Nuclear News Meltdown

What the media has gotten right-and wrong-about the Japanese nuclear disaster


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.

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  1. I've been receiving push messages from CNBC about stories like low levels of radiation found in milk along west coast, etc.

    1. Everything naturally has "low levels" of radiation. Without giving the ratio of the radiation versus the natural levels (a 1:1 ratio would be time to fire some reporter's ass, for example), and the expected risk, these scare stories are meaningless.

  2. TV news in Chicago last night started out with stories about radiation from Japan detected in the area. They did say the levels were very low and nothing to worry about, but you still feel that little bit of panic even though you know your microwave is probably more dangerous.

    1. Eating a bannana is probably more dangerous.

  3. Radiation levels 20x normal!
    Cooling water leaking from the[garble*, garble]!

    I've been ranting about this to my kids for weeks. The headlines are worse than bad and the stories inform one of nothing. Armed with the knowledge of a guy that served on subs 27+ years ago, I have forgotten most of what I knew. However, one thing I do know is statements like 20X greater than normal means nothing. The only meaningful numbers are the actual levels, the time exposed and shielding/distance between those exposed. All three of these must be taken together to properly judge potential danger.

    [garble]* All cooling water is not equal. There is a hell've difference between primary and the secondary coolant loops, as well as, cooling water in the fuel rod containment well.

  4. Whatever. This is a continuing story. The reactors are not under control. From what I can tell the story is still "We have no idea when this is going to be under control and we will continue to downplay the health effects until people start glowing in the dark."

    Forgive me for not hating the media for covering this story. I will reserve my hate for the coverage of our Middle East misadventures.

    1. Whatever, I don't care about your facts and data! Something might go wrong some day, and I want the American public scared into accepting bad legislation, just like me!

  5. It's for the children.

  6. Hopefully someone will take advantage of the Japan nuke disaster and call attention to the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor (LFTR). In truth, the light water reactor (LWR) should never have been built. The LFTR cannot meltdown, has waste products removed on a continuous basis so that cataclysmic failure is not even possible, and it can be built for less than a coal plant because there are no core internals or emergency cooling requirements. To top it off, a single LFTR can produce the power of 20 conventional reactors meaning the economy of scale would be tremendous. Any serious discussion of an energy policy isn't serious without a thorough discussion of the LFTR.

    1. Sure hope you're right.

    2. The thorium reactors will never melt down because they are currently only paper reactors. Just a cartoon, without all of the supporting engineering design that is necessary to actually make them work. Once that work is done, you will see that they, too, can melt down.

      I used to regulate reactors, and I can tell you all about "inherently safe" reactors. They only exist in the minds of academics, con men, and businessmen who don't know what they are talking about.

      1. Indeed. All the "inherently meltdown proof" designs are still only on paper.

        More money for generation IV design research is the only possible good outcome from this clusterfuck.

        Four large commercial reactors definitely gone; two of the building significantly damaged; unknown but significant levels of local contamination, some chance that significant contamination may extend for a considerable distance; two reactors reported to be intact but no way to know if it will be safe for people to come in to run them; spent fuel cooling pools boiled dry or nearly so which implies a risk of loss of containment for spent fuel; the list just goes on and on.

        Probably not another Chernobyl, but a hell of a lot worse than TMI (where, in truth the getting-close-worse-case-scenario safety systems performed as designed).

  7. I have 45 years of experience in the nuclear industry. I have a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering. Although I had vague ideas of what was happening in Japan, I could not confirm them based on the news reports. The news reports made no sense. However, while this act of god is an enormous economic disaster, I never felt that the population was in any real danger. I still do not.

    1. There is a real danger for the population: Tepco is notoriously incompetent.

  8. They used to set off atomic bombs 100 miles from Las Vegas and no one gave a shit. Now they detect one atom of cesium from an accident 5,000 miles away and freak the fuck out.

  9. The Hawaiian Islands - closest part of the U.S. to the Japanese Home Islands - received no reported radiation from the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan during WW2, nor did the West Coast of the U.S. Distance = dilution = lower levels of radiation than at the source. Of course, I don't expect much comprehension from folks who think that second-hand smoke is more dangerous to those who inhale it than the same smoke was when the smoker inhaled it. Don't mention 'third-hand smoke'. Utter nonsense.

