Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The nuclear crisis in Japan

Like many of you, I've spent a lot of time this week watching and reading coverage of the earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent nuclear crisis in Japan.  The news coverage I've seen of the earthquake and tsunami has been heart-wrenching, and I strongly encourage all of you to give generously to reputable relief charities.

However, the news coverage of the unfolding crisis at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant has been, through most of what I've seen, poorly done.  Two days ago I spent an agonizing 15 minutes watching a national news anchor and a meteorologist discussing what impact the wind might have on radiation levels in Japan.  Both people freely admitted to not understanding why the wind would have an impact, or even where nuclear radiation comes from.  Yet rather than bring on an expert who could explain these important issues, they admitted their ignorance and threw it to commercial.

News coverage like this leads to fear and panic, and fails to provide that one crucial item that the field of journalism is built upon: correct information.  So today there are reports of panic purchasing of radiation-related health products on the West Coast of the U.S. when, to the best I've heard, there has not yet been a catastrophic release of radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi plant, and if there were, it would be many days before any radiation could reach the U.S. 

Radiation leaks are scary.  We need special equipment to detect radiation, so unlike many threats, the public can't see it coming.  We have to rely on people "in the know" to be honest with us.  And, in the worst radiation accident that we know of, the explosion at Chernobyl, those people tried to cover up the accident.

What we as the public need is sound journalism with expert scientific reporting to help us to understand what is happening at nuclear plants in Japan.  We don't need anchors wildly speculating about radiation and constant reports on fear and panic.  Perhaps major news organizations will rethink their attitudes toward science journalism – there should be more effort involved than incorrectly regurgitating a story from a marginally-reputable news outlet.

Thankfully, some expert sources of information are finally starting to be heard.  This morning, the American Astronomical Society provided links to some detailed sources of information.  As far as I can tell, these links are providing some of the most thorough reporting, including detailed explanations about what we do and do not know about the ongoing situation.  So, without further ado, here they are for your consumption:
  • - A blog from the American Nuclear Society, compiling information from several different sources.
  • - The World Nuclear News is provided by the World Nuclear Association; this content is produced by in-house journalists who have access to nuclear experts around the globe
  • - the MIT Nuclear Science and Engineering Nuclear Information Hub, maintained by students at MIT's department of nuclear science and engineering.
As in any crisis, the situation is fluid, could change rapidly, and is subject to interpretation.  From all that I can tell right now, there is no need for panic.  Fear is a natural response, but those of us outside of the immediate area surrounding the reactor are not in immediate danger. 

Be concerned.  Stay informed.  Don't panic.

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