• Uncertainty, seismic risks and nuclear regulation

    In more than a week of uncertainty following Japan's largest recorded earthquake, its ensuing tsunami and the still unfathomable specter of a radiological nightmare, the only thing the world has to be certain about is uncertainty itself. We still don't know the fate of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. We still don't know how many people perished in the original disaster and how many still cling to life. We still don't know how much of the Japanese landscape was contaminated with radioactive material, and we still don't have a clear sense of the sort of recovery Japan faces.

    We just don't know. 

    So, here in the U.S., why are so many officials so quick to express such certainty, and why are journalists so quick to accept government officials' and nuclear industry spokespeople's assurances that yes, we swear, you're really safe here in the U.S.? How can we be assured there really is little chance we will face disasters similar to that Japan now suffers through?. 

    I'm not referring to concerns about the immediate impacts of a radiation plume. The risk from this specific incident to U.S. citizens seems minimal. Nevertheless, I think we're asking the wrong questions if journalists exploring dangers in the U.S. only consider immediate impacts in our country from the Fukushima Daiichi plant and don't ask how what occurs in Japan to the Japanese people could be instructive for what may happen here. Meanwhile, there's also problematic framing of the discussion.

    This morning, for example, NPR's Morning Edition led an interview by Renee Montagne with Georgetown psychologist Robert Dupont,who studies fear. Introducing the piece, Steve Inskeep almost jokingly said "As of now, the death toll from Japan's nuclear emergency stands at zero." Whether there may not have been immediate death, nor lethal doses, it misses the point to only look at the immediate aftermath and not the current risk. Dupont said other than Chernobyl we "don't have bodies piling up." But this isn't just about bodies piling up. It's also about bodies bombarded with radiation, bodies detoriorating over time.

    Valerie Brown heartbreakingly reminded us of so much Monday in her  "Pawning the Chernobyl Necklace" on The Phoenix Sun, fusing exquisite prose and detailed research and scientific knowledge to explain exactly how long lasting these impacts can be for an individual, what fear really feels like, and how blind assurances of safety serve no one.

    I'm looking at the seismic risks facing the Columbia Generating Station because I just haven't seen people telling the full story. Even if that full story reinforces claims that we are safe, it must be told credibly. I worry a bit that other outlets are exploring this topic, that they'll get to it faster, dispatching salaried, staff reporters to tell it before I can, but then I realize two things: It's a story that can't be told too many times, that must be told in as nuanced a manner as possible; it's also a story that deserves to be told in detail, in depth, and in as explanatory a manner as possible.


    Our responsibility as journalists

    That question has been rolling around in my brain since I first woke to news last week that officials from Energy Northwest - the company that runs the Columbia Generating Station, the only commercial nuclear plant in the Northwest, had assured the public that the plant is safe from Earthquakes. Officials certainly have to be cautious about panicking the public (especially when an American run on potassium iodide pills could threaten availability for the Japanese most immediately at risk).

    So maybe the pressure is on journalists: we need to do a better job - without fear mongering - of asking just what evidence officials are using to justify their claims. How up to date are the seismic studies? What historic data they use? How thoroughly have geologists studied the Columbia Plateau's potential, and how have those studies been integrated into designs at the Columbia Generating Station and the regulations that govern it? It's our job to ask these questions and not to accept "we're safe" as a satisfactory answer, especially when a simple google search - much like the one I performed the day I heard that story - reveals that historic quakes 90 miles away from the plant ahve exceeded its designs in magnitude and that dangers exist. 

    Simple Google searches, of course, are not enough. That's why I've been poring through significant accident mitigation assessments, emergency management plans, and seismic profiles as I try to identify who I should call first. I always struggle with that when I start working on a story, and I should get over my uncertainty. What I'm finding so far, though, only prompted more questions. For example, the geologic area the plant sits on is one notorious for "bad data" about its seismicity. Again. Uncertainty. 

    Meanwhile, I also need to bring myself up to speed on current geology and seismology (why, for example, is horizontal ground shaking a better indicator of a quake's strength than the ricter scale?), nuclear policy (if you thought the alphabet soup of federal agency names was bad, just read a report from the NRC - and hope you have a pot of coffee brewed) and just who would be at risk from a radiological release. 


    Thank you for your continued support

    But I'm ready for the challenge.

    We (read journalists) need to do a better job of asking people one simple question "how do you know what you know?" or "how do you justify the claims that you make?" So, if we want to know the risks earthquakes pose to nuclear facilities or any other sensitive area, shouldn't we start with those who have spent their professional lives studying them?

    Meanwhile I'm trying to strategize when I'll go to the Tri-Cities to explore the community affected by this. I don't want to do that until I have a better grasp of the issues involved so I can ask better questions, but I want to make sure I spend enough time actually getting to better know the area I'll be reporting on.

    It's encouraging to see, however, that even before my first blog post dozens of you indicated you want these kinds of questions to be asked. Thank you so much for making this story a possibility and showing me that I'm asking the kinds of questions you want asked. 

    However, don't be shy about telling me what more you want to know. What questions about this topic am I missing? what am I being too lazy about? What am I overlooking?

    Posted by Bill Lascher on 03/22/11
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