦
    The Amrita University, omit “˜earthquakes’ from their quote, or has the newspaper made the connection and added it?

    “Human actions are interfering with the delicate balance of nature,” he added. “Floods, heat waves, water scarcity, tsunamis will become frequent in the future.” Rajendra Pachauri, 11th March 2011

  18. Gaythia says:

    @ Jonathan Gilligan #25, and Keith.  George Monbiot’s position on nuclear energy is actually as follows:

    “Before I go any further, and I’m misinterpreted for the thousandth time, let me spell out once again what my position is. I have not gone nuclear. But, as long as the following four conditions are met, I will no longer oppose atomic energy.
    1. Its total emissions ““ from mine to dump ““ are taken into account, and demonstrate that it is a genuinely low-carbon option
    2. We know exactly how and where the waste is to be buried
    3. We know how much this will cost and who will pay
    4. There is a legal guarantee that no civil nuclear materials will be diverted for military purposes.

    To these I’ll belatedly add a fifth, which should have been there all along: no plants should be built in fault zones, on tsunami-prone coasts, on eroding seashores or those likely to be inundated before the plant has been decommissioned or any other places which are geologically unsafe”
    By his own standards, it would seem reasonable to me for China (or Germany, or any other nation, including our own) to suspend approval of new power plants, and to investigate the licensing of existing ones, as I don’t believe that a case can be made that the above criteria have been met.

    And again, I think that a critical criteria for all energy development  is that it be evaluated from an energy cost perspective so as to eliminate hidden subsidies in the form of currently inexpensive fossil fuel or water resources used in production or waste disposal.

    I am in full agreement that the public needs to understand the immediate problems of of coal fired power plant emissions, as well as the long term consequences.   Which means that we need a set of criteria for commissioning or decommissioning these plants as well.

    I do not believe that there is anything about attempting make an analogy between normally operating coal fired power plants with the current crisis in Japan that makes sense.  This is  especially true considering that the long term outcome of this particular accident are still unknown.   As a communication tactic, I think it is exceedingly poor technique.  What possible point can we make to the public other than, without care, we are capable of messing up the planet in many different ways?

    There are simple solutions that would go a long ways towards solving our problems if we only had the will collectively to implement them.  I say this on a sunny day in Colorado while sitting in a (rental) house with no solar panels or even south facing windows.   With my computer connected to power, obviously.

  19. sambo says:

    Keith, William Briggs has an interesting take on it in this article.
    In particular, near the end he makes the point quite succinctly.
    “The disclaimer I have to, but should not have to, add is that I do not seek to minimize reporting on the dangers to those who live near the plants. But our choice is not a dichotomy: because we do not minimize does not mean we must maximize.”

  20. Keith Kloor says:

    Sambo, thanks for the link to Briggs–I like his style. But I would also recommend this perspective from CJR’s Curtis Brainard.

  21. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    @Gaythia #18: As I read him, Monbiot is saying two things:

    “While nuclear causes calamities when it goes wrong, coal causes calamities when it goes right, and coal goes right a lot more often than nuclear goes wrong. The only safe coal-fired plant is one which has broken down past the point of repair.” and “The Chernobyl meltdown was hideous and traumatic … but a tiny fraction of the deaths for which climate change is likely to be responsible,”
    “Of course it’s not a straight fight between coal and nuclear. There are plenty of other ways of producing electricity, and I continue to place appropriate renewables above nuclear power in my list of priorities. … While producing solar power makes perfect sense in north Africa, in the UK, by comparison to both wind and nuclear, it’s a waste of money and resources. Abandoning nuclear power as an option narrows our choices just when we need to be thinking as broadly as possible.”

    I was focusing on point #1 while you emphasize point #2 (on which I also (and emphatically) agree with Monbiot, while acknowledging your criticism that Monbiot’s criteria have not been satisfied).

    Regarding total lifecycle cost, here are two interesting tidbits, which I recently posted to RPJ’s blog and which are worth reposting here:

    From the NY Times: “Exelon, the nation’s biggest nuclear utility, with 17 plants, estimates that new nuclear plants are more expensive than any other energy source except photovoltaic cells.”
    John Quiggin in the Australian Financial Review: “Even assuming the best possible outcome from the Japanese crisis, the economic case for nuclear power, already fragile, has been severely, and probably fatally, damaged. At least eleven reactors have been taken off line. … But why are the economics of nuclear so bad? In part, it is simply a matter of technology. Nuclear power has turned out to be more expensive than its advocates have expected, while alternative sources of energy, particularly gas, have become cheaper.”

