APR: your source for nuclear news and analysis since April 16, 2010

Friday, June 17, 2011

How the Misinformation Superhighway affects Nuclear Energy

Thanks to ANS Nuclear Cafe for hosting this week's Carnival of Nuclear Bloggers.

The success of the blog you are now reading is only one proof that the internet, and the still-newish social media form known as the "blog" can be sources of solid technical and historical information, particularly when a subject whose details are so irreversibly technical as are those of nuclear energy. However, this blog.. and others like it linked from it.. are not the norm in their bias by far. This does not only the nuclear industry, but the country as a whole, a disservice.

The speed at which information travels on the internet is exceeded only by the speed at which misinformation travels on it. Just a few days ago, a compressed video showing an hour's worth of the Fukuichi Live Camera at the Fukushima Daiichi site, and which clearly shows a fog bank rolling in to the site, was widely circulated on anti-nuclear sites and deliberately mislabeled as having depicted some sort of explosion on the site. While this blog was (as far as I know) the first to make note of this, albeit in the 'comments' section of the then- most recent post, and refute the claim that this was an explosion, the much higher propensity of people to seek out anti-nuclear sites for information seems to have temporarily overrun any real effort on the part of the public to discover what had actually been depicted. High page views on this site (and a major spike in the APR YouTube Channel, and which carried a comment on the video but did not reproduce it) indicate that many did in fact eventually seek out an educated and informed point of view, and as of this moment the "Fukushima Explosion Video" flap seems to have been put to bed.

This spread of information is sort of a first-level attack against proponents of nuclear energy, if you will; while much of the traffic all over the internet concerning this 'event' was probably just people trying to find out what had happened (and which were being referred around direct linked anti-nuclear sites once finding one of them) the effect overall wasn't being pushed or directed, it seems, by any one person, site or group. However, recently this author discovered himself in a sort of second-level event in which he was prevented from making further comments on an anti-nuclear site, which constitutes a real, and active, anti-nuclear attempt to squash information.

To be brief, the site "ProPublica.org" ran a story about Fort Calhoun which was so riddled with misinformation, and written so clearly anti-nuclear (using all the old tricks our friend Fintan Dunne points out so well) that I was forced to comment. I took issues with a number of things, but the most glaring to me was the fact that the anti-nuclear crowd could not even get the actual reactor vendor's identity correct.

For those unfamiliar, reactor vendor = the company which designed and built the reactor and primary plant.

You'd think that would be easy. Try the NRC site, or WNA's Reactor Database.

After making one post, I was prevented from posting again at all -- all my attempts to simply give these people the FACTS were stopped. Note to you over there at ProPublica dot org: That plant is STILL a Combustion Engineering plant, and not a Westinghouse plant. We all know who ended up with CE's nuclear business. When the plant was built, they were COMPETITORS. But you'll ignore this and go back to writing things like "Nuke Plant Threatened By, And Threatening Contamination Of, Missouri River" and "Could Ft. Calhoun be the next TMI/Chernobyl/Fukushima/Krakatoa/Nameless Asteroid That Killed The Dinosaurs?"

Further working against us, as a third level of assault, is that cadre of both former and newly self-appointed experts who spew anti-nuclear vitriol to anyone who will pay them to stand at a podium or in front of a camera. Academic types, with long hair and who are Asian, seem to be high on this list. Others, disgruntled former nuclear industry execs, and perhaps some "Access Terminated After Failing Readiness For Duty Test" types too, also fill out the TV / radio / newspaper articles with such stupidity as the recent assertion that there was prompt criticality achieved in Fukushima Daiichi's spent fuel pools.

That's one of the dumbest things I've ever read. No, really. It really is one of the dumbest things I've ever read. Not just criticality -- but PROMPT criticality.

Really??!!

There has been so much MISinformation printed and televised and radio-waved about Fukushima Daiichi that many of us don't even know where to begin to tackle it all; we take the anti-nuclear horsefeathers as they come, but whenever you clean up a pile of them here comes another. Can we even think about backing up far enough to ask the simple question "What's the problem here?" Sure we can.

One of the problems is the repetition of misinformation, such as I mentioned before. Some of it is old -- how many of us are tired of hearing that Three Mile Island killed off nuclear energy in this country? The plain fact is that orders for new nuclear plants reached a first peak in the 60's, then nose dived in 1969. There was then a major resurgence of orders, which then shut off again in 1978. That's before TMI-2 happened. While TMI-2's repercussions did lead to massive delays and plant cancellations among plants on order at the time, the shutoff of new plant orders had already occurred. You might call it a one-two punch, but both events matter and to say that TMI-2 all of a sudden by itself halted nuclear progress in this country is overly simplistic, short-sighted and wrong. (I would suggest the anti-nuclear crowd read the reports on TMI and see how many of the issues were institutional rather than mechanical, just for a beginning on what TMI really implied to the industry.)