    "Elevated levels of radiation found in milk in California and Washington." Elevated above what level? Assuming that they news report was trying to say that higher than normal background levels were detected in the milk, how much higher? How does the reporter - or the source, for that matter - know that the increase arrived from Japan?? Radioactive atoms, etc, don't come with a postal code on them, ya know? Was it an increase from the naturally-occurring local background radiation? Those levels are not fixed and static, themselves. There's a Yiddish word for all this reporting about the Japanese nuclear reactors and the danger to the U.S.: 'drek'. Even better, two words: 'goyim nuchas'. Don't like my transliteration? Tough, I don't have the correct fonts. The reporting is still crap and gentile nonsense.

  10. Actually I am struck by the contra-scenario. I don't believe the news media is giving enough attention to the Fukushima radiation. While we in the US have the luxury of being a few thousand miles removed, it is ignorant to act as if the certain increase in background radiation is anything other than a real health hazard. While the threat in the US doesn't rise to an immediate grave level, certainly it makes sense to take reasonable precautions - understanding weather patterns, making sure you are taking a multi vitamin that includes iodine, avoiding rain whenever possible, knowing what is in your milk and where it came from. Despite the snickering of the anti-cassandras, the reality is that there is very little chance of this ending any other way than Chernobyl - with a concrete tomb around the plant and maybe a 50 mile radius exclusion zone. While our health may bear little immediate effect, Japan is the second largest economy in the world, the largest holder of US debt, the second largest producer of automobiles in the world, and the largest producer of high end circuitry and semiconductors. What will be interesting is in a month when these imports begin to show up with significant levels of radiation - your laptop, your car your tunafish, your iphone. Assume that the amount of radiation that will be entering our lives due to this tragedy is insignificant and will continue to be insignificant at your own peril.

    1. I have been recommending this to everyone (maybe even elsewhere on this blog). People need to understand the orders of magnitude involved here. The radiation likely to be riding on a laptop made two hundred miles from Fukushima (or wherever) is going to be somewhere in the small blue boxes in this chart. Nobody's going to get cancer from this. If we didn't have very fancy detection equipment it wouldn't even have been noticed. Get a grip, folks...


    2. People have difficulties understanding the numbers involved:
      o the difference between microSieverts and milliSieverts
      o the difference between milliSieverts per hour and milliSieverts per year
      o the difference between a short exposure to higher radiation levels, and continuous exposure to higher radiation levels.
      o the difference between measurements outdoors, and what people would actually take up.

      Exposure to 250 milliSieverts over the course of a year is equivalent to an average exposure of 28.5 microSieverts per hour. Thus, I would consider persistent values above 25, 30 microSieverts per hour to be a reason for concern.

    1. I think Jimmy Buffett answered your question about the volcano quite a few years ago...

  11. Aside from sensationalizing the danger, I think that the media has this fear that if they don't emphasize how bad things can get that if, in fact, the bad things do happen to the magnitude feared they would be accused of being patsies for TEPCO, the nuclear industry, etc. Their integrity would come into question. If they give air time to many of the dire predictions and they don't happen, nobody is going to accuse them of compromising their integrity.

    1. I don't think that is the case. The media just know from experience that "Nuclear horror accident! Will thousands die? Will Tokoy have to be evacuated" will get more people to read what they reported than "Situation at Japanese nuclear power plant unchanged from yesterday. The US are completely safe even if the whole thing explodes".

      1. +1

  12. Jesus Fucking Christ!

    -that is all-

  13. If you want to read hysterics, try a British rag. Brits in Japan are second only to Aussies in terms of sheer stupid:

    They fled and left us here to fry.

    I look outside now and [the streets are] completely deserted. It's like London in the zombie movie 28 Days Later.

    The streets are silent. We live near the centre of Tokyo and yet there is no movement at all. [Nerima is not the damn "center of Tokyo."]

    I'm scared, and shaky with hunger and really, really tired. I've got two hungry children and just a few crisps, oranges and a can of tuna. I've had some juice today but I'm saving the rest for the children. There is no petrol, no water, no food.

    My children are already starving. I found three riceballs and some seaweed this morning in a local convenience store and took the last couple of water canisters.

