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Beware Nuclear Policy Experts Talking About Japan

by Michael Levi
March 14, 2011

I have quick piece up at assessing the potential policy consequences of the ongoing Japanese nuclear disaster. Short version: Take a look at political prognosticators’ track record from the early days of the BP oil spill before you decide to believe anything that’s being predicted right now.

I chose not to write about the nitty-gritty of the current technical situation for a simple reason: I don’t really have anything to add to what the honest-to-goodness experts have to say. I know more than enough about the technical ins and outs of nuclear power to speak intelligently about related policy issues, but the situation at the reactors is complex and opaque. Even bona-fide nuclear engineering experts have severe limits to their ability to predict where things are going. A disturbingly large fraction of the people currently opining on television and radio, though, aren’t even experts on nuclear technology. They are policy experts who apparently can’t say no when people ask them to go on TV and talk about the technical ins and outs of the unfolding situation.

I’m not naïve: I know that the airwaves are always full with people who don’t quite know what they’re talking about. But the current situation is special. Nuclear incidents are inevitably amplified by fear, and fear is multiplied when people lose trust in their information sources. It is particularly important right now that people get the best information possible, and it’s incumbent on the media to make sure that they go to people who really know what they’re talking about. I’ve said no to more than a few interview requests over the last few days, and have directed producers to real engineering experts instead. I’d be thrilled to see more nuclear policy experts do the same.

And there are plenty of people for the media to turn to. I often have policy disagreements with the nuclear skeptics at the Union of Concerned Scientists, but David Lochbaum, in particular, has been great at giving clear technical information in the last few days. Olli Heinonen, formerly of the IAEA and now at Harvard, has been solid; it helps that he spent several years as an inspector based in Japan. The reporters of the New York Times have been doing a stellar job, which isn’t a surprise, particularly given Matt Wald’s deep expertise in the area. Finally, the pro-nuclear World Nuclear Association has been publishing a great series of detailed technical updates.  Bookmark their page and update it frequently; I certainly have been.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Tom Jędryszek POLAND EU

    However termonuclear powerplants seem future of growth this spheare of industry. Experimental powerplans should give possitive result without unsafety of a radiation.
    I have a dream to resign for example nuclear powerplants and all this industry cooperation and this problems for adventage termonuclear industry for example in Poland.
    We have strong argumants for this direct of growth, especialy now. May by this is impact for beter explain this investition in publicy opinion. I think, this may by give support to make step to forth of technology.
    We can invest this type termonuclear powerplant especialy in Japan in forst order for safety people. This importand coordination with a standards use Internationale Atomistic Energy Agency IAEA

  • Posted by EL

    I agree with you, it’s important to get reliable information and to respond to it in a reasonable and constructive way. But one issue stands out for me … why do we still have 50-100 people at the Fukushima site working in short shifts and focused primarily on connecting power cables, sampling standing water, and moving fire hoses around? I know they are doing more than this, but not much (to my mind). We now know that three organizations are reporting release of fission products to the environment equal to the amount released at Chernobyl (New Scientist, French Institute for Radiological Protection and Nuclear Safety, and Austria’s Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics). At this stage of the nuclear crisis in Chernobyl, Gorbachev had deployed tens of thousands of workers by this point to focus on clean-up and containment concerns. And let’s keep this in perspective, after the initial explosion at Chernobyl, the situation was not that much different than at Fukushima: damaged fuel, smoke and fires, limited releases of fission products. The main difference is that Fukushima includes about 10 times the amount of damaged fuel in reactors and troubled spent fuel pools than at Chernobyl. Don’t you think it’s time to ask why the response has been so casual and modest to date, and isn’t it time we get more than 100 people into the site to help with mitigation and containment (which NYT reports today could persist for 3 to 5 years).

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