Posts Tagged media
As is often the case, the passage of time yields clarity about events, and the nuclear power plant accident at Fukushima is no different. It has become clear that the misinformation and hysterics by anti-nuclear groups and individuals were mostly wrong. Their doomsday prophesizing actually worsened human suffering and environmental impacts by contributing to unwise decisions by political leaders in Japan and elsewhere to shut down nuclear plants. In contrast, bloggers and experts from within the nuclear community accurately predicted outcomes and human health impacts. Read the rest of this entry »
On November 24th a strange thing happened at the Kaiga nuclear plant in southern India. During a routine check for radiation exposure, about 65 maintenance workers tested positive for higher than normal levels of tritium in their urine. The plant is a CANDU reactor which uses heavy water as a moderator, and heavy water contains tritium. Tritium is an isotope of hydrogen with two neutrons and one proton. It is radioactive with about a 12 year half-life.
When plant officials investigated the source of the exposure they discovered someone had intentionally contaminated a cooler of drinking water with a vial of water containing tritium. The workers were sent to the local hospital for monitoring and were later sent home. No one required hospitalization and the highest exposure any of them received was about 3 rem, about 60% of the annual limit in the USA for occupational exposure. The tritium-containing heavy water is not chemically poisonous – it behaves in the human body like regular water. It has a biological half-life in humans of about 10 days, and that can be shortened by doing things to speed the fluid exchange process like drinking extra water, administering intravenous fluids, and in severe cases dialyses. Based on what I’ve read of the event and the levels of exposure it is most likely the workers were sent home and told to drink lots of water for the next several days.
Tritium decays by firing off a beta particle (essentially a high energy electron) leaving behind a helium-3 atom. Beta particles are relatively weak and can not penetrate the dead layer of skin on your body. It is of most concern when it is ingested into the body as it was in this case. As I said the total exposure here was nothing for the workers to be concerned about. There are some reports that the workers were sickened, but I’m unsure of the accuracy of these reports. It is more likely that people not familiar with the details believed the workers were sickened because they were sent to the hospital for monitoring.If the reports are true, then the illness was not caused by radiation.
The Indian authorities are investigating to determine who poisoned the drinking water, and why. There are several theories being considered; one related to anti-nuclear sentiments surrounding India’s expanding commercial nuclear energy plans, another related to the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Bopal chemical plant disaster that happened on December 3, 1981.
This was certainly an event that will cause the Indian government some concern, not because of the consequences, but because of the security implications. The workers affected are very lucky that the culprit used heavy water and not something truly toxic. Power plants have many, many chemicals on hand for a variety of industrial purposes, and some of them could have been lethal.
What REALLY caught my eye about this story was the irresponsible and inaccurate way the event was characterized in the press around the world. Almost every major news outlet called it a “radioactive leak” that “sickened workers.” It was not until hours later that a few started to carry scaled back headlines with more accurate accounts. I really have to wonder if any of these international news services have anyone on their staff with a clue about nuclear energy. If they did, and that person did just a small amount of legwork and fact checking they could have easily reached a correct conclusion: there was no leak, and workers were not sickened by radiation.
There are striking similarities between this story and the maintenance mishap last week at the Three Mile Island that caused airborne contamination inside their containment. Neither involved a leak, neither resulted in risk to the public, in both cases only plant workers were affected, and those affects were essentially so small as to be undetectable. Contrary to all this, in both cases news outlets blew their reporting: initial reports were grossly wrong, reported leaks when there were none, and reported worker health was being affected by radiation – also wrong.
If you were watching CNN or ABC News last night and this morning you may have believed a major accident was underway at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. Both news sources reported there had been a “radiation leak” at the plant and more than 100 workers were contaminated.
Both CNN and ABC News were blatantly wrong; there was not a “radiation leak” from the plant. What happened was a minor spread of radioactive dust and particles during maintenance activities inside the reactor building. Some workers in the vicinity got material on their clothes and skin that had to be washed off. The material was easily contained and there was no leak from the plant into the environment.
I first learned about this from April Schilpp, who I follow on Twitter. April is a communications specialist in Lancaster, PA.
In this podcast April and I discuss what happened, how the social media helped get the word out, and how the companies and other stakeholders could have used social media to keep the mainstream news sources honest.
I have a Google alert set up to notify me when nuclear related news stories hit the wire services and I’ve noticed something interesting: every spring and fall there’s a flood of media coverage when nuclear plants begin shutting down for refueling outages. In fact just today I received 14 messages letting me know that a hand full of nuclear units shut down to refuel. Power plants like to schedule maintenance when electricity demand and replacement power prices are at their lowest, and that means in the fall and spring.
The spring / fall outage practice is not unique to nuclear plants; other kinds of power plants do it too. Interestingly enough, though, we rarely hear about coal, hydro, gas or wind power plant outages. The media does not seem to report when large coal or hydro plants shut down. If the news were being fairly reported, statistically, we would be hearing about even more power plant shutdowns.
Take coal for example; according to Wikipedia there are 1493 coal power plants in operation in the United States (compared to 104 nuclear plants). Taking into account typical nuclear refueling outages and the lower reliability of coal plants each spring and fall there are 25 to 30 nuclear plant outages and more than 400 coal plant outages. We should be getting blasted with news reports of coal plants shutting down! Instead, while there are more than ten times as many opportunities to report coal plant outages, we virtually never get those reports. I looked today and I could not find a single news story in the last week of any coal or hydro plant in the United States shutting down for any reason!
This is a subtle example of media bias against nuclear energy. ANYTHING that happens in a nuclear plant is news, yet we almost never hear of events, routine or otherwise, that take place at other kinds of power plants. I suppose the reporters and editors would argue they’re only reporting what the public wants to hear. Perhaps it’s the other way around – maybe they are selecting which events to report as a way of pushing an agenda. I’ll let you decide which is true but I think the data speaks for itself.
By the way, the photo on the right above is of the Gardiner Reid Power Plant in Nevada. According to the Environmental News Service, this plant produces the greatest amount of greenhouse gas of any power plant in the United States. The photo on the left is Wolf Creek Nuclear plant, an 1140 MW nuclear plant that produces zero greenhouse gasses while supplying enough energy for about 800,000 customers. Wolf Creek began a refueling outage today.