Saturday, March 12, 2011

Japan Nuclear Power Plants: Behind the Breathless Headlines

"TEPCO: some fuel may have been damaged at reactor"
Osamu Tsukimori, Edition: US, Reuters (March 11, 2011, 10:46pm EST/March 12, 2011 at 03:45:00 UTC)

"Tokyo Electric Power said on Saturday that fuel may have been damaged by falling water levels at its Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, after a powerful earthquake hit northeastern Japan the previous day...."

That seems to be 'just the facts,' as Dragnet's Officer Friday would say. Here's how the facts are played in other news outlets:

"Japan's earthquake-hit nuclear plant may be in meltdown, say experts"
Herald Sun (March 12, 2011)

"JAPAN'S quake-hit nuclear power plant Fukushima No.1, about 250km north-east of Tokyo, 'may be experiencing nuclear meltdown', local media says.

"The report via Kyodo News, citing the nation's Nuclear Safety Commission, follows yesterday's devastating 8.9-magnitude earthquake and tsunami in the area, with a commission official suggesting that even if there was a meltdown it would not affect humans beyond a 10km radius.

"Parts of the reactor's nuclear fuel rods were briefly exposed to the air after cooling water levels dropped through evaporation, and a fire engine was pumping water into the reactor, Jiji news agency reported...."

This is, in the Lemming's opinion, fairly careful journalism - with a sketchy explanation of just what a "meltdown" would mean in the first paragraph.

"Possible Meltdown At Tepco Reactor" (March 12, 2011)

"Tokyo Electric Power Co.'s (9501) Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant in Fukushima Prefecture may be experiencing a meltdown in the wake of Friday's massive earthquake, the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency said Saturday...."

Not-so-careful journalism. It's a very short article, so maybe an editor decided to scare readers into checking back for more. Or, maybe not.

"Japan braces for N-reactor meltdown after tsunami"
Boston Globe, via (March 12, 2011)

"Japan launched a massive military rescue operation Saturday after a giant, quake-fed tsunami killed hundreds of people and turned the northeastern coast into a swampy wasteland, while authorities braced for a possible meltdown at a nuclear reactor...."

"...Adding to the worries was the damage at the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, where two reactors had lost cooling ability. Because of the overheating, a meltdown was possible at one of the reactors, said Ryohei Shiomi, an official with Japan's nuclear safety commission.

"But even if there was a meltdown, it wouldn't affect people outside a six-mile (10-kilometer) radius, he said. Most of the 51,000 residents living within the danger area had been evacuated, he said...."

Those last two paragraphs, with a fairly good explanation of the "meltdown" situation, are the fourth and fifth in the Boston Globe article.

Credit where credit is due - the Globe did pass on information about just what the "meltdown" might mean for folks living in the area. From the sounds of it, the "meltdown" is a worst-case scenario: and more of a highly expensive equipment failure than a Hollywood-scale mega-blockbuster-super-disaster.

Still, the Lemming could be wrong about that.

Now, about "meltdown," journalism, and all that.

It's the Lemming's opinion that the purpose of journalism is to sell newspapers - or advertising on broadcast and online news. Nothing wrong with that, in principle, in the Lemming's opinion.

However, the Lemming also thinks it's a good idea to keep that purpose in mind when reading or hearing the news. It may be in the news outlet's (short-term) interests to scare people silly - but that doesn't mean that we have to play along and let ourselves be scared. In the Lemming's opinion.

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