Nuclear exceptionalism: why is a nuclear fatality more noteworthy than a non-nuclear one?

Twenty-six days after the ferocious Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Fukushima nuclear emergency has still not produced a single fatality. You would never know that from the headlines. Though the quake/tsunami killed tens of thousands of people and left half a million homeless, by far most of the news from Japan has centred on the Fukushima situation. Casual consumers of the news could be forgiven for thinking Fukushima is a major problem; in fact, it is obviously minor.

Given that most of the west coast of North America sits at the edge of Cascadia, a giant subduction zone which at any time could produce an earthquake just as if not more powerful than the one that devastated northeastern Japan on March 11, you’d think North American media organizations might, in the spirit of learning lessons we might soon apply, show some interest in how the Japanese are dealing with the half-million homeless survivors of the quake. And you’d be wrong. Apparently, most editors have decided that the relatively minor situation at Fukushima, which, to repeat, has not killed a single person so far, is more sexy.

That particular aspect of the situation could change, of course. There might be fatalities among the workers who are striving mightily to get the situation under control. By all accounts, they are facing adversity the rest of us can barely imagine. In the week following the quake, there were literally hundreds of aftershocks, ranging in magnitude from 5 to 7. Ottawa, where I live, was hit by a single Magnitude-5 quake back in the summer. It was scary. I can only imagine what it must be like for the workers who are struggling to get Fukushima under control. And I cannot even imagine what it’s like for the half million survivors of the quake/tsunami.

If—heaven forbid—a fatality does occur because of radiation at Fukushima, it will be instant world headline news. The anti-nuclear lobby will point to it as proof that nuclear technology is dangerous and should be phased out, in favour of natural gas (which kills numerous people every year—google the term “natural gas explosion” and look at the results). The media sensation, by virtue of the sheer volume and breadth of coverage, will confer social proof onto this facile argument, fooling casual readers into thinking that it is valid.

When the prospect of a single nuclear-related fatality is judged more newsworthy than the plight of half a million homeless survivors of an unprecedented natural disaster, then something has gone egregiously wrong in the editorial rooms of mainstream media vehicles. It is time we admit that we do risk wrong in our public conversations.

The media have a role to play in disaster preparedness. The most important aspect of that role is to convey pertinent, timely information to the general public. In the case of Fukushima, many western media vehicles have done a massive disservice to the general public both in the west and in Japan, by sensationalizing and scaremongering about the nuclear emergency while downplaying, if not altogether ignoring, the real emergency—the plight of the half million homeless survivors of the quake and tsunami.

Of all advanced industrial societies, the Japanese are by far the best prepared when it comes to the kind of natural disaster that Cascadia can and will inflict on the west coast of North America. It would be extremely helpful to know how exactly the Japanese are getting relief and supplies to the affected zones, how they are feeding, sheltering, and providing medical services to hundreds of thousands of traumatized people.

Societal preparedness for this kind of massive emergency must begin with awareness. The mainstream media are essential for strengthening this awareness. It is time western media organizations step up and assume their proper role.

The media are filled with intelligent, hardworking, and creative people. Surely they can figure out how to provide useful information while maintaining readers.

23 comments for “Nuclear exceptionalism: why is a nuclear fatality more noteworthy than a non-nuclear one?

  1. April 6, 2011 at 19:07

    I would say that the reason that people are rightfully concerned about pollution from nukes is not the issue of immediate death, but the long term effects of nuke pollution escaping from the plants through routine operations and from emergencies such as Fukushima. This pollution gets into the environment and and does not go away – it keeps harming health for thousands of years. Also, the ‘on the fly’ modifications of standards of safety in Japan is illustrative of a bigger problem – we don’t know how much is safe, and the ‘standards’ are arbitrary and set to propel forward a highly inefficient (energetically and economically) over subsidized industry.

    • Steve Aplin
      April 6, 2011 at 19:24

      Greg, thanks for your comment. You are right, many people are worried about the long term effects. I think a lot of people listen a bit too uncritically to those who advocate the linear-no-threshold hypothesis regarding safe radiation limits. Humans have evolved over millions of years while being bombarded every second by natural radiation. There are safe levels, and since routine operations at nuclear plants add such minuscule amounts to the natural background levels it is simple common sense to say they are not putting anyone in any danger.

