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The Times: Did the reality match the rhetoric about Fukushima?

The day after the event, at which the Science Editor at The Times outlined The Times approach to reporting on the nuclear crisis in Fukushima, I purchased a copy of The Times (16 March 2011). I wanted to see how well the reporting in The Times that referred to the Fukushima events reflected the principles and ideas that had been.

I should like to start by stating, for reasons that will become obvious, that I doubt very much that Mark Henderson, for whom I have a good deal of respect, is responsible for the decisions made across the entire publication. I would like to think that the science editor would have a fair amount of input into reporting on a fundamentally scientific topic, but suspect that the driver for a Good Story is probably slightly more pressing. There is other coverage of the Japanese situation in the paper, but I have focussed on those which specifically refer to the nuclear incident.

The story just below the fold on the front page, “Britain’s nuclear industry faces safety review” (Ben Webster and Anushka Asthana, pp 1, 5), highlights that the HSE has been asked to review the designs for the next generation of nuclear reactors in order to ensure that the sorts of failsafes which would have prevented the situation in Fukushima. They semi-quote Chris Huhne, who “opposed nuclear reactors before joining the cabinet” (page 1 cold 5): “‘there may be lessons to be learnt’ from the Japanese crisis and added that Britain needed to make sure its plants were ‘proofed’ against flash floods and storm surges.” (page 1 col 5) It is, of course, normal and right that when a crisis occurs practitioners review their own risk mitigations processes and response plans and seek to continually strive to ensure incidents don’t happen and that the right things happen if they do. But this would (or at least should) have happened without need for Cabinet intervention, so this either shows ignorance on the part of the reporters or suggests that there is something going on.

I’d suggest the narrative here highlights the risk of nuclear reactors without having to resort to such minor concerns as factual context. The report suggests that the IAEA had warned Japan of a risk, that the EU has agreed to addition safety testing at all nuclear power plants and the HSE report. Chris Huhne (remember, anti-nuclear) highlights that this event will cause investors to have cold feet in nuclear technology (although manages to frame this as a steady response compared to those hyperactive Europeans!). The report suggests that this means the HSE will, as a result of this new review, be unable to approve new reactor designs by the expected deadline (further highlight potential economic impacts for investors). The report ends with comments from Greenpeace suggesting that the industry “had failed to plan for the worst-case scenario” (page 5, col 5), an expert pointing out that reactors built today would be fundamentally different to those in Chine and the EU Energy Commissioner who said it was (and I quote) an apocalypse which is out of control, and that the worst could not be ruled out. I’d suggest that any industry and government that prepared for the worst-case scenario (perhaps the four horse-riders of the apocalypse arriving, or the polarity of the neutrinos changing a la 2012) would probably be criticised for wasting money, and the EU Energy Commissioner doesn’t seem to understand the concept of reality in the slightest (perhaps not unusual for a politician).

In short, article 1 is a strongly political piece which reinforces a perception of risk which is not in fact supported by the facts. It’s right that The Times report the political response, but it seems that this type of reporting is continuing a myth which will doubtless influence economic factors and which has clear political ends.

The article that takes up most of pages 4 and 5, “Lost industry and fears of fresh disaster trigger panic on market” (Sam Fleming and Miles Costello) further reinforces the nuclear story as an economic crisis. It goes on to talk about the admission by the Japanese Prime Minister of an increase in radiation outside the Fukushima plant and mentions the detection of increased levels of radiation in Tokyo and by the USS George Washington. However, no context is provided on this increase (no indication of relative risk), although it does report that officials in Tokyo said “the increase was too small to threaten the 39 million people in and around the capital” (page 5, col 2) and the commander of the US ship said “there was no danger to the public” (page 5, col 2) – reading this I thought “well, they would say that wouldn’t they”. Indeed, it was slightly undermined in the next sentence by pointing out that US military personnel in Japan have been “advised to limit their time outside and to seal the ventilation systems at their homes” (page 5, col 2) and that embassies had been advising people to return to their home countries.

Page 6 opens with “Desperate mission for teams defying the radiation threat” (Leo Lewis and Tony Halpin) in which the “desperate-sounding” (page 6 col 1) plans of the teams at the power plant are described. Japan (“on the brink of a nuclear catastrophe” (page 6 col 1)) had trillions of yen wiped off the stock exchange by the disaster (it’s an economic disaster!), and had created a 30 km exclusion around the reactor (although no reference is made to context of this – it’s the same as the Chernobyl exclusion zone). There is then a comparison between the teams working in the reactors with the liquidators who were worked to control the Chernobyl event. There’s a box-out in the centre of the article “How the authorities repeatedly underestimated the dangers” which shows a timeline of “mistakes”. At no point does the article conflate an explosion in a nuclear installation with a nuclear explosion (although it does little to actively differentiate the two), and when there is speculation it is identified (“One expert … speculated … that the engineers … were ‘making it up as they go along'” (page 5 cols 4-5)). However, specious analogy to Chernobyl has made it in, the context of the Sievert measurement of radiation isn’t explained (although, in fairness, it is explicitly explained in the Q&A below the article and opposite on page 7). The focus is very much on the fact that the authorities are not to be trusted and that the engineers working in the plant don’t know what they’re doing and are likely to die.