    And “But the crucial problem for nuclear power has been fear. … More important than these fears, however, is the fear and ignorance displayed by those who have obstructed the most important single factor needed for nuclear power to become viable ““ a price on emissions of carbon dioxide.”

  22. kdk33 says:

    I’d be very curious to know if anyone has these two numbers

    1) How many people have been killed, directly, in petroleum exploration, recovery, refining, distributing activites.  A rough guess will suffice.

    2) How many people have died (not might die maybe, but actually dead) as a result of accidents in nuclear power plants.  Chernobyl counts.


  23. Gaythia says:

    I like the quote from the Briggs article here (from Sambo’s link above):
    “What reporters should be doing is obvious: take as much time as necessary and, using actual experts, give as many facts as possible, even at the very real risk of talking over the heads of most of their audience. Difficult but correct material always trumps simplistic summaries.”

    The Curtis Brainard link is worthwhile also.

    Also, as an analytical chemist, I know that detection limits are important.  Radiation is readily detectable down to very low limits.  Just because something can be detected doesn’t mean it is harmful.  Conversely, not detecting something doesn’t guarantee safety.  As a practical matter, there is nothing easier than setting up an analysis such that nothing will be detected.  All credible measurements should come with detection limits, normal background levels, and some interpretation as to what those quantities mean.

  24. Tom Fuller says:

    The two significant accidents in the 50-year history of civil nuclear power generation are:

    Three Mile Island (USA 1979) where the reactor was severely damaged but radiation was contained and there were no adverse health or environmental consequences
    Chernobyl (Ukraine 1986) where the destruction of the reactor by steam explosion and fire killed 31 people and had significant health and environmental consequences. The death toll has since increased to about 56.

    A table showing all reactor accidents, and a table listing some energy-related accidents with multiple fatalities are appended.
    These two significant accidents occurred during more than 14,000 reactor-years of civil operation. Of all the accidents and incidents, only the Chernobyl accident resulted in radiation doses to the public greater than those resulting from the exposure to natural sources. Other incidents (and one ‘accident’) have been completely confined to the plant.
    Apart from Chernobyl, no nuclear workers or members of the public have ever died as a result of exposure to radiation due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident. Most of the serious radiological injuries and deaths that occur each year (2-4 deaths and many more exposures above regulatory limits) are the result of large uncontrolled radiation sources, such as abandoned medical or industrial equipment. (There have also been a number of accidents in experimental reactors and in one military plutonium-producing pile – at Windscale, UK, in 1957, but none of these resulted in loss of life outside the actual plant, or long-term environmental contamination.)
    The oil and gas industry is a real killer. Its fatality rate (30.0 per 100,000 workers) is eight times higher than the average rate for all American workers, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


  25. Gaythia says:

    Ack! following Briggs advice is difficult!  Saying “Radiation is readily detectable down to very low limits.”  needs to be qualified by pointing out the differences in penetration of the various forms.  And there isn’t room for a book on radiation health physics here.

  26. RickA says:

    The coal mining industry is pretty dangerous also.  From a 2009 report about 2007:

    The coal operator fatality rate was 31.2 fatalities
    per 100,000 FTE employees. The underground
    fatality rate was 42.6 (n=18) compared to a rate
    of 21.1 (n=10) for surface work locations.

  27. jeffn says:

    Gaythia: would you accept a similar four qualifications for wind and solar:

    1- Full disclosure of total emissions, including emissions expended in building millions of windmill blades, materials for base and tower, the cutting of trees to run roads to the windmills and the production and hanging of millions of miles of new power lines.

    2- honest cost- based on actual power produced (from actual figures, rather than projections), power grid reconstruction, installation of 100% back up generation, and estimates of fuel purchases for backup generators on the spot market.

    3. A full presentation of estimated birds destroyed, desert tortoises and beetles killed, water consumed (in desert areas) to keep panels/mirrors clean, miles of pristine coastlines and mountain tops degraded by road cuts and installation of what are, by definition, large scale industrial structures.