      Measured worldwide, the levels produced by the emergency at Fukushima are also minuscule. So when public health authorities tell me that I have nothing to worry about, I believe them.

      As for the efficiency or inefficiency of nuclear, that is a “compared with what” kind of proposition. Surely you’re not saying that other, competing, sources of energy are more efficient. Wind and solar are demonstrably the least efficient ways to make electricity. Coal and gas are thermodynamically around as “efficient” as nuclear (combined-cycle gas is a bit more efficient). But they require far more effort and expenditure of energy prior to the fuel reaching the plant.

      And post-combustion… well it’s not even close. Nuclear produces tiny amounts of “waste” (assuming you don’t recycle the used fuel) while even gas — the least carbon-intensive fossil fuel — dumps literally millions of tons of CO2 into the atmosphere. As an example, the Douglas Point reactor near Kincardine (on the Bruce Power site) ran for just under two decades, and generated around 18 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. All of its used fuel is still at the site, in 42 canisters occupying a patch of ground around the size of a large suburban home, retrievable whenever we decide to recycle it. A combined cycle gas plant of equivalent capacity would have produced over 10 million tons of CO2, not one gram of which could have been stored on-site — it all would have gone into the air.

      • Greg Bonser
        April 7, 2011 at 23:18

        Steve, on a life cycle basis, nukes are tremendously inefficient. Think about all the resources into mining and construction of the plant. Clean up (or write off) of nuke mining and processing towns (Port Hope) as well as the energy that will go into the decommissioning of plant sites. All of this needs to be considered.

        On a life cycle basis, nukes are very inefficient. Probably more efficient than PV (which is used for peak power as opposed to base load, so it’s not an ideal comparison).

        C02 emissions are not desirable, agreed, but they can be processed by the biosphere and by living organisms, where as radioactive waste is a mutagen, and can not be processed by living creatures.

        Nuke plants emit radioactive pollution (tritium among other things) but also other pollution – heavy metals and other toxins through cooling systems for one thing…

        • Chuck P.
          April 8, 2011 at 04:14

          Greg, On a lifecycle basis nukes are far more efficient than their alternatives. A 1000MW coal plant burns 10,000 tons of coal. That’s an entire 100 car train full of coal. All of the waste produced is released to the environment, either up the stack or dumped onto the ground. By contrast, a similarly sized nuclear plant needs three truckloads of fuel every 18-24 months. No CO2 or other pollution is emitted. 200 tons of “waste” is produced. Waste is in scare-quotes because 95% of it is still usable fuel.
          Coal plants release more radioactivity to the environment than nuclear plants:
          http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=coal-ash-is-more-radioactive-than-nuclear-waste
          In addition, coal plants release many other pollutants that have no half-lives, they are toxic forever.
          PV does not provide peak power or baseload. It provides power when nature feels like it, not when humans need it.

          • April 9, 2011 at 13:33

            Chuck – though you have made a good point, you forgot an important unit in your comment.

            A 1000 MWe coal plant burns 10,000 tons of coal PER DAY. That means that it also releases about 3.3 times that amount in waste products EVERY DAY in the form of either fly ash, SOX, NOX, mercury, CO and CO2.

  2. geoff
    April 7, 2011 at 18:15

    “in fact, it is obviously minor”

    That is not a fact, but an opinion. The situation is hardly over and, if the NRC can be believed, there are still very serious, on-going problems at the plant.

    Just as nuclear advocates are rightly disturbed by the embellishment of problems at Fukashima, I find the minimization of the problems on the other equally disconcerting.

    • Steve Aplin
      April 7, 2011 at 18:27

      Geoff, thanks for taking the time to comment. You are right, the situation is hardly over. The NRC is also right in saying that there are still very serious problems at the plant. The NRC’s mandate is to ensure nuclear safety, and its comments regarding Japan are from that viewpoint.

