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.
Let me shift gears slightly. First of all, when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission built its current headquarters they put in a press room with lots of space because they figured newspaper, radio, and TV reporters would be coming in there to cover their every debate and meeting. But at most of the sessions I go to, I’m the only reporter from general interest media. They get lots of newsletters and the occasional stray TV camera. But usually I’m the only general interest media person there. This isn’t unique to nuclear. The last big plane crash I covered, I was surprised at how few reporters were present. The media industry doesn’t send reporters out into the field the way it used to.
But even with so much information on the Web, it didn’t seem like there were very many reporters who understood how a nuclear reactor works and what a potential meltdown was.
That’s absolutely true, but again, that doesn’t differ all that much from other kinds of stories. I can tell you hideous stories about plane crashes where the local reporter who reaches the scene first completely misinterpreted what was going on. So, I do believe there’s a benefit to being a beat reporter. I also believe that beat reporters are an endangered species.
One of the issues going forward is that every American nuclear power plant already operating is going to be looked at more closely. How prepared are local journalists to evaluate safety, given different plant designs and locations?