APR: your source for nuclear news and analysis since April 16, 2010

Friday, August 12, 2011

The effect of big media: A real conversation

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine that interestingly turned nuclear. She's married, mother of one beautiful nine month old girl, in her late 20's and intelligent enough to have a degree in business. She has no nuclear energy involvement in any way and never has had - and we usually never talk about it specifically at all.

Recently she and her husband took a brief three-day trip up to one of the islands in Lake Erie for a short getaway. For those unfamiliar, the islands are far enough out that you must either take the ferry, one of the "Jet Express" high-speed ferries, or fly. Anyway, we were having a discussion about the trip when... let's call her "J" .. says the following.

J: "You know, we saw that nuclear plant over in Toledo from the boat. I thought about you."

Will: "Really? Did you get me a picture?"

J: "No, it was too far away. It was too small in the viewfinder."

There was some more general discussion about cameras, but I had mentioned having to write something for my blog and she told me I should write something about the plant she'd seen (which is Davis-Besse.) I had an idea at that point.

Will: "You know, when you were seeing that nuclear plant, did that bug you at all?"

J: "Yeah, it kind of flipped me out a little bit."

Will: "Why? Why did it bother you?"

J: "Because, it was close enough to f@#k me up, you know?!"

Let's pause here for a moment. The plant was far enough away that it was not possible to get any kind of photo of it even with a new digital camera with zoom.

She then offered that she'd been to the islands a few times before but it never bothered her those times... well, maybe she didn't really know what it was back then, she says.

Will: "So what happened in Japan really made you take notice now, anytime you know you're near a nuclear plant, is that it?"

J: "Yeah, before Japan I wouldn't have cared at all but now, you know, it's something you think about."

Will: "What if I told you that there are over a hundred nuclear plants all over the United States, some of them as old as the ones in Japan (I didn't go into detail on purpose here) and you never hear about them? They haven't had any accidents since TMI and no one gives them any thought most of the time."

J: "The ones in Japan didn't have any accidents either until now."

She said that like she'd just proved a point, or made one. But what it turns out she was really doing was expressing the best opinion she could based on her knowledge of the situation, which stems ENTIRELY from mainstream media.

At this point I suggested that these questions and her answers were going to be a blog post on APR. She was fine with that. I told her that one of the things we're trying to figure out is the general public's opinion on nuclear energy, and that she was a great example of the kind of demographic that's probably most misinformed. J has the TV or radio on lots, but only for background. Watches some news in and around baby care, house work, her job, time with her husband and extended family and so on. Not a TV junkie by any stretch, and oddly enough almost totally internet illiterate. In other words, as I let her know, a good candidate.

I asked her if she knew what really happened in Japan. She told me a convoluted story about the earthquake making the plant lose its air conditioning and then overheating and blowing up. There were other details, and events and so forth in her timeline which really was just kind of a hodge podge of real and purported events. She asked if that was right; I told her that her story was about 25% realistic if not perfectly factual and the rest was garbage. But I also immediately told her that I and many others of similar persuasion were really trying to get a handle on what the mainstream media had done to perception, so that her description (as best she could give it) was just what the doctor ordered.

I told her about certain "experts" who go on TV all the time, and make reports to unimportant scientific groups which always get reported on TV as well. She had no idea that such people were doing any of these things, if not all of them, for large consulting fees. I found that interesting.

Turns out she thought that the whole accident was a result of the earthquake. I told her "No, the plants got through the quake as well as could be expected; the real event that triggered this accident was the tsunami" and after a moment of trying to express essentially "well, duh" to me she did get to see that these are two different events, even if the one caused the other. My point that the earthquake was survivable by the plants while the tsunami was not did actually get across.

I asked her what could make her less scared of nuclear plants. She said she didn't know, but then added that she's not "freaked out" about it. She didn't realize there were so many more of them. She said that knowing a lot more about them may or may not help a whole lot in reality. Now here's the best part.

She told me she's far more scared at the corner gas station than she was seeing the plant from the boat, or on the islands. That's right! The gas station. "Sometimes you get a whiff of gas, you know..." she says. I add in "and you're standing right on top of all those big gas tanks underground, too!" to which she says "Exactly! I wonder about that when I have my baby in the car and I have to pull in there and you can smell gas and that's a lot more scary than some nuclear plant somewhere else."

J is not anti-nuclear. She's really not pro or anti anything in terms of policy or politics. She's open to new ideas but is most open to the truth. I think there are a lot of people like her out there... people who trust that the mainstream media will report what they need to know in a level of detail they can understand. I think she was a tiny bit surprised that there is so much money to be made on the anti-nuclear side by "consultants" who will denigrate nuclear energy.

Regardless of the proximity of the Davis-Besse plant, J plans to take her family back to the islands next year for another trip, and she intends to renew her wedding vows at a little gazebo she showed me a picture of. It looks like a really nice place. She can't wait to go back, either.

Looks like by the end of our visit the fear was gone. "Out of sight, out of mind" is perhaps a good thing for nuclear energy in some ways after all.

