For journalists and science communicators, a major challenge has been to accurately convey the risks inherent in nuclear technology, and comparing them to other sources of power. Both the Columbia Journalism Review and the Earth Journalism Network offered briefing materials on how to communicate risks responsibly. Bloggers for ProPublica, Discover, and DeSmog Blog all emphasized the limited reach of Fukushima’s impacts so far. David Ropeik in Scientific American and Gregg Easterbrook in Reuters warned that fears of nuclear disaster are generally overblown. Taking the opposite position were Amory Lovins in The Huffington Post and Jonathan Schell in Yes, who argued that the risks of meltdowns are simply too great.
There was plenty of irresponsible reporting, too, an interview carried out by Nancy Grace of CNN Headline News serving as a particularly egregious example of a journalist raising alarms without seeming to understand the science. Ropeik worried that poor risk communication by the Japanese authorities has stoked mistrust, fear, and anger toward nuclear power.
What seems clear, however, is that even taking Chernobyl into account, nuclear power has caused far fewer deaths than coal. “Some studies indicate that on a per-kilowatt-hour basis, the electricity from coal-fired generation is 4,000 times more deadly than electricity from nuclear generation, primarily because of harmful emissions and premature deaths,” noted Richard Caperton, an energy policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.
The problem is that nuclear disasters, although rarer than those in the coal industry, tend to be more highly publicized. This is one of the reasons why nuclear power has a high “dread to risk” ratio, a subject ably explored by Andrew Revkin at his New York Times blog, Dot Earth.
Looming over this whole debate like a dark cloud is the threat of climate change. One of the reasons for nuclear power’s increasing popularity in recent years is that, as a low emitter of greenhouse gases, its development can become one of the “wedges” used to mitigate global warming. As with the threat of a nuclear meltdown, humans find it difficult to assess the risk of climate change because it presents a low probability of a catastrophic disaster—although that probability increases with each year we fail to act against it. What’s more, effective regulation of both nuclear power and fossil fuels in the U.S. have been stymied by “regulatory capture”—when regulators are controlled by the industry they’re supposed to oversee—of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and (while under the George W. Bush Administration) the EPA, respectively.
But it is the divergences between nuclear power and climate change that have been least remarked upon by the press. Despite the global debate surrounding it, nuclear power is ultimately a local issue. Yes, plumes of radiation and contamination of food and water can potentially travel long distances, but the threat posed is mostly confined to a certain radius. Climate change, on the other hand, is the ultimate global issue, “the disaster that we refuse to see coming,” as Ezra Klein of The Washington Post puts it, although he asserts that “in a rough way” it is “easier to predict.”
Journalists and most other commentators are used to depicting these debates as pitting “environment vs. development.” But with nuclear power touted as one of the energy alternatives to prevent climate change, that dichotomy is becoming out-dated, increasingly replaced by a public discourse of “global vs. local.” What is good for the planet may not be good for local people, and vice versa.
We face the same conundrum with—and the media have provided far less attention to—the issue of large dams. They, too, have a renewed popularity among policymakers because they’re seen as a climate-friendly energy source (although decaying plant matter in reservoirs do release methane, a powerful greenhouse gas). What’s more, in a world facing increasing water stress, dams are a crucial means for storing and providing fresh water. And yet they are incredibly destructive to local communities and ecosystems, and thus fiercely opposed by local people.