    4. a Legal Guarantee that any legislative or treaty solution to global warming will result in a steady increase in power generation (equivalent of the amount necessary to eventually reach full electrification of transportation) using the most cost-effective technology as determined by actual construction costs, output, and total emissions (including construction materials).

  28. Gaythia says:

    @27  I think that you make some worthwhile points, but that these are matters that can be addressed.
    As Keith says in a more recent post: “look at the whole equation”.
    First and foremost I think that all energy production means need to be evaluated in terms of energy units not dollars.
    In terms of water used, the usual coal. gas (or nuclear) fired steam turbine power plants require very large amounts.  The overall interrelationships between water and energy need to be addressed.  Here in the western US we spend quite a bit of energy shipping water from there to here and pumping it out of sometimes fossil (non-replenishable ) aquifers.
    (insert rant about corn based ethanol production here)
    In the western Us, I don’t know of a place where trees are cut to install wind turbines.
    Potentials for bird kill can be addressed by greater consideration as to wind turbine types and locations.  See for example:
    “”This agreement addresses the problem arising throughout the state: balancing the need for renewable energy generation with subsequent impacts to wildlife,” said Bob Power, Executive Director of the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. ”
    Similar allowances can be made for other wildlife such as tortoises, although the ATV people also need to be addressed here.
    Creative solar panel locations can also be found, the Denver airport now has several private parking structures covered with solar panel carports.  Shopping centers could do the same.
    I personally think that certain wind turbine companies need to be required to do more to protect worker health during the manufacturing process.  Same for emissions.
    Robert Kennedy may be concerned about the sight and environmental impact of turbines at sea (but not “cottages” on shore) and the citizens of Rock Springs Wyoming may be bent out of shape by wind turbines on a nearby ridge, but not coal strip mines and oil fields also nearby.  Again, I think a balanced approach is possible.
    Here in Colorado, where the sun is always shining when the weather is hot, I don’t think any residence ought to be able to attach an air conditioner to the grid.  And we could accomplish much of our heating (and cooling) requirements by passive means if subdivisions were oriented to do that.  Also better insulation, window overhangs and more willingness to dress for the climate.  I think that measures such as these can do much to balance out peak power demands.
    There are marketing and time based utilization methods that can be utilized for power distribution on a grid.
    I think that some of your point #4 is accomplished with lifestyle changes rather than a steady increase in energy production.

  29. Andy says:

    I admit I really don’t understand the perceived obsession with the purported dangers of nuclear power mere days after tens-of-thousands were killed by a tsunami.
    The irony is that a few small changes to the plant could have prevented this entire accident.  The emergency backup generator  above-ground fuel tanks were placed on the seaward side of the facility and were taken out by the tsunami.  Had they been placed elsewhere we might be talking instead about how great nuclear power is and how awesome the Japanese are at nuclear safety.

  30. No, I think Crook’s comments are pretty much on the same wavelength as mine. He wants you to know what the numbers actually say, convey that as best as you can, and admit when you don’t know. He wants you to stop avoiding complexity and ducking quantitative reasoning. He wants you to tell it like it is, not how it makes a neat package.
    If you don’t think I am on exactly that wavelength, I am not communicating very well, myself. I’ll work on it.
    I really don’t know what you mean by my “sweeping, oft stated, generalized critique bear[ing] no resemblance to reality”. I mean exactly the substitution of compelling narrative for accurate reportage when I complain. That seems to be the thrust of your criticism too.

  31. MT, I would put good money on the proposition that if you came here and posted something like “the problem is compounded by the journalistic propensity to glide around what you don’t know or have failed to understand,” it would be quickly and reflexively dismissed as a generalized critique bearing no resemblance to reality.
    It’s not what you say that matters, but the fact that it’s you saying it. The fastest way to get Keith Kloor to call for aggressive action on carbon emissions would be to declare your full-throated support of the Breakthrough Institute‘s latest screed.

  32. willard says:

    > I mean exactly the substitution of compelling narrative for accurate reportage when I complain. That seems to be the thrust of your criticism too.
    Indeed.  But notice how Keith did.  He did not talk about journalism in general. He did illustrate the points he wished to convey.  He did refrain from (over-)editorializing.  His subject was clearly identified; it is not an abstract entity.
    Specific, casuistic, nominalistic criticisms might provide better chances to be taken more constructively.  At the very least, they carry no induction steps.  They do not burden or mark a professional endeavour as a whole.

