What have you made of the media coverage of the situation in Japan?
I think the press needs to be very careful about which talking heads they choose to comment on the accident. Unfortunately, the press doesn’t usually understand the big difference between a theoretical physicist and a nuclear engineer. But the difference is roughly like comparing a general practitioner to a brain surgeon—a brain surgeon needs to know the brain inside out, while a general practitioner can only make general comments about the brain. So, theoretical physicists can make general comments, but can hardly comment on the specifics of important nuclear reactor design details. I would therefore urge the media to identify BWR specialists who understand the Three Mile Island incident inside out, and who understand very well the Chernobyl accident in Ukraine and the Windscale accident in Britain so that sober and serious and correct information can be provided to the public.
The second thing I would urge is some caution and not to criticize the Japanese. I’m not saying the media itself is doing this, but it certainly tends to permit ‘air time’ a kind of sensationalist criticism of the Japanese, and I’m not sure they deserve it. The Japanese are doing the best they can in a very difficult situation. I’m not saying they are spot-on perfect with everything they do. But, I wouldn’t criticize. I would try to help them, I would bring in specialists, I would do what is possible, and of course ask the Japanese to provide as much information—including verifiable numbers—as they can.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
I’ve been keeping track of the media, and in the early days, up to a week after the accident, sensationalist headlines abounded. But then you would look through the actual articles trying to look for numbers, and few if any were provided. For example, you find today’s story about how ‘levels of iodine have been detected in Massachusetts’. But you have to provide a number—provide a comparison before saying something. Radioactive iodine and other contaminants were released in far greater quantities in Windscale in England, for example, or Chernobyl, and certainly by the atmospheric testing of nuclear weapons.
If you’re talking trace amounts, then you’re talking trace amounts. After all, our bodies are radioactive. You get a dose of radioactivity when you sleep next to your spouse. Are we talking about those kinds of levels or something else? So I would like to see some circumspection. Of course, never stop asking questions. But ask for numbers.
Alexander Sich is an associate professor of physics at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Sich was the first American researcher to investigate the Chernobyl reactor meltdown on site. The views expressed are his own.