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?
At this point, usually with a plane crash you know the basic outlines of what happened. You may have had some bad information in the first few hours or the following day that gets straightened out, but usually you have a pretty good grip on what happened after more than three weeks. Here, the facts on the ground are still changing. And by changing, I don’t mean just physically changing, but rather that the understanding of the situation on the ground keeps changing. Moreover, the initiating event isn’t over yet.
At this point, what don’t you know—or what don’t we know—that is crucial to this story?
The extent of damage to the cores and the spent fuel pools is uncertain. The extent of damage to the plant that contains those materials is uncertain. The ability to remove those materials and seal them up, or even seal them up in place, is not clear. And the extent of contamination heavy enough where we’ve got areas that will not be safe to live in for appreciable periods of time is also not clear. We don’t all of the facts about how Japanese regulators and TEPCO determined the maximum natural catastrophe that they thought they were going to have to deal with, and whether their reasoning was reproduced anywhere else, including in the United States. We also don’t quite know what changes you have to make to reactors elsewhere to make sure they could withstand a class of accidents that come from physical challenges larger than the designers assumed possible.
How do you find experts and others to get perspective on the story and make sure you’re not getting the added spin of their pro- or anti-nuclear views?
You’re always getting added spin. Basically, I break people down into two categories: people who think that all nuclear engineering problems are solvable and people who think that nuclear power is an inherently bad idea and that Japan is just another example of why. People in both of those groups can make good arguments and have expertise that I don’t have, and can contribute to a meaningful debate. But it’s my job to sort them out. I guess I have some advantage because a lot of the people I’ve been talking to lately are the same people I’ve been talking to for the last twenty years.
How prepared do you think the American news media were to cover a nuclear power accident and crisis? There’s been a decline in the number of specialty energy reporters.