  33. Gaythia says:

    Andy @29 brings up the issue of backup generators.
    Dave Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists discusses US preparedness in that regard here:

  34. intrepid_wanders says:

    Jonathan Gilligan #13:
    My response to your “Pee-Wee” [SNIP] still stands.  If you actually comprehended Barry’s article, a normal reactor can take up to a week to shutdown.  This is not the fission process which is shut down ASAP when an exceptional event occurs (control rods deploy).  Barry makes no mention of “We meant to do that” as that is entirely your fabrication.
    I still am trying to read you comments with for the objectivity I believe you wish to portray, but all that I can see is the hysteria fueling information that is prompting people to hoard potassium-iodine pills.[THAT COULD BE YOUR OWN BIASED FILTER/KK]
    What is with the unknown commenter straw-man?  I thought Keith covered this very well in another thread.  Ben Franklin used pens and Bart V. has second thoughts about not doing so.  It is good publicity for people that do, but making it a point of comment on a blog, that is just childish.  I have penned under the same alias for 20 years (back in BBS’s and fidonet…).
    FWIW, you usually write better than in this thread, even if I disagree with you conclusions.  If you wish, tell me a story of Fukushima’s Reactor 4 that might be enlightening… unless Reactors 1-3 are more entertaining…[FWIW, I ALSO BELIEVE THAT PEOPLE WHO DON’T USE THEIR OWN NAMES FIND IT EASIER TO BE PERSONALLY INSULTING. NEXT TIME TRYING MAKING YOUR POINT WITHOUT THE GRATUITOUS INSULTS.//KK]

  35. jeffn says:

    Gaythia, may I recap what I see as your responses? I think it will help you understand why I disagree.

    1. Lots of emissions for building windmills. Your answer- well, partly not in the west where we don’t cut trees. And then there’s rooftop solar, which Germany proved doesn’t work, but it does exist.

    2. Windmills cost a heck of a lot more than we’ve been told and produce a heck of a lot less electricity than we’ve been told. Your answer- well, what is this whole obsession with so-called “dollars.” Let’s use “units” instead.

    3. Windmills and solar have massive environmental impacts being large, spread-out industrial structures that in many regions must be built in otherwise pristine environmental areas. Your answer- well, we’re happy to give up environmental impacts for certain, preferred, industries while simultaneously arguing that no similar “balance” is acceptable elsewhere. And yes, while it’s true that solar uses water over dozens of square miles in the desert we must remember that nukes and coal plants also use water on their tiny footprint beside rivers and lakes.

    4. To electrify transportation, you need electricity and you need it cost effectively. Your answer- no, no, we can have electric cars as soon as we ban air conditioning and heating. We can easily ban air conditioning – just look at Denver high in the mountains. Pay no attention to Mississippi in August. We can ban heating easily as well, just pick up every house in the burbs and “reorient” it while rebuilding it. Simple, cheap.

    The reason I keep drumming on this point is that it’s the reason I’m a skeptic. I’m not qualified to evaluate the details of climate science, but I can evaluate “solutions.” My acceptance of the seriousness of those concerned about CO2 emissions is proportional to the seriousness of their solutions.

  36. Gaythia says:


    1.  Logically, you can’t make a blanket statement in which (lower sunshine) Germany “proves” rooftop solar doesn’t work, and not allow me to point out that there are places such as Colorado where efficiencies are much higher.  Besides, Germany is cutting subsidies because they believe that they are no longer needed, now that solar is more established, not because solar “failed”.   See:  “The environment minister said that the planned cuts were due to the success of the solar sector, which had led to over-subsidization of the industry.”
    Also, much energy production takes place at great distances from where it is needed, the coal fired power plants of Wyoming for example.

    2.  My “obsession” with energy units ought to be one you embrace, for any kind of energy production to make sense, energy put in to the process must be low relative to the energy that comes out of it.  Dollar cost often hides a hidden subsidy of currently inexpensive fossil fuels.  (and also, this analysis does say that the payoff, for solar in low sun areas for example, is a lot slower).

