Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The news media and Fukushima

As expected it ignored reality to provide its own version of events

reality-tv1 Firms that advertise on television love the weather segment in the evening news. Everyone wants to know about it, and the possibility of offensive content is pretty low.

A new development is that ‘Reality TV,’ with its dysfunctional personalities, has brought a new dimension to advertising. This in turn has deeply influenced news coverage of the Fukushima nuclear reactor crisis.

Americans may have seen the unfolding horrors in Japan as a form of reality TV. Some have suggested the slow unfolding of events was a form of a ‘disaster movie,” but for many viewers, that pace of plot development is too slow for an attention limited mind set. (Image via “Reality Matters: 19 Writers Come Clean About the Shows We Can't Stop Watching” by Anna David (Amazon)

The thrill seeking element in reality TV, which provides a vehicle for the ads, peaked the past ten days as television news sought to scare the socks off viewers in reports about the horrific impacts of a 9.0 earthquake, and by some reports, a 15 meter high tsunami. Together they left half a million people homeless and may have killed more than 20,000 people.

eyeballsSome advertisers don't seem to care so much about content as they do about the number of eyeballs in the product. So long as the content it is wrapped around isn't too violent, or pornographic, the formula works. This means that following the news to see if a reactor “blows up” is more important to the news media than the facts of a complex nuclear accident. Remember, TV only works, and makes a profit, if advertisers stay with it. Shock sells.

The sale of hamburger helper, home cleaning solutions, and the promises of ageless rejuvenation through personal care products are all benefiting from round the clock attention on Fukushima. The more fear, uncertainty, and doubt the TV news crews can put on the air, the more people will watch, and the more eyeballs will be counted by advertisers.

Mainstream media no longer rules the air

There are differences between the media coverage of the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island nuclear accidents. The primary difference is that the mainstream news media no longer rules the air. In this blog post I am mostly concerned with television news because it reaches the greatest number of eyeballs.

We live in the Internet age where people can be selective about what news they get and expect to provide feedback about it. The old broadcast model famous in Walter Cronkite's day is a dead duck. Television still rules in the mainstream media, but it is fighting a battle against hundreds of channels competing for viewer attention.

In the middle of the first week of the crisis, Google News listed over 35,000 news articles about the nuclear crisis in Japan. However, the speed and power of the Internet works with equal efficiency for both accurate facts and wild conspiracy theories.

The mainstream media started out almost completely clueless about the nuclear reactors in Japan even though 104 reactors provide 20% of the electricity in the U.S. Anti-nuclear groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists exploited public fears about radiation and meltdowns.

flaming eyeballsNews media coverage of the nuclear crisis at Fukushima started with sensationalist flares, literally, as both CBS and CNN television networks gave updates on the status of the reactors with video images of a burning natural gas tank farm at the Chiba refinery in the background. Since the natural gas plants and the reactors are hundreds of miles apart, one can only assume television producers added the images to voice over reports about the reactors for their sensational effects.

It took days for the news media to accurately report that the primary containment vessels and reactor pressure vessels were not breached by the earthquake. It took even more time for the news media to accurately report that most of the damage to the six reactors at Fukashima was to the equipment outside the reactor buildings including emergency diesels, electric switchgear, and the other "balance of plant" infrastructure. (Image from Roger Norton on Flickr)

No connection to what happened at Chernobyl or TMI

There is no comparison between what's happened in Japan and the Chernobyl and TMI tragedies. The RBMK rectors built by the Soviets were inherently unsafe and they knew it. It was cheaper to convert a bomb making reactor to power generation than to build a new, safer reactor. International nuclear experts told the Soviets not to run the RBMKs, but they did anyway. The New York Times was one of the few newspapers to make these points.

cowboy thown by bull The Soviets at Chernobyl turned out to produce what the novelist Kurt Vonnegut calls a "wrang wrang." Once someone makes a huge mistake, no one ever has to do it again to make the point. A complete lack of transparency in providing timely information was a signature of the Soviet response to Chernobyl. Like a rodeo cowboy thrown by a bull before eight seconds have ticked off the clock, there is no second chance.

At Three Mile Island there was a meltdown, but no significant radioactivity was released and no one was killed as the melt core was kept inside the containment building. TMI resulted in a complete loss of faith in the nuclear industry. That hasn't happened with Fukushima. President Obama and Energy Sec. Chu has made statements supporting nuclear energy to meet clean energy goals.

Yet, during both accidents, the U.S. news media hysteria contributed little to public understanding of the risks and dangers of the events.

In the case of Fukushima, the news media had great difficulty separating the hydrogen explosions from the issues of decay heat in the spent fuel pools. Hint: if you heat water in a tea kettle on an electric stove, but turn if off after the water boils, the residual heat in the electric burner will boil off more water.

Six reactors make for confusion

In the the Chernobyl and TMI accidents, the news media only had to worry about one nuclear reactor. In Japan there were six. It was a source of major confusion for the news media and their audiences to understand which reactors were having problems, how problems at the spent fuel pools fit in the picture, and what the real threat was from radiation.

It took days for graphics of the reactors and maps of the site to appear in news reports. During this time, the news media kept asking experts, "what should we worry about?" Naturally, each expert had his or her own idea which gave the public an unfathomable number of things to worry about producing psychological melt downs and scary newspaper headlines.

The New York Times published an interactive graphic of the position of the spent fuel pools and how they work on March 18, a full week after the crisis began. Reuters produced a sophisticated graphic showing status information, but it didn’t make it into wide circulation.

IAEA accident scale

The news media, in wanting to know how serious the accident was, paid little attention to the efforts of the IAEA to communicate about its accident rating scale. Like the Richter earthquake accident severity scale, the IAEA's International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES) is not linear. It is logarithmic which means each increment is 10 times more severe in terms of impact than the last one.