It seems to this author that the repetition of misinformation -- some of it old, from any given newspaper's file stories -- is perhaps because, for a number of reasons, nuclear energy has largely dropped off the radar screen of public awareness. We tend not to have any type of continuity of information about nuclear energy -- its history, and development in general in this country, or even local development. It's not in our educational system, it's not in the papers or the Saturday Evening Post or on TV because there's no continuing progress.

It's telling when the public has much better knowledge about and is more conversant with the theory of global warming, and various associated theorized mechanisms for altering / worsening / improving its effects, than it is knowledgeable about or conversant with nuclear energy which has been an established technology in this country for over half a century. It's especially telling when we see that people with nuclear backgrounds will explain matters and entertain criticism, whereas those who advance the cause of global warming most avidly are the climate scientists who tell us that no one but climate scientists can really judge whether global warming is a fact or not. For whatever reason, the public trusts those who cannot provide proof about their position over those who can provide concrete facts.

There was indeed a time when there WAS a continuity of information, of sorts, about nuclear energy. Press releases were made about very many events such as contract awards, groundbreaking ceremonies, reactor plant startups, first generation on the grid and so forth. Utility companies, both publicly owned (fewer in number, contrary to popular belief) and privately owned formed consortiums with no small amount of press to construct pilot or experimental plants together to help defray the plant cost (in the AEC Power Demonstration Reactor Program, the AEC bore part of the expense too) and develop operating experience in concert with the reactor vendor and the AEC. All this was publicized widely, in many ways.


Above, commemorative tray in APRA collection. This detail shot shows the CVTR or Carolinas-Virginia Tube Reactor, a heavy water moderated and cooled reactor built at Parr Shoals SC under the Atomic Energy Commission's 3rd round of the Power Demonstration Reactor Program. Carolinas-Virginia Nuclear Power Associates, Inc. was a partnership of Carolina Power & Light, Duke Power, South Carolina Electric & Gas, and Virginia Electric and Power Company. All of these companies later ordered conventional (and much larger) light water nuclear plants after gaining experience together on this project. Our point here is that persons reading about one of these later plants might also have read in a local paper something along the lines of "this plant is being built with several years' experience in the joint operation of the CVTR plant at Parr Shoals, SC behind the company." The reader might then have said "Oh, you know, I do recall the news about that plant a few years ago .. there were a number of stories about it" and this would then give the reader the perception - correctly so - that the new plants would be built, operated and managed standing on the shoulders of the previous experience. It is this sort of thing that I mean by continuity.

What we have now is only the continued haggard attempts of the anti-nuclear crowd to report every burned out light bulb and cracked floor tile at every nuclear facility in the United States, and even abroad. This is the only thing that sells papers. Prior to Fukushima Daiichi, though, the anti-nuclear crowd was either very quiet, or else very out-shouted by the environmentalists who feared AGW (that's Anthropogenic Global Warming, for those who don't know, or man-made global warming) would doom us quickly and that nuclear -- given its really safe track record, which it is -- would be one of the ways to stop it. What's happened now it seems is that the environmentalists have gotten quiet, instead of standing up for their cause against the rabid anti-nuclear crowd. (Yes, there's some crossover, but you get the idea.)

Of course, the last paragraph's opening statement is true only if you consider the big media. As pointed out at the beginning of this post, the new media -- blogs, and YouTube too but mostly blogs -- are fighting the fight FOR nuclear power, right out on the front lines. The front lines of information are now the internet, and it's actually a lot harder, if you think about it, for the anti-nuclear crowd to get away with its old game. The big city newspapers and glossy-print newsstand magazines don't have the ability to get responsive comments out to all the readers instantly like blogs and online news sites do. While this gets their anti-nuclear message out faster and wider, it also allows instantaneous damage control by the pro-nuclear crowd (until their comments are banned, in which case the offending site will probably get called out for this on a really popular pro-nuclear blog.) This one fact may show that the pro-nuclear writers have a really good weapon, which is fact, and a good target to hit, which is the comment section of misleading, or just plain wrong, news items and blog entries.