    3.  Power plants have a much wider footprint, or potential footprint than just their buildings.   The emission plume effects of coal fired power plants are quite extensive.  For example:

    4. ??  What I said was:  “I think that some of your point #4 is accomplished with lifestyle changes rather than a steady increase in energy production.”

  37. Tom Gray says:

    I have been watching the coverage of the Japanese earthquake and have been very frustrated because of the lack of true content. The media does not seem to not know very much and have coped with that lack of knowledge by repeating buzz phrases and creating scare stories.

    Nowat    —

    Dave Farber sent out the URL for the story on the his IP list. The story is an understandable engineering account of the procedures that are being followed to deal with the nuclear reactors and the science and engineering behind them. There is no crisis that is going to produce loss of life. That is the story beyond the hype that is the common product of the professional media.

    Now of course this brings up questions of just why the professional media is handling this situation so poorly and why this is not an exception. From what I can tell this is because of the lack of resources that these professional agencies can bring to bear on the issue. General function and political reporters are assigned to a story for which they have no expertise beyond that of a layman. The agency has little else to provide and so these stories are those that a layman or “some bloke down the pub” would create. Thus the hype because they have little else to offer. What appears to be happening now is that the amateur media in the form of the blogosphere is harnessing the expertise of true experts. The blogosphere has infinitely more resources than the professional media and this is being demonstrated now.

    McLuhan talked about the global village. I suppose that this is what is being demonstrated now. The expertise present in the commons is being assigned to the task. The president of HP once said “If HP only knew what HP knows”.  By that he meant what is happening now. HP and other companies are burdened with a hierarchical management system in which knowledge is filtered and thus blocked as it rises in the organization. The management layers do not have the capacity to truly understand the knowledge being generated beneath them. That is not their function. The professional media provide this hierarchical filtering in the general population. The flat characteristic of the blogosphere does not provide the filtering function but provides for the rapid assembly of the expertise necessary to analyze, create  and distribute knowledge.

    The professional media decry with some reason the anarchy of the blogosphere. However the anarchy of the blogosphere allows to to deal with unexpected situations that overwhelm the limited resources of the professional agencies. Mcluhan’s village created by the electronic media is resilient to a degree that has not been seen before.

  38. Jonathan Gilligan says:

    @intrepid_wanders (#34): I think I really botched trying to make my point. Adding humor by taking a cheap shot with the Pee Wee clip made things worse. It was disrespectful and turned what I really intended as constructive criticism into mockery, which doesn’t help keep a serious discussion on track, so I am sorry to have done that.

    Similarly, in talking about posting under my own name I was in part simply trying to say that I take full responsibility for my errors, so if you think I’ve botched something, give me evidence and I’ll acknowledge the error. But I was also taking a swipe at you because I was angry that you were pseudonymously mocking my judgment. I should have kept that out of the comment. I’m sorry about that.

    Let me try to restate my original point clearly because I don’t think you understood what I was trying to say (see also this comment I posted at RPJ’s blog): If you go back to my original comment (#5), I clearly said that “The facts are … awful nuclear accidents are less dangerous than coal-plants functioning as designed.” I’m not trying to stoke panic and KI ingestion. Quite the contrary, I’m talking about more and less effective ways to avoid panic.
    What I was worrying about was that being overconfident in their early pronouncements, the legitimate experts would lose the public’s confidence and that the public would overreact by embracing the most dreadful damage estimates rather than more sensible ones, and that the experts would have a hard time regaining credibility if their early public statements gave the impression of being out of touch with the real (but small) dangers.

    Both you and Barry Brook make a big mistake, in my opinion, by emphasizing the early and successful shut-down of chain-reactions as eliminating the serious risks. I infer from your two comments here that you don’t think I understand the difference between a chain reaction and residual decay heat. I do.

    My concern all along has been that by emphasizing nuclear chain reactions as though they were the only significant risk would lose the public’s trust because I always saw chemical chain reactions (fires and explosions that might disperse radioactive material, such as spent-fuel rods, beyond the containment structures) as the biggest realistic risk. The dangers of spent-fuel storage were well-known years before this and were a focal point of the debate over extending the license at the Oyster Creek plant) By focusing almost exclusively on the negligible risk of chain reactions as the only “credible” source of a “serious accident,” When you’re storing tons of dangerously radioactive and pyrophoric material OUTSIDE the main containment structure, and when you can’t reliably keep it wet there’s a problem. A simple chemical fire is sufficient to loft a lot of nasty stuff high enough to spread it all over the nearby countryside (but most likely not high enough to catch the jet stream over to America). While I can’t read Brook’s mind about whether he had thought about the dangers of chemical reactions, what he wrote gave the definite impression that he had forgotten that there are plenty of ways to have a “serious accident” without nuclear chain reactions.