3:30 PM Eastern Friday August 12, 2011


  1. This insightful chat was a real gem. I hope we hear more of your friend and how she might change her perceptions as she explores blogs like this. I hope the lay public would consider that it's turning out that virtually nothing would've happened to Fukushima residents who stayed put and not evacuated from this "worst case" event as lessoned from TMI; can't say the same results with a "stay putter" (when they have to nearly clear out half a county) when a chlorine freight train derails and leaks in ITS "worst case" event.

    Most dismaying to me is that the media seems to go out of its way to _block_ any pro-nuclear rebuttals or enlightenment and only avail their certified non-nuke "consultants" from the Science Channel. Here in NYC we'd a heat wave and though the local media went bananas expousing non-CO2 "alternate" energy, guess what they routinely omitted. Of course it's agenda-driven, which seems to negate their "fair press" credentials. Outside of an ace aggressive Ad compaign to counter rad-monster brainwashing movies and Green-backed misinformation, I just can't see nuclear energy ever getting a fair shake in the media -- or on the air, period.

    James Greenidge

  2. It's always the worst case, the one the experts say couldn't happen, that worries people.

    IEEE just wrote up a good example of where reassurance can backfire:


    (read it before blasting it, it's a thoughtful piece, not an anti-nuclear piece in any way)

  3. Hi James, you say that "I hope the lay public would consider that it's turning out that virtually nothing would've happened to Fukushima residents who stayed put and not evacuated". This totally surprises me. I very much doubt your hopes are even contemplated by the lay public, let alone realized.

    I agree that nothing immediate would have happened to them, as would have with say a chlorine spill. However my understanding is that immediate 'life threatening' or 'explosive' type things were never the focus of the evacuation.

    If what you say is true, and I'm not doubting that it MAY be, then how come produce from there is banned and dumped? That people are not allowed back to live there now that stability has been achieved? That there is still a ?? kms exclusion zone? Or am I way out of whack with whats still going on there?

    Further if what you say is in fact true then this needs far wider publicity with scientific backing and far more realistic rules and regulations.

  4. By the way Will, thanks for writing up that conversation. It indeed highlights the problem of fear.

    The way I see it, the fear of nuclear is no different to the irrational fear of flying, fear of crowds, fear of heights, fear of snakes, fear of spiders etc that people genuinely suffer from.

    Simply telling those people that their fears are irrational, or 'to get over it', doesn't work. In fact, just raising the issue, often compounds and reinforces their fears. They often need lots of friendly coaxing and professional help and demonstration.

    Maybe the nuclear fraternity needs to look in that direction for guidance?

  5. @Keith: You've struck on exactly why I put this post up. I want the pro-nuclear folks to see it; it's also my submission for this week's rotating Carnival, hosted at NEI Nuclear Notes, which means it WILL get seen. I think it might help drive the dialogue - and you could not be more correct about the dealing with irrational fears. Thanks for an insightful comment!

    And in fact @everybody: Thank you all for really enhancing the articles and the discussion with your comments on this and every other post. I really do appreciate the discussion.

  6. Thanks Will. I'm now a retired old fart but one irrational fear that held me back in my working life was a fear of public speaking and having to teach and supervise power station operators. Among other things, Toastmasters helped me greatly with both to the point where I now love teaching senior citizens about computers.

    If anyone has been in Toastmasters they will tell you how very supportive their system is in gently helping you overcome those irrational fears of speaking in public.

    My experience both being, teaching and supervising power station operators is that we are logical thinking people, often lacking, and even denigrating, the 'woosy' 'touchy feely' stuff that irrational fears are based on. I observed this is often (not always) a trait of people in the engineering, maintenance and management roles. I would guess, that being a very technical industry, this might be widely across the nuclear fraternity too.

    I'm not advocating that you all run out and join Toastmasters. What I am trying to get across is that I suspect many in the nuclear industry might be blinded, through no fault of their own, to this need for much better 'touchy feely' skills and approaches in dealing with, what you folk claim, is an irrational public fear of nuclear energy.

    So endeth todays sermon and I'd better go and do some housekeeping before my wife returns. Or I'll cop a 'touchy feely' thumping.

  7. @Hank: That's a very pertinent article and very relevant to nuclear, or any other industry involving large scale - eg aviation.

    The article mentioned corruption of officials. This is the very thing that Will mentioned recently with the two nuclear bodies being under the one umbrella in Japan. That too is corruption, not in money terms, but corruption of ideals and systems, taking the easy road instead of doing things properly. I urge others to read both.

    We visited China 5 years ago and the place was going gang busters with construction. For their sake, and the worlds for that matter, I hope they stamp that sort of sloppy, 'she'll be right mate' approach out.

  8. On Utube you can see people with gieger counters measuring radioactive dust on the ground in tokyo and measuring radioactive rain in canada. This was before we heard there was a very high radiation level at one of the venting towers. Hard to know what to make of the stories.
    But when this crisis began some in the industry were telling us the media were liars and even the head of the US nuclear organisation was some kind of wacko. The wackos turned out to have a much more realistic and often conservative view of the accident.

