Sunday, March 20, 2011

Missing the Lessons of Japan

Amateur Night at the Big Three Networks

Could it happen here?

It's a basic question any self-respecting news organization asks itself after a major disaster. And a very legitimate question it is. People want to know, need to know. Should they worry? How much? It's a core function of good journalism to help the public understand the real risks, the real issues that are in dispute.

And in the case of the Japanese nuclear crisis, it's particularly relevant, since there are currently 23 U.S. reactors in service that are based on the same 1960s design as reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi complex.

So this past week, all three major news networks assigned top reporters to answer the question. And they all failed miserably.

Not only did all three television networks fail to answer the key questions, not one of their reporters even raised the key questions!

And keep in mind, these are the pros, at the pinnacle of broadcast journalism, working the top news organizations, the venerable big three: ABC, NBC, and CBS.

So what was wrong with their reports?

For one thing, of the three networks, only one NBC, (whose parent county is GE, manufacture of the nuclear reactor in question) mentioned that the proximate cause of the problems in Japan was not the earthquake, but the tsunami.

Only CBS noted the biggest problem was with spent fuel rods, not the reactor core.

None of the reports made clear that, Japan's reactors impressively survived the mammoth 9.0 earthquake just fine, shutting down automatically, with backup systems kicking in to keep the cooling pumps pumping. The fatal design flaw -- to extent there is one -- is not that the reactors are too vulnerable to quakes, but that they are vulnerable to a tsunami powerful enough to disable their backup power systems.

The question the news reports should have addressed is not which U.S. nuclear reactors are near earthquake zones, but rather which reactors are in tsunami zones, or vulnerable to other disasters, natural or manmade, that could disable the redundant power systems needed to operate the pumps that cool the reactor core and spent fuel rods.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says the biggest threat to reactors along U.S. coasts is hurricane storm surge, not tsunami.

The network "journalists" were so captivated by the simplistic narrative that a whistleblower warned of design flaws with the original design, that they complete glossed over the fact that whistleblower acknowledged he believed those design flaws had been largely corrected the Fukushima reactors.

In any event, the focus on the containment system design is misplaced. While its true that the containment system is the last line of defense if the ability to cool a reactor is compromised, the more important fact is that maintaining the cooling system is the first line of defense, and none of the reports looked at that.

So what questions should have been addressed?

1. Which U.S. reactors could be hit by tsunamis?

2. What is their tsunami plan? (They all have to have one.)

3. Is it adequate to withstand a Japanese-style disaster?

3. What is being done now, or can be done in the future, to ensure that cooling systems survive even in a worst-case scenario? (There are new systems that don’t rely so much on electricity, employing gravity systems to keep the water.)

All of this would be useful information for the American public to know in order make a rational decision about potential dangers posed by U.S. nuclear reactors, whether or not its built by GE.

The NRC on its website says, "Each plant is built to the circumstances that exist at its location – including earthquakes, floods and tsunamis. For example, at nuclear plants along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, the greatest water threat is hurricane storm surge, not a tsunami. Moreover, there is only one fault, near the northwest U.S. coast, that is similar to the subduction fault in Japan, and there are no nuclear plants nearby. The closest coastal plant to that fault is well-protected against tsunami."

The accuracy of that assertion is what reporters should be examining, not "apples and oranges" comparisons, that do nothing to increase understanding.

Watch any of these "professional" reports and see if any of the important questions are answered:

Nuclear safety expert: It could happen here - CBS Evening News - CBS News

US Government Reevaluates Nuclear Infrastructure - ABC News

msnbc video: Concerns over nuke design not new

Had these reports been produced by one of my journalism students, the grade would have ranged from F, to D-.

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