    I intended my comment about “I meant to do that” to describe the way the general public would read these expert pronouncements. The public is not going to look at Brook’s assurance that a serious accident is impossible, and then look at the events of the subsequent six or seven days and say, “well, of course you were only talking about serious accidents due to nuclear reactions, not chemical reactions.” The public doesn’t much care about the details of whether the fires and explosions were caused by nuclear or chemical reactions. Only that they happened. And that the experts had appeared to say that they couldn’t.

    I’m trying here to say that it’s important to prevent the public from overreacting to the risk, but that the way a lot of experts were commenting in the public media last week were counterproductive.

    And this brings me to your comments about “paradigm-changing” accidents. That’s a dangerous rhetorical strategy that can backfire. If you’re telling the public that no one could have reasonably expected the tsunami and its effect, then you’re telling the public that even the  best nuclear power experts are underestimating the chance of accidents because they’re ignoring the possibility of such paradigm-changing events. How would you reassure a resident of San Luis Obispo who asks you how sure you can be that there won’t be a paradigm changing earthquake in Diablo Canyon if you had no clue that one was possible at Fukushima?

    Conversely, if we can identify human error in the risk management at Fukushima, then we have something we can fix and improve. If this was purely a paradigm-changing incident, then there’s very little we can do in the future but pray that we don’t experience more paradigm-changing incidents.

    If we look at a future that entails thousands of new nuclear power plants going on line throughout the world in the next several decades to meet growing demand for electricity, then we’re going to have on average several plants around the world experiencing once-in-a-millennium events every year (earthquakes, storms, floods, mechanical failures, etc.). If nuclear power is going to be politically viable, its supporters will have to find a way to reassure a nervous public that plants can be credibly designed to withstand black swan natural hazards on a regular basis.

    I’m suggesting that the way to start winning this confidence is to be straightforward about what we don’t know and where people have made mistakes or errors of judgment.
    This is crucial because, as I said back in #5, nuclear power at its worst is a lot safer than coal at its best, and if nuclear power goes off the table because its risks are exaggerated in the public mind relative to those of coal, we all lose.

  39. The problem with Fukushima, as with all potentially similar nuclear events, is that there is a “pointy end” to human impact. Because of the nature of the beast, the imperative for close-up human efforts to arrest an otherwise inevitable escalation is inversely proportionate to those humans’ well-being – that when it would be best for everybody to turn and run away it is even more necessary for them to move in closer. You can’t just say “it’s broken. Bugger it,” and walk away. This is the paradox that is nuclear fission in its currently deployed state.
    Certainly there are lessons to be learned from the events at Fukushima. In the absence of an explanation, I’m completely unable to fathom why a plant is situated on the east coast of Japan, so close to the subduction zone and in the line of an inevitable tsunami. When it came, or how big it would be were unknowns, but there was never any question that a tsunami would come. And will come again.
    I understand the logistical importance of being located close to sea water, should an accident occur and the reactor be deemed un-salvageable, but there is a coupled dependence on tsunami-resilient technologies to make use of that sea water which either were not present or were not in fact tsunami-resilient and which failed. There appears to have been some break in the logic here, though obviously there could be a rational explanation that I just haven’t found yet.
    It seems to me evident that retrograding existing plants to adopt new passive cooling technologies for handling spent fuel rods is probably the first lesson to be learned from Fukushima. This seems to me to be a no-brainer.
    I don’t accept the argument that coal is, on a good day, more dangerous than a nuclear power plant having an accident. In fact I find that line of reasoning beyond preposterous. All arguments I’ve ever seen made this way make heavy use of popular scarelore based on a general ignorance and fear of the words “radioactive”, “radiation” etc. This doesn’t mean I’m a fan of coal, but I don’t need to be in order to object to the act of distorting knowledge to fit a particular narrative.

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