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.

It’s worth remembering, if you look at our coverage three weeks out of this event, that Japanese authorities have counted approximately 12,000 bodies, and I regret to say that number will likely be significantly higher by the time they are done. These bodies are not from the nuclear accident. They’re from the earthquake and tsunami, but the bulk of our coverage is on the nuclear accident.

What about this story has surprised you?

I never thought I’d be covering multiple meltdowns simultaneously or that I would be covering essentially fratricide, where problems at one reactor caused problems at an adjacent reactor. But news is the unpredictable. I admit that at times I get the sense that we’re living in a science fiction movie. At times I get the sense that all of those computer projections—all of those engineering studies about worst cases—are just projections, and now we’re getting a real world data point that is going to mean a lot more going forward.

And I’ve got one other idea to throw in, which is that this could turn out to be a Rorschach test. You look at this inkblot of the Fukushima accident, and we’re going to have people who say, “This shows it’s folly, we should never have split the atom.” We’re going to have people who say, “Look, if this is the worst that can happen, it’s not nearly as bad as some earlier projections.” And we’re going to have people who say, “Yeah, this is bad, there are things they could’ve been done better, but we can learn from this and move on.” The lessons learned will be all across the spectrum.

Did you sleep during the first few days of coverage?

Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.