17 March 2011

Media meltdown

Cosmos Online
The nuclear accident underway in Japan does not raise doubts about the safety of nuclear power, and calls to abandon it altogether are just another example of the strange irrationality that surrounds the issue.
media meltdown

What is it about nuclear power that triggers such an irrational response in people? Credit: iStockPhoto

Why is it that, faced with an unfolding nuclear accident in Japan, even normally cautious news outlets quickly descend into a seething, breathless recounting of what seems like the Armageddon itself?

The epic struggle by the Japanese to cope with multiple calamities after a record earthquake and a massive tsunami boggles the mind. More than 13,000 people are feared dead and a swathe of towns wiped off the map.

But following the global news coverage over the last few days, you would think that a reactor meltdown, should it occur, will be the gravest threat to the devastated nation so far. And that the incident was calling into question the safety of nuclear power altogether.

This is balderdash. Yes, appalling disasters occur, technologies fail and people die. Buildings, bridges and even whole cities can crumble in the face of nature’s fearsome onslaught. So why would we expect nuclear facilities to be any different?

When an aircraft accident kills scores of people, we don’t hear calls for an end to air travel. When collapsing buildings crush victims in an earthquake, we don’t question the wisdom of building skyscrapers near fault lines.

Why do accidents around anything ‘nuclear’ – from the accidental release of gas no more radioactive than the air in the northern Flinders Ranges, to the leak of low-level hospital waste of used gloves and smocks – trigger such panicked coverage?

Meanwhile, older coal-fired power plants – those without effective fly ash capture – are one of the largest sources of man-made radiation exposure, yet this generates no column inches in our newspapers and have no demonstrators in gas masks picketing them.

You can put forward a strong argument that nuclear weapons are inherently evil. But there is nothing inherently ‘evil’ about nuclear power, any more than sunlight is evil. Sunlight comes from the Sun, a titanic nuclear reactor burning 620 million tonnes of fuel every second. It just happens to be 150 million km away.

In a very real sense, solar power is really just nuclear power from a distance. Ditto with wind power (winds are generated by the difference between warm air, heated by the Sun, and cool air at the poles) and wave power (largely powered by winds). Even geothermal energy has a nuclear origin, largely generated by the radioactive decay of minerals. Not only is nuclear energy ‘natural’, we could not survive without it, since life on Earth is reliant on the Sun for light and heat.

The Japanese quake, which now appears to have been a magnitude 9.0 on the Richter scale, released seismic energy yield equivalent to a 474 megaton atomic blast. This released 39,000 times more energy than the 12 kiloton bomb that devastated Hiroshima, and is equal to the force that flattened Lisbon, Portugal, on All Saints Day in 1755. Make no mistake, this was a catastrophic quake.

Despite this, the 40-year-old Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, built to withstand a 7.9 magnitude quake, stood up to a seismic event that shook it over 30 times more powerfully than it was designed to survive. It held up to the onslaught, and shut down automatically as the tremors began.

It appears that the 10-metre tsunami that followed is what brought the reactors to the brink of meltdown, as back-up diesel generators for the facility’s coolant pumps failed, and the cores began to heat up. Attempts to cool the cores were unsuccessful, and containment buildings blew up as the pressure built.

When a 20 km exclusion zone was declared – a standard emergency protocol – the global news coverage frothed with “NUCLEAR CATASTROPHE”, “ATOMIC CRISIS” and “MELTDOWN ALERT”. And how did they deal with the 9.0 magnitude quake? “TSUNAMI CARNAGE” and “NATURE’S TERROR”.

These are just the headlines. The actual coverage has often been nonsensical, contradictory, overdramatic and occasionally hysterical. No wonder the public often react with fear when they see the word ‘nuclear’.

To say – as some news outlets have – that the Fukushima accident was now worse than the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, just shows how bad the coverage can get, and why people get anxious. Chernobyl was a Russian design without a containment vessel and the reactor core was exposed, on fire, and large quantities of the fuel itself released into the air.

The Japanese reactors are designed to prevent this ever happening; fuel is inside a thick steel vessel, itself within a containment structure that is specifically designed to prevent release of core materials even during an accident such as this. Also, boiling water reactors like the ones in Fukushima are cooled by water which, unlike the graphite core at Chernobyl, cannot burn.

Even if the 50 brave nuclear engineers and reactor staff, mostly volunteers, do lose their long battle and a meltdown occurs, this is not necessarily catastrophic. The reactor’s containment structure is designed to prevent the spread of radioactivity and – even if these are breached – it is still likely that much of the radioactive material would be contained at the site.

The loss of tens of thousands of lives and the widespread destruction caused by the quake and tsunami will clearly dwarf any damage caused by the nuclear accident, even if a meltdown occurs. But that’s not the impression you get from the lopsided, occasionally shrill coverage.

No wonder many people are panicked. And it’s public panic in response to this incident – rather than the radiation risk – that could be dangerous. Power is out across much of the coast, roads are damaged or impassable, people are hungry and bewildered and cold. What we don’t need is a mass, panicked exodus that will likely add to the casualties and strain already tight emergency services beyond breaking point.

In such a state, it can be hard to think clearly and rationally – and yet, that’s exactly what we need to do. Not just in crises like this, but when considering the pros and cons of various technologies, particularly large-scale ones like power stations. What we don’t need is an ‘amygdala hijack’ – a term coined by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence to describe an intense fear response out of all proportion to its actual threat.

Critical thinking, devoid of emotive triggers or blaring headlines, allow us to make better decisions. And we certainly need it in the midst of a natural disaster. What is now unfolding in Japan – the after-effects of the massive quake and tsunami, including the threat posed by the failing reactors – is a tragedy of immense proportions.

What we need to do as an advanced technical society is learn from each such calamity, so our engineers and scientists can build better and more resilient systems – bridges, buildings, roads and – yes – nuclear reactors. That’s progress. That’s science.

Wilson da Silva is the editor-in-chief of COSMOS.

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