That right there is the answer to "What's the problem?" and to "What do we do about it?" We fight to get the facts out. Very luckily for us, there are a number of pro-nuclear folks who are very heavily involved in this area; they're mostly linked over on the right of the Atomic Power Review home page. Further, many of these folks are united in a project that will launch sometime soon with the direct purpose of undoing one of the problems I've noted above -- the lack of nuclear literacy, as it were, in the US public. It may even penetrate the educational system -- if we are lucky.

Right now, we have as many answers to "What do we do about the level of knowledge concerning nuclear energy" in the US as we do to "What were all the failures, errors and issues at Fukushima Daiichi?" All of this is new, and both are playing out at the same time. The nuclear renaissance in this country is riding and falling with the tide of information, and misinformation, surrounding the accident and the US nuclear establishment's response to it. Hopefully with this post I've cleared away a bit of the fog surrounding the information issue so that we can move forward. If the journalists at large have truth in focus, rather than sales, they'll take note of what I've written here. If not, they'll continue using the same play book .. and we'll call them on it wherever we see it.

6:51 PM Eastern Friday June 17, 2011
ATOMIC POWER REVIEW

NOTE: FUKUSHIMA DAIICHI UPDATE TO FOLLOW SATURDAY.

14 comments:

  1. There are those who have been pushed by Fukushima to reexamine the facts on nuclear power and have shifted their stance considerably. See for example a whole sequence of articles by one of the UK's most well-known environmentalists, e.g.:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/apr/05/anti-nuclear-lobby-misled-world

    Part of the problem with much of the 24/7 media is that after years of cutting back they quite often lack the strength in depth they once had in terms of staff. So there are not enough journalists with sufficient background knowledge to separate the wheat from the chaff among the flood of press releases and experts under the pressure of real-time reporting.

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  2. Excellent article, Will, and bless the goals of the carnival. I only wish it all got out more mainstream! I'd like to add my two cents.

    I believe an aggressive ongoing public nuclear education policy takes 90% of the pain and confusion out of damage control, even in accidents involving zero casualties. The anti-nuclear lobby THRIVES and germinates on public ignorance like mosquitos to stagnant water. Had the nuclear industry long done it's homework educating the public on nuclear energy it could've cut off the majority of anti-nuclear rants off at the knees. People should not cower in clueless fear that radiation is a creeping glowing fog seeping under the door to get them. We should not be in the sad ironic situation where not one entry at Westinghouse (!) Science Fairs exhibit anything to do with nuclear power, and that said exhibits are regularly discouraged at schools in lieu windmills and solar cells. Myths are rampant about irradiated foods which has the potential of resolving long term storage en masse. The biggie for me is if you ask most people when and where was the atom was first split, the answer is always that huge explosion out a desert, not under university stadium in Chicago years before; why isn't this corrected in text and media? Why let a huge explosion be the stain and label of anything nuclear? We should also stop pretending the general media is "nuclear neutral", what their passion to hawk the very worst worst case scenarios on current crises under the coy cloak of "preparing the public for the worst" and most availing rabid anti-nuclear authors as "consultants". How science literate are most reporters? How many recall how major worldly news reporters kept taking TMI's huge alien-looking cooling towers FOR the nuclear reactors?? How many reports on nuclear energy -- forget any positive ones (fairy tale?) -- shown on cable "science" shows,. I once caught "How Things Are Made" and "Modern Marvels" on cable about nuclear reactors and was amazed how darkly those features were presented, with low rumbling ominous background music and minute by minute mentions of how dangerous everything was. I dare ask whether they're as a partial other industries handling substances with proven records of wiping out whole towns. Ditto bio-labs which contain ultra-lethal microbe strains and pathogens which if ever released would pale meltdown casualties and which there's no running and hiding from, evacuation zones or not -- so where are the anti rallies there??

    What's desperately and seriously needed is a Carl Sagan of nuclear who is OUT THERE among the grass roots. debunking the Darth Vader evils of nuclear energy. Someone willing to state that at its very core, "pacifist" philosophy fuels the anti-nuclear movement far more than science, involving emote issues such as guilt for the unnatural exceptionally evil way nuclear energy brought death to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and hence must be banished from humankind. Such is why groups as "Moms For Peace" turn up at anti nuclear plants rallies even though I don't think TMI or other plants are milling out atom bombs.

    When you even have car tire commercials teaching little girls about windmills and solar cells and growing trees to "save the planet" and we hear zit ads about nuclear energy, the nuclear industry has a whale lot of work to do, and I don't mean with reactors.

