Field of Science

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 and capricious 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 several instances of being routinely 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 the science 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.


  1. While I'm generally not a fan I found George Monbiot's take on Fukushima refreshing.

  2. Ashutosh:

    Agree completely. Could this be an example of "The Left's War on Science"?

    The NYorker has excellent articles by Jeremy Bernstein, a physicist on Physics, and Jerome Groopman an internist and oncologist on cancer. Surely they can do better than a journalist and a novelist writing on nuclear power.

    As for the NYT -- it must be read, as Russians read Pravda 50 years ago, to discern the agenda it's promulgating. As someone said about the show trials of the 30s -- everything is true but the facts.


  3. Exactly. This is where scientifically minded liberals will have to put up or shut up; sadly in these matters the left is losing as much credibility as it accuses the right of having lost (although I will still award top points to the right for the War on Science). The basic problem is that the meaning of the word "expert" has been lost on the media. I have read books by both Bernstein and Groopman and they are definitely experts in their respective fields. I stopped watching CNN when they brought in Dr. Phil to offer his erudite opinion on the psychology of the shooter at Virginia Tech in 2007. The NYT, Salon, the HuffPo and now the New Yorker have all succumbed to the disease. It's hard to know who to trust anymore.

  4. It's a contest no one should want to win, but the left is trying hard with nuclear power. I'd call it a draw at present.

    For your information, the Nature of 17 Mar '11 has a pretty good article on what happened and why < vol. 471 pp. 273 - 2734 '11 >. The tsunami took about 30 minutes to reach the reactors, meaning that it was traveling at 200 miles per hour (good map of the epicenter and the most seriously damaged reactor with a mileage scale thrown it in today's NYT). The Nature article also says that the wave size was 13 - 15 meters (42 - 49 feet high), much higher than the seawalls that had been built to protect the coastline. Remembering that 1 cubic meter of water weighs nearly a ton, the flat faces of the reactor facing the sea were struck with incredible force. It is remarkable that they survived at all.


  5. FYI:

    “Rad Decision: A Novel of Nuclear Power” culminates in an accident very similar to the Japanese tragedy. (Same reactor type, same initial problem – a station blackout with scram.) The author (me) has worked in the US nuclear industry over 25 years. The book is an excellent source of perspective for the lay person — as I’ve been hearing from readers. There is nothing like it on the market -- I have provided a never-seen insider's perspective on the people, politics and technology of this controversial energy source. Believe me, the real world of nuclear (good and bad) bears little resemblance to what most people think -- and I include in that group most of the journalists, academics and advocates currently chatting away on TV and radio.

    Rad Decision is currently available free online at . (No adverts, nobody makes money off this site.) Reader reviews are in the homepage comments - there are plenty of them. There is also a paperback version available and a PDF download.

    Unfortunately, my media presence consists of this little-known book and website, so I'm not an acknowledged "expert". I just happpen to do the nuclear stuff for a living.

  6. Thanks for the link. Your manuscript sounds very interesting and I will check it out.

  7. The nuclear industry doesn't need any more cheerleading. It's got the money and no amount of public opposition (not all of it from the dread "liberals" ) is going to change it.

  8. Retread: The exaggeration and misrepresentations by the left-wing media still pale in comparison to the bonafide denial of evolution and climate change by the right-wingers.


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