Also on page 6, there is a Q&A by Hannah Devlin and Mark Henderson. This is a well-presented sets of FAQs, and includes a useful explanation of why the exclusion zone is sufficient (although doesn’t provide a comparison to the Chernobyl exclusion zone despite Chernobyl appearing in the previous sentence). In fact, this is probably my biggest issue with the reporting: Chernobyl is referred to obliquely, but instead of working to compare the two events directly and show the relative risk it’s used only to illustrate specific points.

Page 7 consists of an infogram entitled “What is radiation?” with four sections to it. The first section (down the left hand column) describes α, β, γ and neutron radiation and highlights the potential dangers of Cs-137 and I-131 isotopes. Right at the bottom of the graphic is something illustrating the International Nuclear and Radiological Event Scale (INES), with examples at each point (brief reference to Chernobyl at INES 7). Running across the top of the INES and then up along the left hand side of the graphic is a linear scale comparing different exposures. Running along the bottom is 0 – 20 mSv, and along the right hand side are points from 100 to 10,000 mSv, with highlights such as “Exposure from London to New York flight” (very near 0 mSv), “Average dose from a full-body CT scan. Also the average annual dose of background radiation in a radon-rich area, such as Cornwall” (10 mSv), “Normal annual safety limit for nuclear workers” (20 mSv), “Annual dose above which cancer risk clearly starts to rise” (100 mSv) and “Single dose would invariably be fatal within a few weeks” (10,000 mSv). As ever, the choice of scale is itself interesting, but the colour scheme is particularly odd in my opinions, with 0 mSv being yellow, gradient to orange by 10 mSv, red at the 20-100 mSv point, which gradients through purple (5,000 mSv) to blue (10,000 mSv). I’d have probably run from green to red, but the colour scheme reflects the other graphical components (yellow to red matches the INES line below it, and the main graphic is predominantly blue.

Finally, in the centre of the graphic, there is information on the effect on the body, with a rendered human body graphic with highlights such as the thyroid gland (explanation of why prophylactic iodine is used), lungs and sex organs shown with arrow. For me the DNA box seems out-of-place (“Radiation can cause genetic mutations that can trigger cancer” – undeniably true, but in my experience far more likely to result in cool superpowers); everything else is contextualised, but the DNA is just an acontextual box of information. I wonder why the (rather lovely) human body graphic is there – it’s not like most people don’t know where their lungs, bones and skin are…

There’s an opinion piece from Matt Ridley (“Danger is not the point: nuclear is far too expensive”, page 24 col 5) which again focusses on the economics of nuclear power. Apparently, the economic cost of nuclear power means we shouldn’t use it. It could be argued that perhaps ignoring the long-term costs of the preferred coal and gas options is a little short-sighted and that ignoring the relative numbers of fatalities associated with different fuel sources is a little inhumane. However, given this person is clearly opinion (albeit of the ignoring-the-facts-in-order-to-make-a-point), I doubt it has much in the way of editorial input. It does, however, underline The Times commitment to the economic narrative, as if everything can be evaluated in the light of how money is being made or lost.

One final piece made me laugh: “Eat your fission biscuits” (Alex Renton, Time 2 page 2 cols 1-3), in which a clearly panic-stricken journalist attempts to promote the consumption of iodine prophylaxis (“getting more iodine-rich foods on your place seems a sensible precaution right now” (Times 2, page 2, col 1)), whether of the main variety (“On eBay in the US a packet of 14 [tablets of non-radioactive iodine used for prophylaxis] attracted a bid of $540.” (Times 2, page 2, col 1)) or the more hip natural approach of eating haddock sushi (fish and seaweed “are high in iodine salt. It might also help with hair loss.” (Times 2, page 2, col 3), sea salt, cheddar cheese, condensed milk and Jaffa Cakes. Although the claims about iodine content are probably true (apparently United Biscuits were investigating iodine content), the advice seems both unnecessary (no evidence of people outside the exclusion zone needing prophylaxis) and also somewhat, well, quackish. I suppose that since the economy is at the heart of The Times’ concern that we should expect to see them promoting the purchase of unnecessary and unproven products.

In summary, the coverage in The Times is accurate, but, as so often true, suffers a chronic lack of context and is overly preoccupied for local and predominantly economic consequences. When the information is predominantly scientific, it’s well presented (I really do like the infographic on page 7), but I think scientific input is probably very limited. I see this as comparable to the role of Government Chief Scientific Adviser; decisions about content which impinges onto science shouldn’t be made without scientific input. Of course, that’d probably cost too much…