    James Greenidge

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  3. I think it is just taking a long time for the general public to make a rational assessment of risk for nuclear power. After Fukushima is clearly winding down there will be some post-mortems and hopefully it will be pointed out over and over again that no one died of radiation and the health effects are minor. As the world (lead by the developing world) uses nuclear more and more, people will finally get the idea that it is no big deal, especially compared to risks we accept every day, (driving a car, flying in a plane, breathing air polluted by coal-burning utilities, etc.).

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  4. I can definitely sympathize. Though I'm not a nuclear engineer, I'm technically-minded enough to understand in reasonable proportion the significance of details, and where media has sensationalized or the fearful have become hysterical.

    The situation at Fort Calhoun really only popped up on my radar last night, and I find that upsetting because this should have gotten more and better national news coverage than it has. The situation was looking serious over ten days ago. It's my perception that even in some worst-case flooding hypothetical situation that might play out if flood management structures upstream fail catastrophically, with sufficient resources the potential hot spots should be manageable with or without electric power. The plant itself may become a write-off, of course, but it seems highly unlikely it would be permitted to become a threat. It's my perception both the cold shutdown status and advanced warning of impending high water contributed to them dodging the worst bullet of the present situation, and the relative small scale of the site compared to Fukushima Daiichi bodes well for effective crisis management by the resources on site.

    THAT SAID, I'm dissatisfied with the frankness of the official statements being made about what seems a very serious situation surrounding that plant on all sides. They seem to be dismissing or failing to acknowledge the seriousness of the situation down there. Why aren't they openly and frankly discussing worst-case scenarios and planned contingencies? Why aren't they diving into technical details with station diagrams illustrating where systems are located relative to the water levels and what the implications are at each stage of a rising water line?

    While it's correct that delving into that may fan some hysteria in folks predisposed to irrational fear, it seems their public relations management efforts are shortsighted and failing to achieve the ideal level of openness and transparency.

    I hope that you will choose to delve into the situation unfolding at the Ford Calhoun nuclear plant with the same resourceful and exhaustive detail attained in some of your Fukushima Daiichi posts.

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  5. Perhaps, to anti-nukers, Ft. Calhoun is an imminent threat only by the fact nuclear reactors exist to those who will spare no exaggeration or falsehoods to milk any crisis. The media's no friend of nuclear power, but even they -- not seeing any fire with the smoke -- don't want to be labelled anti-nuclear flunkies in this instance based on "reports" and speculations delivered by anti-nukers. Comparisons with Fukushima are edible only to the clueless and the zealot; the events that caused the former took mere minutes; with the latter we're talking of days if not weeks of monitoring a developing situation with preparation and action.

    James Greenidge

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  6. It's only "misinformation" if the effect it has is not in your interest.

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  7. @ashen: No... it's misinformation if it's wrong.

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  8. The Fukushima event has persuaded a number of people that nuclear energy was better than they realized such as former environmentalist George Monbiot. Pronuclear bloggers use him as an example of a convert. He spoke against Helen Caldicott who is a flaky critic that has a surprisingly wide following. Monbiot has wide readership too. In April of this year he discusses how the antinuclear lobby has misled people and provides evidence http://www.monbiot.com/2011/04/04/evidence-meltdown/

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  9. @ashen, To address your comment properly involves discussing the difference between DISinformation and MISinformation.

    A disinformation campaign is the purposeful dissemination of technically incorrect information with the knowledge the information was wrong. The express purpose of this type of PR campaign is to affect the outcome of a situation to gain advantage or create confusion. Disinformation campaigns result in factually correct information being tainted or completely disregarded due to purposeful manipulation of emotions by spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt.

    Example of a disinformation campaign: Arnie Gunderesen’s statements the fuel pool explosions were nuclear not hydrogen related because the fuel went prompt critical after the water levels began to drop.

    Circumstantial evidence indicated the fuel had not gone critical back in March when Mr. Gundersen started this discussion in one of his numerous interviews. Evidence is slowly coming out that he was wrong, is wrong and will continue to be wrong. So why does Mr. Gundersen not want to be right when he is being interviewed?

    Here is my explanation. Mr. Gundersen knew before he started getting face time in front of the cameras in March there was no way the fuel would or could go critical in that configuration. Mr. Gundersen should also know that a prompt critical event does not automatically lead to a “nuclear explosion”, which in the case of Fukushima would be fuel rods blowing apart not a nuclear detonation. Or at least he should know with all his decades of experience as a technically trained professional anti-nuke.

    If Mr. Gundersen truly does not understand the difference then he really can’t call himself an expert. Additionally, he really can’t call himself an engineer either for that matter if he does not understand the difference between deflagration and detonation.

