Over at my Public Radio news job, the last 10 days or so have been dominated by what's going on in Japan: an earthquake of incredible power, an unimaginably destructive tsunami, and then a much slower-moving and harder-to-comprehend series of incidents involving the collapse of a major nuclear power plant where safety systems were knocked out by the initial disasters.
What everyone wants to know about that last series of events, of course, is how big a danger the nuclear plant situation poses. Is it, in fact, a disaster? And the answer, despite the parachuted-in American news anchors' default hyper-urgency, will be a long time coming. Part of the problem is the lack of clarity from the plant's owners and the Japanese authorities; and part of the problem is a lack of clear reference points. What history is relevant here? Hiroshima and Nagasaki? The atomic powers' legacy of open-air Cold War nuclear testing? Three-Mile Island? Chernobyl? Or all or none of the above? I don't have the answers, but as the latest story on the situation from The New York Times makes clear, problems continue at the crippled nuclear plant and radiation concerns in the surrounding area are on the increase:
The government said it was barring all shipments of milk from Fukushima Prefecture and shipments of spinach from Ibaraki Prefecture, after finding new cases of above-normal levels of radioactive elements in milk and several vegetables. Relatively high levels were also found in spinach from Tochigi and Gunma Prefectures to the west, canola from Gunma Prefecture and chrysanthemum greens from Chiba Prefecture, south of Ibaraki.
Why should anyone on this side of the Pacific care about chrysanthemum greens from Chiba Prefecture? There's no reason, on the thoughtless face of it. Japan's nukes, Japan's problem.
But even if that's your take, the issue becomes more local when we talk about the safety of nuclear plants here and the recent surge in enthusiasm to build more of them. Let me just say I'm agnostic on the question of building more. One big argument for them is that they offer an alternative to carbon-based fuel sources and could be part of the solution to combatting global warming and climate change. And plenty of people feel nuclear power got a bad rap from the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and that as a matter of having abundant sources of secure energy, we need to develop more plants now.
As part of responding to the news this past week or so, we've been trying to track down experts who could tell our audience whether the Japanese crisis raises safety concerns about the two working nuclear plants in California--at Diablo Canyon on the south-central coast and San Onofre, between Los Angeles and San Diego. In looking for people who might be knowledgeable but have no axe to grind--avoiding industry sources and people from anti-nuke groups--we arrived at nuclear engineering experts from an important local public university.
In one case, we interviewed someone I'll call Professor A at some length. The professor's message was enthusiastically reassuring: No, there are no concerns about safety at California's power plants. All issues have been addressed--even the recent discovery of a fourth seismic fault near Diablo Canyon. In fact, the endorsement of nuclear power was so hearty that the engineer recording the interview commented that Professor A sounded like "an apologist for the industry." That was a legitimate concern, and I went back and took a look at the interviewee's background. It turned out that the professor has consulted for General Electric, a major nuclear plant contractor, and with at least one other industry firm. Not to say that that necessarily colored the professor's statements. But it's something that we should have known going in and brought out in the interview, which we wound up killing.
Last thing at work Friday, a colleague had me listen to an interview with another professor from the same distinguished university. She had described this faculty member, Professor B, as sounding very pro-nuclear. And indeed the professor did. When asked a question about the safety of nuclear plants, the professor essentially dismissed it with a counter-question: "How about coal? Have you looked at the numbers on black lung?" (That line sounds good until you think about it a minute. Black lung, of course, afflicts people who extract the fuel from the earth, so a proper comparison would be to the safety of people who mine uranium. Let's just say uranium mining is no picnic, unless lung cancer is your idea of a picnic. Also, the counter-question simply ignores the real issue, and fear, that radiation presents. It's clear there will be some long-term effects simply because contamination hangs around so long; but the long-term effects are not at all clear). A quick check showed that Professor B, too, has done consulting work in the energy field--though it's not at all clear whether that work involved nuclear energy.
The take-away lesson--a basic one, you might think, in a world where corporate money plays such a big role everywhere--is that even when we're dealing with someone in academia, someone receiving a salary from the public treasury, you need to follow the money and ask about it as a matter of course.