    We went on Sunday to buy a 4x4. ... We figured it might be the only way to get out. [Take the damn train.]

    I then rang the Foreign Office and got patched through to a crisis line man, who just told me to try and get on a plane. I kept telling him we can't even get to the airport but he didn't seem concerned. I was shaking. I feel like they're just leaving us here to fry. [TAKE THE DAMN TRAIN.]

  14. Thank you! At last, a balanced article on the subject.

  15. I suppose it depends where you stand, no? As to comparisons with Chernobyl,

    The IAEA is reporting that measured soil concentrations of Cs-137 as far away as Iitate Village, 40 kilometers northwest of Fukushima-Dai-Ichi, correspond to deposition levels of up to 3.7 megabecquerels per square meter (MBq/sq. m). This is far higher than previous IAEA reports of values of Cs-137 deposition, and comparable to the total beta-gamma measurements reported previously by IAEA and mentioned on this blog.

    This should be compared with the deposition level that triggered compulsory relocation in the aftermath of the Chernobyl accident: the level set in 1990 by the Soviet Union was 1.48 MBq/sq. m.

    While I've long been a supporter of nuclear power, it would be dishonest to try to gloss over the astounding failures in not just existing backup systems but in designing adequate systems and procedures in the first place. Sadly, Japan mirrored many of the procedures which exist in the US so for the NRC to say 'hey no problem here' is rubbish. Sure, no problem until something goes fubar.

    And while I can blame the environmentalists for the fact that many of these very old nukes are still running when far safer new designs are available, the NRC has done jack about spent fuel storage on and off site.

  16. Having been a nuclear worker, I have "some" understanding of this stuff. When it comes to radiation exposure, we utilize the concept of ALARA(As Low As Reasonably Achievable). The levels of ground(surface) contamination they are finding 40 Kilometers from the site are Ten times the level required for protective gear for nuclear workers. Workers at a nuclear plant would be required to wear AntiContamination suits and carefully seal up before entry and carefully undress upon leaving an area with this level of radioactivity. This is well outside Japan's current evacuation area. Any radiation dose, including the normal background dose received by everyone, has some risk. Current science says that increasing the dose (even a small amount) increases the risk of cancer(even a small amount of increased risk of cancer). Scientists and engineers, as far as I can tell, really don't have a clue what is going on TODAY in the spent fuel pools and reacters at Daichi, so for them to say no risk in Japan or even no risk in US is total bullshit. The problem is not over and reacters 1-3 are not stable and neither is spent fuel pool #4 stable. There isd still the possibility, not real likely, that there will be a massive release of radioactivity from Daichi. I agree that the risk associated with CURRENT radioactivity levels in both Japan and the US is EXTREMELY LOW, however, don't be fooled. This situation is far from stable and a cloud of serious radioactivity could be over California about 5 days after a significant additional disharge from Fukishima.

    1. And Hiroshima? Nagasaki? The test sites in the desert? These were all actual nuclear explosions--that didn't shower the west coast with 'clouds' of 'serious radioactivity'.

      When in trouble,
      or in doubt,
      run in circles,
      scream and shout.

      1. The amount of radioactive material in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs was around 25 kg of u235 in one and around 35 kg of plutonium in the other. Of these bombs, only about 4% of the material fissioned. Not much total radioactivity was released and they were airbursts. At Fukishima, especially the spent fuel pools, you are talking hundreds of tons of filthy, fission product filled fuel. See this link for brief discussion http://www.rerf.or.jp/general/qa_e/qa12det.html Again, I'm not saying the bad scenario is likely, but it is entirely possible.

  17. not sure if anyone can confirm this, but a coworker told me that the "crew members" who stayed behind to spray water on the reactors are actually bums.

  18. In this case reporters acted responsibly in the face of lies, misinformation and propaganda belching from the government and nuclear wonks. This is unlike the press who politicize a hangnail. There was no way they could blame FOX.

  19. In this case reporters acted responsibly in the face of lies, misinformation and propaganda belching from the government and nuclear wonks. This is unlike the press who politicize a hangnail. There was no way they could blame FOX.

  20. Fukushima reactor #1 spewing 4.0Sv lethal steam http://t.co/A5G0YVe

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