      If the EPA, which regulates air quality in the US, had decided to comment on the Japan disaster, it probably would have talked about the Cosmo oil refinery, which exploded during the earthquake and then burned for two weeks. The world media could have run with that — and probably should have; I believe there were casualties. They could have wheeled the cameras into the burn units and interviewed the survivors and talked about how refineries should be hardened against earthquakes. And we could have all talked endlessly about the public health risks of all those petro-carcinogens going straight into the atmosphere.

      In the case of Fukushima, we’re looking for keys only under the streetlight. Outside the range of the light, there is a world of misery in Japan that is being unreported. In that world, tens of thousands were killed, and half a million remain homeless.

      Fukushima is minor by comparison. What makes it minor, and obviously so? The fact that there has not been a single person there who has died because of radiation.

      It is perceived as major because the problems have been embellished beyond reasonable proportion.

  3. Bill Woods
    April 7, 2011 at 22:45

    I believe the death toll at the nuclear plants is up to 3; one worker at the Fukushima #2 plant killed by the earthquake, and two at Fukushima #1, circumstances unclear. It remains true that the toll due to the tsunami is in the thousands, while that at the nuclear plants is in the ones.

    • April 9, 2011 at 13:44

      Bill, you are correct. There were deaths at the site of the power plants. Of course, each of those deaths could have occurred at any facility – industrial, residential or commercial – that was hit with an earthquake followed by a tsunami. None were caused by radiation.

      There have also been some people injured in the recovery effort. Three workers waded into water that was contaminated enough to cause some surface skin burns. That injury was caused by radiation – but very similar results can be achieved by wading into any of hundreds of different chemical concoctions.

      Steve’s point is that we have all been given a tremendously detailed education by the media about all of the details associated with the design and operation of a GE MK 1 Boiling water reactor. We know about RCIPS, cooling pool locations, decay heat generation, the Zirc-H2O reaction, the design strength of containments, the effect of H2 mismanagement, and the importance of emergency procedures for portable pumps.

      All of this would be fine, but I really wish that the media story selectors would have devoted just a bit of their space to tell us how many people were affected by the explosion and fire at Chiba, what caused the fire, and what refinery owners are doing to strengthen their facilities against similar events in the future.

      I strongly suspect that some very lucrative advertisers have subtly influenced the story selection to help editors believe that there is no story at oil refineries, natural gas storage sites, LNG receiving terminals, or coal fired power stations. By focusing the world’s attention on nuclear challenges, they make people believe that their fuel source is somehow safer and more reliable in the face of a natural disaster – when in fact, they have been working at least as hard to bring their own dangerous facilities under control.

      It is all about competition and the amount of money involved in rather enormous.

  4. April 9, 2011 at 14:28

    Why is Princess Dianna’s death more notable that other deaths?

    We’re a culture of junk food and junk information. Junk concerns, junk media and junk entertainment.

    Well, okay, that’s a little strong but in any entertainment business, I think people will gravitate towards junk and away from more functional, relevant and useful stuff.

    I’ll finish my post a little later. I need to go get some Kentucky Fried Chicken and read up on what dresses are being considered for the royal wedding.

  5. April 9, 2011 at 15:30

    Sorry there was a typo, my comment should read as:

    Why is a nuclear fatality more noteworthy than a non-nuclear one?

    To give just one simple answer to this: because it goes on to tell how nuclear can not be managed on the the short run, let alone the long run (speaking of hundred of thousands of years here). Which IS very scary indeed.

    And that is well easy to understand and a very valid reason.

    • Steve Aplin
      April 9, 2011 at 21:11

      Hinh,

      I just don’t see the basis for your claim “because it goes on to tell how nuclear can not be managed on the the short run”.

      The fuel has “failed” in three of six reactors, not due to an inherent flaw in the fuel or in the plant design but because of an unprecedented natural disaster. That disaster killed tens of thousands, but nobody has yet died from radiation from the failed fuel.

      On what do you base your claim that nuclear cannot be managed? It obviously can be managed, and is being managed!

