Wed Mar 23rd, 2011 at 11:13:29 PM EST
Today was the last seminar in a series on clean energy and the media at Harvard's Kennedy School. The subject, scheduled months ago, was "The Seesaw Coverage of Nuclear Power" with Matt Wald, NYTimes, Ned Potter, ABC News, and Matt Bunn, Harvard.
My rough notes follow.
Wald: First visited a nuke in 1979 at CT Yankee. An alternative press reporter was indignant she didn't get to enter the reactor vessel. General interest reporters don't usually understand mechanical things or complex technologies. NRC and nuclear power tend not to get much coverage. News doesn't talk about relative risks well [he mentioned deaths from different energy sources but not cancer]. At the current low price of natural gas, we won't build nukes. "Anxiety doesn't stop construction." Economics does. US spent fuel pools more densely packed than Fukushima and, if there is a change in waste policy, it will be to dry cask storage rather than Yucca Mountain or some other permanent waste storage.
Potter: There are differences in the media that determine their relative coverage. Newspapers are good for data and facts. TV is good for images. TV news is only 180 words per minute, about a third of average reading speed. He showed a clip from the ABC Nightly News from 3/30/79, the TMI accident, and then a Martha Raddatz report which was critiqued by Wald for its characterization of risks and realities [Wald objected to the comparison of radiation to x-rays per hour and the categorical statement about spent fuel catching fire].
Bunn: Initial information is almost always wrong, especially in a crisis. Japanese coverage is much calmer than American. US nuclear industry has been defensive, secretive, and, in some cases, counterfactual. There needs to be a wider context. We are also much less prepared for a security incident than an accident. The prospect for huge growth in nuclear to combat climate change is remote.
Potter: His Wall Street contacts are buying into nuclear because of China's nuclear push and current low uranium prices.
Bunn: 4 nukes per year have been built in the last decade around the world. We need 25 nukes per year to make a dent in climate change.
Wald: Japan's other fuel for electricity is liquid natural gas (LNG). US won't build a lot of anything because US demand is flat. But rest of the world will. Will we address climate change? Doubtful.
Potter: The narrative of US nuke power is that it's an environmental safety issue.
Q: For nukes to be safe we need transparency but nuclear is growing only in dictatorships.
Bunn: Nuclear energy requires human excellence not just technical excellence.
Wald: In US, air safety (and nuclear safety) are pushed more through competition with other companies than through regulation.
Q: Signal to noise in news?
Wald: Nobody understands what's happening now and it is very difficult to say, "I don't know."
Q: Boundaries of uncertainty?
Wald: We gravitate to worst case but perhaps should be more concerned with likeliest case.
Potter: On TV, it is short pieces on tight deadlines. Not conducive to nuance or depth.
Bunn: 24 hour channels can do better with longer segments with experts who actually want to take advantage of the opportunity.
I was next in line when the moderator closed things down. Would have asked about the historical context like interviews with Harold Denton of the TMI and Natalia Manzurova, who worked on the Chernobyl clean-up and now is touring the US under the sponsorship of Beyond Nuclear (http://www.aolnews.com/2011/03/22/chernobyl-cleanup-survivors-message-for-japan-run-away-as-qui/).
What's Covered Up at Fukushima - interesting interview with longtime Japanese anti-nuker