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?
I have been on tours of a lot of different plants, often with reporters for local or regional papers, and very often it’s the first time they’ve been through something like that. They often know more about the company that built or operates the plant than I do because it’s in their backyard. But often they don’t have a broader perspective. There’s a local reporter in Westchester [New York] who covers the Indian Point reactors a whole lot more carefully than I do, but I have a broader view. I’ve met reporters in Florida and Tennessee who keep up more closely with reactor proposals in those places than I do, but again, they have—I don’t mean to sound critical—it’s not quite tunnel vision, it’s more hyper-local understanding in a way that doesn’t benefit from a broader perspective.
Local coverage often devolves into pro- and anti-nuclear dueling experts rather than more straightforward coverage of technical issues.
Let me add something to that - this idea that you’ve done a good job if you’ve quoted experts pro and anti. There’s something to that, but you’ve really done a better job if you understand what each side is saying and can ask probing questions from the pro person and the anti person.
What’s your sense of how well the news media have put nuclear power into context with other forms of energy? It seems like we’ve had more heat and less light on that issue.
We don’t exactly tailor our coverage to actual risk values. We tailor it to what looks newsy. The number of people who die on our highways far exceeds the number who die in plane crashes. Yet what we’re focused on is the plane crashes. The week after the Fukushima accident began, I saw reports that forty-eight coal miners had been killed in Pakistan. There is no form of energy extraction, conversion, and delivery that doesn’t kill people.
If you want to get cold and analytical about it, we need electricity so we can have clean drinking water, sewage processing, fresh food in the refrigerator, sixty-eight degrees on a cold winter night, and seventy-two degrees on a hot August afternoon. All of those things have benefits, and all of them are going to have a cost somewhere. One of them is risk and sometimes death. Look at the people who died in San Bruno [California] when the natural gas pipeline there ruptured. These are the costs of extracting, converting, and delivering energy, but we don’t really look at it statistically. We don’t think in terms of deaths per megawatt hour. Nuclear power accidents are simply sexier than coal mine accidents.