  6. Rob
    April 9, 2011 at 19:44

    I think it’s two things
    1. The association with nuclear weapons which inspire awe and terror in most people.
    2. The perceived potential (partly driven by 1 above) for very large scale damage and casualties.

    That makes it more newsworthy than a “conventional” disaster. The BBC have devoted way more column inches to Fukushima and they have no advertisers.

    • Steve Aplin
      April 9, 2011 at 20:33

      Rob,

      I’d say it’s definitely more your point number 2 though some of the true idiots in the media have glommed onto point 1.

      Nothing like vague fear, uncertainty, doubt to draw and keep an audience.

      Take Darcy’s earlier point about Princess Di (speaking of the BBC) and all this over-coverage is a bit like junk food — it fills the hole and isn’t very good in large amounts.

  7. April 10, 2011 at 07:31

    Steve,

    the basis for my claim is that “because it goes on to tell how nuclear can not be managed on the the short run”, is that in the short run, say less than a hundred year, or just over a human average half lifetime, say, 40 years we have had our share of major “incidents” – as some people still want to call this an incident. Alright.

    So has anybody expected/anticipated a problem of this scale? Doesn’t seem so. It appears the risks were not very well evaluated – to say the least – before the catastrophe (incident) still unfolding here. A lot of people I know in the industry are blown away by this, and clearly, the consequences are “unknown territory” for most of the nuclear engineers that I know. Which in itself is understandable, but raise some more questions.

    Now I’ll agree with you that the media has been in some case very bad at covering the event, and as usual, keen on the sensationalism part and quick to zap on to the next when the public would rather benefit from less hysterical headlines and a more consistent coverage…
    Idealists hope that the media would “inform” and “educate” people but this is obviously a dream. Media people are paid, have an agenda and don’t understand these issues themselves, so that’s just not gonna happen.
    But scientists and industry players complaining now about the media is irrelevant.
    The media is what it is, unrelated to which news we are talking about, whether it is a war, an economic downturn or a nuclear incident, you’ll see the news outlet being wrong, or sensationalist all the time.

    The question whether a nuclear fatality more noteworthy than a non-nuclear one is very easy to respond to from a news broadcaster’s perspective: yes it is! For all good or bad reasons it is, and that’s painfully obvious.

    But don’t forget empathy, and don’t forget to put yourself in the shoes of the public, the people that matter in the end – and they have a right to be concerned, informed and looking at what happened to many civil nuclear facilities in a relatively short amount of time – just look at the last 40 years for instance: many people don’t see how nuclear facilities can be managed in a responsible way, that in itself looks more and more like an antinomy.

    You say that this is being managed, but dumping nuclear water into the ocean fail to meet my expectations of a nuclear crisis rational management. This is not something you would advise to do at any rate and again, it is not clear if other (better?) solutions have been carefully scrutinized before the dumping. All of this management seriously lacks transparency, and this is also where the media outlets fail to do their job.

    Now is not the time to criticize the Japanese government response to an event that was unpredictable – only it was completely predictable. What was not so predictable was maybe the scale of the disaster. But everything else was. Tsunami are known for centuries.

    In time of crisis, people should try to be rational, not emotional in the best interest of everybody, the media are not very rational, that’s a given, but I don’t see the nuclear sector being very rational either.
    the good news is that emotional response is useful too – fears and irrational thoughts are signals that, once understood, have helped humanity to go forward.

    People working in the nuclear civil industry don’t want to bite the hand that feeds them – just like the media people don’t want to go against their own interests- but Tepco, IAEA, the nuclear industry regulators, and governments will have many things to call for in the coming months.

    • Steve Aplin
      April 10, 2011 at 13:34

      hinh, thanks for taking the time. You talk about major incidents; I assume you refer to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, and possibly the NRX partial meltdown in 1952. When an industry in its 50-60 year history has had that few accidents, and produced so few casualties (nobody died or was even injured at TMI/NRX) then we have to judge that this industry is safe.

      Again, compare the history of nuclear energy in the OECD with other power generation types in the OECD. The following website puts it fairly starkly:

      http://nextbigfuture.com/2011/03/deaths-per-twh-by-energy-source.html

      This is just plain fact. Now, in the face of that, I repeat my question: why is a nuclear casualty more noteworthy than a non-nuclear one? Dead is dead.

