Nuclear News Analysis

Three Mile Island in 2005.

Three Mile Island in 2005. Photo courtesy flickr user Anosmia.

Secrets are hard to keep in the news world, which is usually a good thing. But what happens when the knowledge that bursts into the headlines is difficult to understand, incomplete, or badly translated by experts? “Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima: An analysis of traditional and new media coverage of nuclear accidents and radiation,” a recent report in The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, looked at just that question.

For me three major issues come out of this report: language, secrecy, and myopia.

Language was the big issue after the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979. Reporters rushed to cover the leaking Pennsylvania reactor, but according to the report, “few had more than a rudimentary knowledge of nuclear power or knew how a reactor worked or what a meltdown was. They did not know what questions to ask . . .” Nor could they always understand the answers. One reporter left a news conference hoping that a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) official had not just announced a nuclear meltdown. It turns out that those in charge were also confused about what was happening inside the power plant as events were unfolding. A lack of understanding and communication on the part of those giving out information and those receiving it lead to a report later that year describing Three Mile Island’s media coverage as “abysmally inadequate.”

Chernobyl is a good example of initial secrecy; the first serious Soviet public report about the accident did not appear until 10 days after the explosion. Fukushima is still fresh in my mind and I vividly remember the questions following the first few days after the earthquake, when it was still unclear how badly damaged the Daiichi nuclear power station was. Power plant operators and the Japanese government had little to no control over how information about the event spread; some of it was accurate, some was not.

The Bulletin study provides a detailed summary of who reported what and how in the days following the initial damage. Traditional news sources such as radio and newspaper—using new media techniques—get high marks for creative in-depth reporting, such as using animated diagrams to explain the changing evacuation zones. Television gets a thumbs down for endlessly recycling the same videos when new information was not available.

Even in a perfect world, with brilliant journalists and easily accessible information, it’s clear that confusion will always be a stage in our understanding of these events. The high-speed news cycle means that knowledge unfolds in real time, and in real time, we see mostly disconnected bit and pieces. Only after the episode, as this report demonstrates, are the pieces put together to create a complete picture.

Michal Meyer is editor in chief of Chemical Heritage.

Episode 112: Nuclear Power [Distillations]

Posted In: History | Policy | Technology

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