INES, to facilitate understanding, uses a numerical rating to explain the significance of nuclear or radiological events. This is just like using ratings for earthquakes or temperature, which would be difficult to understand without the Richter or Celsius scales.

INES ScaleINES applies to any event associated with the transport, storage and use of radioactive material and radiation sources. Such events can include industrial and medical uses of radiation sources, operations at nuclear facilities, or the transport of radioactive material.

Events are classified at seven levels: Levels 1–3 are “incidents” and Levels 4–7 “accidents”. These levels consider three areas of impact:

(1) people and the environment,

(2) radiological barriers and control, and

(3) defense in depth.

INES at Fukushima

The IAEA assigned a level five out of seven to Fukushima. This score covered the reactor fuel assembly damage, loss of all cooling function at units 3 and 4, and the abnormal rise of radiation dose rates at the plant site boundary due to steam pressure releases by unit 1. Admittedly, it requires some science and engineering background to understand the distinctions.

Level 5 on the scale means an “accident with wider consequences." The event at unit 4, where there was loss of coolant to the spent fuel pool, has provisionally been rated as Level 3, which means “serious incident”.

In a report to the IAEA on units 1, 2 and 3 at Fukushima, Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency (NISA) said electricity rooms and seawater pump rooms were flooded when the tsunami struck, and the only cooling function available was from a turbine driven pump.

The operation of this pump increased the pressure in the reactor’s suppression chamber and the pump had to be stopped. This resulted in the loss of all cooling function and the declaration of a state of emergency, the report says.

reactorcoreIn an effort to cool units 1, 2, and 3, seawater was injected into the reactor vessels using fire pumps. The gas in the containment vessels was also vented. When venting the containment, the radiation dose rate at the boundary level of the site exceeded the limit of 0.5 millisievert per hour, and for this reason the initial Level 4 classification for unit 1 was revised upwards.

The report says the explosions at the reactors on 12 to 14 March were believed to have been caused by hydrogen gas. The gas explosions, which were captured on remote video, were repeated endlessly on network TV because the sensational visual effect trumped sober analysis of why the explosions took place and that they did not damage the primary containment structures.

A view to the future?

svinicki What is the future for the U.S. industry? In a review of the Fukushima accident held March 21, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, one of the commissioners, Kristine Svinicki, (right) said:

"Some may characterize that our faith in this technology is shaken. Nuclear safety is not and cannot be a matter of faith. It must be a matter of fact."

Is it too much to ask the U.S. news media to be held to the same standard?

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Brian Mays said...

Minor correction: Radioactive materials most definitely were released during the Three Mile Island accident, primarily radioactive noble gases (e.g., xenon) which were vented out of the reactor building.

Dirk Schmidt said...

Very interesting article of the differences between Chernoby, Fukushima and Three Mile Island. For my profession (political scientist) the biggest difference is that we have a picture (a movie!) of a hydrogen explosion in Fukushima. It looks to me like the explosion sound was added later. I didn't hear it the first time(s) and wonder why it is not a few seconds later because the camera seems to be miles away.

But the impact of this pciture from Fukushima will be different. We try to do some research on media and politics after Fukushima. You might want to help us: http://www.fukushima-1.eu/?sid=91931&lang=en

dianeb said...

Great piece Dan. These things needed to be said. I and many of my colleagues have been incredibly frustrated by the media handling of this event. We especially object to how commentators on mainstream news outlets such as CNN have treated industry representatives -- with more than a healthy dose of mistrust and with a great deal of disrespect.

Rob said...

@dianeb And the general public of Vermont and other places with an dysfunctional nuclear power industry object to being lied to about nuclear waste being leaked into our waterways multiple times, after tax payer dollars have covered the cost of your plants, and being threatened with higher energy prices if we happen to object to being irradiated.

Robert Steinhaus said...

18,000 people have recently died in Japan from the combined effects of the earthquake and tsunami - none of those deaths are attributable to nuclear radiation or the troubled nuclear plants at Daiichi Fukushima.

Why the distorted and unsupportable news coverage from every major US news service on this event which whips up anti-nuclear sentiment?

It is illegal to yell out "FIRE" in a crowded movie theater just to whip up a little fear and have fun. Irresponsible and non-factual assessments regarding the flammability status of crowed public facilities will land you in jail. Why is a daily barrage of non-factual and sensationalist reporting from every major US news organization that engenders DEEP FEAR on the part of the public tolerated without sustained attempts by nuclear industry and National Labs to call into question the intellectually shabby sensationalist claims relentlessly shouted from the rooftops?

Why are people more inclined to trust and judge as credible a couple of German Greenpeace radicals roving around in Japan in a mobile van with a small survey meter over official Japanese JAIF and US NNSA/DOE professional radiation assessment teams there on the spot that have been making careful radiation measurements from the start of the accident? The pros report that at the height of the "crisis" (March 13th) the largest environmental levels (dose rate) measured in the environs around Daiichi Fukushima (Fukushima Prefecture) were less than 50 microSieverts/hour (very low dose rate). Much higher readings have been observed in water samples taken inside the reactors but these high levels have not been observed outside the fence in the environment.

I suggest:
"Facts whisper and FEAR SCREEMS".

What we will be permitted to build in the way of improved forms of nuclear energy in the United States will depend on the public's perception of the safety of nuclear technology. A sustained dishonest program of exploiting unsupported irrational fears regarding radioactivity by US media could result in US nuclear regulatory ratcheting at NRC that makes it impossible to build new nuclear plants in the US for a generation.