In the aftermath of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the fear of a new Chernobyl has captured the headlines of the world's news media. As the initial shock subsided, the sense of a slowly unfolding catastrophe has produced alarming headlines like "Japanese Scramble to Avert Nuclear Meltdown" (The New York Times) and "Conditions 'Hellish' at Nuclear Site" (The Washington Post).
The sense of alarm is palpable, the inherent drama of the news inescapable. But do the events justify the coverage? In the first nine days after the earthquake, the print editions of The New York Times and The Washington Post together carried 69 stories on the nuclear accident, including 16 on the front page. A Lexis/Nexis search of U.S. daily newspapers found 1,936 stories that mentioned the accident as of March 28.
The accident is frequently described as the worst since the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the Soviet Union, with potentially dire consequences for the future of nuclear power. If we look back to Chernobyl, however, which was a far worse catastrophe than what has happened at Fukushima, the gap between what the media told the public and what a majority of scientists believed was huge.
In 1987, one year after the Chernobyl accident, the Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) compared media coverage surrounding the disaster with scientific opinion on nuclear power. News coverage at the broadcast networks, news magazines, and leading newspapers treated Chernobyl as a disaster for nuclear energy in the United States as well.
By a 3-to-1 margin, news stories concluded that a Chernobyl-style disaster was likely to occur in the U.S. Among sources identified as scientists, those who called U.S. reactors unsafe outnumbered those who called them safe by a 3-to-2 margin. (For example, a scientist on the CBS Evening News delivered this soundbite when asked about nuclear safety: "Anything that can melt down possibly will.")
Conversely, a CMPA survey of 580 scientists randomly selected from the listings of American Men and Women of Science (the "Who's Who" of the scientific community) found that those who rated a Chernobyl-type accident as improbable outnumbered those who rated it as probable by a 4-to-1 margin, and those who regarded U.S. reactors as safe outnumbered those who found them unsafe by the same 4 to-1 margin.
Of course, it could be that scientists were more sanguine about nuclear power before Chernobyl, and these numbers reflect a falloff from even higher levels of support. Except that a similar study conducted in 1980 found nearly identical results. That survey of 741 AMWS-listed scientists, published in Nature, also found that scientists preferred to proceed with nuclear energy development by a margin of 89 to 9 percent.
This was all the more impressive, considering that the 1980 survey was conducted a year after the Three Mile Island accident that soured many Americans on nuclear power.
It's been a quarter of a century since Chernobyl, and we don't know whether scientific opinion has changed. But it seems unlikely that support for nuclear energy would have changed after so many years without a major incident. Indeed, this technology has been getting a new look from governments and environmentalists alike in recent years, as a means of reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
To risk assessors, nuclear power fits into the low probability-high consequence category of events that seem especially risky to the public because their negative effects occur only rarely but with devastating results. People are more likely to accept the negative effects of events that occur regularly and build up their impact cumulatively over time. Thus, the public rates air travel as more dangerous than travel by automobile, despite that fact that fatalities are far more likely to occur from car accidents than from airplane accidents.
The Fukushima event is dangerous both for what has already happened there and for what might yet happen. But all the scary headlines may produce irrational fears along with the fears that are perfectly reasonable. For example, on the West Coast and elsewhere, residents have engaged in panic buying of potassium iodine (which prevents radiation-induced thyroid cancer), despite living some 5,000 miles away from any radiation leak.
But media-fueled panic over this story is not inevitable. The Washington Post recently chronicled the informative but low-key coverage by NHK, Japan's public broadcaster, which has received partial credit for the absence of panic among the Japanese public. And when this crisis fades away, we will still need to find the means to fulfill our energy needs. The crucial task will become more difficult if frightening media images interfere with a reasoned assessment of nuclear power's risks and benefits.
S. Robert Lichter is professor of communications at George Mason University, where he also directs the Center for Media and Public Affairs, which conducts scientific studies of the news and entertainment media, and the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS), which works to improve the quality of statistical and scientific information in the news.