The crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Japan has underscored the importance of specialized energy reporters. Unfortunately, there weren’t many American journalists on the beat when disaster struck on March 11. The New York Times’s veteran energy and environment reporter Matthew L. Wald was one of the few, and it has shown in the paper’s outstanding coverage of the unfolding disaster. A Times reporter for nearly thirty-five years, Wald has covered nuclear power since 1979 and been in the paper’s Washington bureau since 1995. As part of the Times’s large global team, Wald jumped on the Japan story from the start, writing or contributing to more than twenty-eight stories or blog posts to date and providing technical expertise on countless others. CJR contributing editor Cristine Russell interviewed Wald recently about media coverage of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident.
How was the Times’s team put together after word came of Japan’s nuclear power plant accident following the earthquake and tsunami?
I got a phone call on Friday, March 11, from the foreign editor. We had Keith Bradsher in China, who writes a lot about energy and is in a nearby time zone, and we had various people in Japan. I spent a lot time gathering information, but also a lot of time interpreting what we had and proofreading what others had filed to make sure that it made sense, trying to keep straight distinctions like the difference between radioactivity and materials that emit radioactivity, trying to make sense of the dose units, and trying to explain why a reactor that’s shut down can still melt down.
For you, what were the biggest challenges in covering this crisis from afar?
Interestingly, we were all covering it from afar because early on the paper decided not to send anybody within fifty miles of the plant. One of the challenges has been that sometimes Tokyo Electric Power Company [TEPCO] has put out a lot of information, and some of it has been wrong. I don’t think it’s evil. I think it’s the sort of fog-of-war phenomenon. And sometimes when TEPCO puts out information, it’s not wrong, it’s just raw, and you have to figure out what it means. This is a field where the reader and most of the editors start from near zero, so you have to explain decay heat, which is the phenomenon that’s causing the reactor cores to melt. You have to explain the importance of spent fuel. You have to explain the boiling water reactor design and its peculiarities. I’ve spent a lot of time working with our graphics people, putting together images that explain what we think is happening.
Where have you been getting your information?
Mostly from [the New York Times] team in Tokyo, but the International Atomic Energy Agency and TEPCO have been issuing documents on the Web. This would have been a harder accident to cover before the Web. You can also find experts who may not know much about what’s happening at Fukushima specifically, but who work at similar reactors in this country or have done engineering work on that kind of reactor, who can provide context.
You were writing for the website and for the daily paper. How did you balance the need to get information out quickly and the need to get more perspective or verification?
I will give an example. The International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA] released some information about cesium deposition levels at a point far distant from the plant, and American physicists calculated that the levels were much higher than the levels the Soviets used in 1986 to decide what areas of land should be permanently quarantined around Chernobyl. I came across this information late in the afternoon and when the deadline came, I was not completely convinced that the math was correct, so we held it out of the first edition and got it into the second edition after we had satisfied ourselves that calculation was proper. The data were clear, but the IAEA did not make the comparison to Chernobyl. That’s something that a physicist here, who is largely a nuclear opponent, came up with. And just because he said it, I didn’t want to put it in the paper until I was convinced that it was true. The bottom line was that he was right, that the peak level of cesium contamination, measured about twenty-five miles from Fukushima, was about two-and-a-half times higher than the criteria used by the Soviets to declare that Chernobyl ought to be quarantined for the long term.
You cover plane crashes. How does this compare?