No, not the reactors, the press. Ghouls, most of them. They always wish for the worst. The only class of people (besides Communists and morticians) for whom death not only delights, but offers a chance for personal advancement. The only folk who can speak the word “heartbreak” with a lilt to their voices. Their first thoughts upon hearing of a disaster is how they, and not their colleagues, can get their face in front of a camera.
Narrating the nauseating particulars of mass death is not a horrible duty that must be stomached, but is instead an opportunity. Not one in a hundred while jetting to the calamity would think to interrupt their prayers with a plea “take away this cup from me.” Instead they paraphrase Lenin, “It does not matter if three-fourths of mankind is destroyed: all that counts is that I am there to report it.”
It is true that ignorance is what drives much (there are exceptions) of the reporting on the nuclear reactors. After all, most of these reporters learned their physics from Hollywood movies. Nuclear reactors, when damaged, melt down blow up: that is what they do. And then all but a minuscule minority suffer from reporteritis, an epidemic psychiatric disorder whereby journalists assume they become as knowledgeable and important as the people they talk to.
They invite a nuclear physicist to offer a thirty-second soundbite, and that fraction of fact becomes All There Is To Know. The reporter assimilates the information and then opines sagely upon it; not repeating it word-for-word, but by creating variations on a theme, weaving it into their baseline ignorance.
Of course, in this case we cannot just blame reporters. Our Surgeon General has contributed to the unnecessary panic by starting a run on “radiation pills” on the west coast. She said of the hoarding that it was “definitely appropriate.” (Has the person in this office ever fulfilled a useful purpose?)
An anonymous but highly knowledgeable source gave this lament:
It has gotten to the point where I can barely watch the news. The hysteria driven media consistently endeavors to one-up itself on the terrors of radiation. You know, “significantly increased levels of radiation have been detected…” Of course, they fail to provide a baseline dose rate before the earthquake/accident and then do not say what is the significantly increased dose, so that sane, rational people can actually make comparisons and draw reasonable conclusions. I especially liked one commentator’s lame response. It went something like, “Well, you know…any exposure to radiation… even small increases, are known to not be good for you…”
Just like reporting on global warming, where it is always, just always, “Worse than we thought”, the radiation levels are always, ever always, increasing and increasing. What reporters should be doing is obvious: take as much time as necessary and, using actual experts, give as many facts as possible, even at the very real risk of talking over the heads of most of their audience. Difficult but correct material always trumps simplistic summaries.
A major component of the story, relevant to us, is over-certainty. According the the Nuclear Energy Institute, the reactor damage occurred because of “extraordinary natural forces that were outside the plant’s required design parameters.” In other words, the events that did occur were not foreseen, or were given such a low probability of occurrence that none thought it worth the trouble.
The people who design these plants are, to use the common phrase, rocket scientists. They are exceedingly bright, but they are still human. If these men can make a mistake in estimating risk on what are, after all, simple structures, just how over-confident are we in our understanding of systems as complex as Nature or the interactions between people and nations?
The disclaimer I have to, but should not have to, add is that I do not seek to minimize reporting on the dangers to those who live near the plants. But our choice is not a dichotomy: because we do not minimize does not mean we must maximize.