    Please see Cheryl Rofer’s and Meredith Angwin’s posts also listed in the 57th carnival being hosted by the ANS for actual technical discussion on these issues.

    Misinformation, on the other hand, is technically incorrect information that is spread unintentionally due to a lack of knowledge or training in that specific field by those who are writing the articles or bieing interviewed.

    The ProPublica articles discussed by Mr. Davis appear to be a misinformation campaign. ProPublica has activists reporters who have written good reports about other events both nuclear and non-nuclear over the years. So I have no reason to doubt their motivations or question their abilities.

    So without further information about the authors and their personal beliefs, I can only conclude the reporters and editors: a) believe that - after listening to years of disinformation – Ft Calhoun can suffer the same type of event as Fukushima, and b) have not spent that much time really understanding the emergency response systems of US based nuclear power plants because of those same disinformation campaigns conducted by individuals like Mr. Gundersen.

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  10. Will - excellent initial post and fine commentary in the thread. As one who has been fighting the battle against nuclear disinformation for many years, it makes me feel good to have someone like you on my side.

    Of course, like you, I am also energized, motivated and supported by the exceptional group of people that hang out on the ANS Social Media email list. We are an independent, argumentative bunch who are strongly motivated to share the facts about nuclear energy in non boring ways.

    Keep up the good work.

    Rod Adams
    Publisher, Atomic Insights

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  11. Will, great article, well done. I am in favor of a worldwide campaign to spread good and positive information about nuclear, and share completely your point of view from my "vantage" point in Italy, a country which has again said a loud NO to nuclear, without even knowing why...

    Just a quick comment for the person who signs him/herself as "about": why do you refer to George Monbiot as a "former environmentalist"? Being pro-nuclear does not disqualify someone from being an environmentalist, in my book. I guess that folks like Gwyneth Cravens would share my view...

    Ciao from Milan, Italy

    Luca Bertagnolio
    Futuro Nucleare
    http://futuronucleare.com

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  12. Just wanted to add that sites like this one full of detailed information that gives context and background to current events are absolutely key - thankyou!

    As a bystander, I would suggest the following two things might be helpful (and in this I am not responding to what you do on your blog, but more generally):

    - Build bridges to what you might call the "pro-science wing" of the environmental movement. As the recent example of Monbiot shows, people who have been "traditionally" anti-nuclear without ever examining the issue for themselves in detail, do change their minds when faced with the facts. As you mention in your post, the global warming issue
    has already changed the mood considerably.

    - Proactively call out bad practice where it occurs. Don't leave criticizing problems to the anti-nuclear camp, even if these are rare and exaggerated (because that is something that must be explained). There are many people who might describe themselves as "pro-nuclear in principle, but don't trust the nuclear industry". While this may be misinformed, if e.g. some of the issues the IAEA has just criticized in Japan had not been flagged up before the accident only by anti-nuclear groups and some scientists, this would have enhanced credibility in some quarters. Where there are trade-offs between safety and other considerations, bring them out into the open.

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  13. @a98893ba-99c2-11e0-8001-000bcdcb5194 "Why aren't they openly and frankly discussing worst-case scenarios and planned contingencies?"

    Because the operator/industry/regulator's standard response is always optimistic. "It's not as bad as it looks or as bad you think it is". It's a PR game, because once you talk worst case scenarios or potential negative development, they think they are admitting that nuclear isn't as "safe" as they have claimed to be. A lot of people have said priorly that these situations simply cannot occur, so there is a resistance to talk about this openly. Granted, there is no point to speculate on doomsday scenarios, but we are never seeing plausible risk assessments, just commentary of current situation. This blog is no exception. People don't like to stick their head out. The people who would be best placed to do competent risk assessments aren't doing it, leaving the space to incompetent media outlets and extremists like Caldicott, who are not useful and confusing matters more. Critical but competent people, like Gundersen, are dismissed. So what we have left are educated people puzzling together press releases from Tepco, NISA, JAIF etc without being critical enough. Where else is the public supposed to turn to? And that public, like Italy, will make the decision on things. The public doesn't care about " it's misinformation if it's wrong." You've lost it once you cannot explain it well enough, talk it down, and that's what keeps happening.

    As a side note, even conservative Japanese media is now referring to Tepco HQ's as "imperial headquarters" because the information they release for bringing things under control, "which nobody believes" (quote) -- is still being issued, just like at the end of WW2 when all was already lost and commands and strategies were released to turn things around for victory.

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  14. A request: It would be great to see a nuanced and critical discussion of the issues raised in this AP report: http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20110620/ap_on_re_us/us_aging_nukes_part1

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