  8. NormD
    April 11, 2011 at 20:55

    I am energy agnostic.

    It seems as though nuclear energy advocates are in a strange position. In order to justify nuclear they have to demonize other power sources and align themselves with people who irrationally oppose nuclear power. They will echo environmentalist’s claims that say coal is killing millions of babies but then turn around and say nuclear is the answer, ignoring the same environmentalists claims on the nuclear issue. Today’s nuclear advocates are pushing dubious global warming claims so they can sell nuclear as a solution. It makes me suspicious of all their claims since it seems as though their first and only priority is building nuclear plants and whatever story needs to be told it will be, in service of that goal.

    If we are going to use nuclear, it should make economic sense. Its hard to tell if it does. While nuclear advocates talk about operating costs, the real costs in nuclear are the startup costs. I can easily see how an investor would prefer to put their money into a NG plant that can be up and running quickly and cheaply as opposed to a nuclear plant that takes forever to build and where a huge up-front investment is required. Also, if everything does go to hell-in-a-handbasket, the NG plant is simply flattened. You don’t have to contend with unknown cleanup costs.

    What I keep hoping is that the nuclear industry will develop smaller more modular reactors that are inherently safe, easy and quick to deploy and cheap to operate. I understand that government regulation may interfere with these plants, but building more of the current plants seems like an uphill struggle.

  9. Maury Markowitz
    June 15, 2011 at 13:47

    “why is a nuclear fatality more noteworthy than a non-nuclear one?”

    What, are you joking?

    Why is a non-fatality in a plane crash (AF358) more noteworthy than the constant fatalities in cars?
    Why is a royal wedding more important to report on than revolution sweeping the middle east?
    Why is federal politics more interesting than local, when the effect on your actual life is completely the opposite?

    Sheesh!. If you’re going to talk about “societal preparedness”, perhaps you should claim to have a better handle on understanding, you know, “society”. Posting about “true idiots in the media” doesn’t help matters, especially your goal to get out your version of the story.

    If the world needs another Canadian energy blog, perhaps you might want to make it Canadian. We need more rational discourse and honest debate, not a Fox News of energy.

    • Steve Aplin
      June 15, 2011 at 14:06

      Maury, thanks for taking the time to comment. Surely you’re not saying we should continue to ignore the state of tsunami defenses on the North American west coast just because society is more worried about a nuclear meltdown.

      Also, I’m not sure if you noticed but nuclear energy in Canada is a big deal. Nuclear provides more than half of Ontario’s electricity (20 percent of Canada’s). New reactors at Darlington — that’s a major public issue. In the wake of Fukushima, there is heightened interest.

      Follow this blog, not Fox News, if you want to know about Canadian energy.

      • Maury Markowitz
        June 15, 2011 at 15:16

        I will move forward under the presumption that you normally “debate” (is that the proper term for blog threads?) people without prior public speaking experience. In the future, you may wish to directly address my points, as I will offer you, and ask, the same courtesy.

        To whit: You asked why. I illustrated with several more examples of the same issue. You haven’t really addressed any of these yet.

        So, why? Because that’s how the press works. Unusual = news.

        I find it more likely that the rhetorical question was meant to be addressed with at some point. Yet I do not see this being discussed. I added more examples for you to consider, but you have ignored these and attempted to deflect the thread in some other direction I don’t fully understand.

        Tsunami defenses? I think the modern response is “lolz!”

        • Steve Aplin
          June 15, 2011 at 16:01

          When the prospect of a single nuclear-related fatality is judged more newsworthy than the plight of half a million homeless survivors of an unprecedented natural disaster, then something has gone egregiously wrong in the editorial rooms of mainstream media vehicles. It is time we admit that we do risk wrong in our public conversations.

          That’s my point. Do you disagree with it?

          No, Unusual ≠ news. Hundreds of thousands of homeless tsunami survivors in an industrialized First World country is, uh, unusual. I see another situation in that country getting a lot more news.

          News is what news organizations say is news.

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