  9. keith:
    If what you say is true, and I'm not doubting that it MAY be, then how come produce from there is banned and dumped?

    Just a thought; Would Japan import poultry and crops and meat from naturally hi-rad background regions as in Iran, South America and India, etc? Very few countries bother to, but would such that pass muster with Japanese standard geiger counter rules? Beyond that -- how much food would be banned from anyone's import if ALL food underwent geiger counters off the boat? Would pressure to require it wreck several economies using Japan's rad standards? Just a thought that might be a U.N. Food Agency nightmare. Maybe why it's rarely if ever brought up.

    James Greenidge

  10. Hank: It's always the worst case, the one the experts say couldn't happen, that worries people. IEEE just wrote up a good example of where reassurance can backfire:

    I read you Hank. It's just only few miles where I sit over a hundred people perished in aviation's worst-case scenerio shortly after 9-11 near JFK airport -- and that doesn't count other fatal "worst cases" there and nearby LaGuardia over the 30 years I've lived here. Yet in Japan, we had the worst case scenario times three in spades -- yet no one died or looks like will be effected past the effects of a whiff of cigar smoke. I mean people have zero problems with coal-plants polluting their lungs in the NORMAL course of operations - yet if a gallon of rad water spills in a plant the media has a cow! Thers's some awfully disappropriate in fear and perceptions here!

    James Greenidge

  11. Hey Will, excellent writeup! Honest question here..

    What is the halflife of gasoline?

    What kind of beta, alpha, and gamma rays does it emmit?

    How much would a gas station have to be insured for incase of a catastrophic failure and does it need government loan guarantees?

  12. @Rusty: Thanks! Here is your honest answer: It doesn't have one.. None, that I know of, I have no idea, and yes, the oil industry is heavily government subsidized if you count tax breaks. Don't forget the government subsidy of the transportation infrastructure used for gasoline when it's tranported on federally or state funded roadways, too, whereas electric utilities pay property tax on their rights of way for power lines. And gasoline fires and explosions have killed many more people than nuclear energy ever will. People with families get right into gas stations, drive right by oil refineries all the time. Oh... and while I'm at it, they also have natural gas and or propane piped into their homes all over the place... which has also killed scores more people than nuclear energy ever will.

  13. Thank you for answering genuinely,
    I'll admit I was being a bit factitious. I live within range of Turkey Point Nuclear and it made my heart skip a beat when I read the sensationalized headline in the Miami Herald the other day, "Loud bang heard by workers at Turkey Point".

    Could we afford it? Would Progress Energy or FPL go bankrupt like TEPCO? Would Miami be evacuated like Naime and Date? Would our Government give evacuees federal assistance? Would they limit that to the first 80,000 evacuee’s like the government of Japan? It’s just sounds a lot more risky than operating a gas station and I wanted to keep perspective on the major differences.

    Thank you for your continued insights, perspective, intraspect, and dedication. I appreciate you sharing your knowledge with me.

  14. @Rusty: I will follow up on whatever that incident at Turkey Point was. "Loud bang?" Unfortunately the press jumps on fear much more quickly than it jumps on fact, primarily because it's easier to foster the former among its readers than it is to first obtain the latter and then disseminate it to its readers. Often times, too, the press rings up the usual flunkies (Arnie Gunderson) for "fact" which really is just more fearmongering. You're perfectly correct to seek real facts and to make for yourself your own risk assessment - and thank you for continuing to visit this blog in search of at least part of that process.

  15. @Rusty: Here you go:


    The "bang" was the butterfly valve slamming shut, which you'd fully expect to be audible. I've heard bigger valves than that slam shut and open and you can REALLY tell they opened or shut. The operators realized the valve failed, and bypassed it, exactly as designed and as you'd expect. The report says they got a momentary high temp alarm on a reactor coolant pump, which cleared immediately. NRC is looking at the failure, as they're required to do. The plant will find what failed, fix it, and roll on. Note that the plant is still on line and reporting as of this morning 100% load.

  16. http://weblogs.sun-sentinel.com/business/realestate/housekeys/blog/2011/08/loud_bang_at_fpl_nuclear_plant_1.html
    "Loud bang" at FPL nuclear plant near Miami. Sun Sentinal

    Sorry it wasn't the Herald but the Sentianl. The Headline in my opinion was extreem sensationalism and I wrote the editor to complain.

    What bothers me most about it though were all the what if's that raced through my mind.

    I mean just because we didn't have an earthquake or any natural disaster doesn't mean the two reactors are incapable of melting down.

    I also realize they are PWR's and most nuclear proponents are saying they can't meltdown like Fukushima because the 3 meltdowns there were BWR's. This doesn't seem like a good excuse either because the partial meltdown at TMI was a PWR.

    I'm also confused as to why most nuclear supporters are quick to finger the natural disaster(s) as the direct cause of the 3 seperate reactor meltdowns at Fukushima, even though human error has been revealed to have a hand in at least one meltdown.

    I just hope and pray I never have to call my sister and tell her to grab her three kids, all under age 6, and get out. Like the 80,000 nuclear evacuee's of Fukushima. Or the 53,000 from Prypiat.