I recently finished a book (found and purchased cheaply at a discount bookstore) written by a journalist about nuclear energy. In growing up in Albuquerque and meeting the people involved, she learned about the nuclear fuel cycle and so forth, and came to the conclusion (gasp!) that nuclear energy isn’t bad… in fact, it might just be good. I don’t wish to get into a technical critique of the book (she’s a journalist, after all, she won’t get some of the more scientific details… like that ORNL didn’t close, but K-25 did…), but I wanted to touch on a specific point.
At one point in the book, she quotes a study done by a University of Pittsburgh physicist (Bernard L. Cohen) and published in one of his books, The Nuclear Energy Option (the book is “available” here, but when I say available, I mean there’s only a cached copy of it). I haven’t been able to find the specific study yet (it’s difficult to read a book which only partially exists…), but the basic premise (as Cravens paraphrased it in her book) was this: the number of news stories about nuclear incidents is way out of proportion to the actual danger posed by nuclear incidents. To make his point, Dr. Cohen took a sampling of stories from the New York Times for an entire year, counting the number of stories on mundane things like car accidents, as well as the number of stories about nuclear. He then plots them against the actual number of deaths for the given danger in that year, and fits a curve to it. What he concludes is that, if the copiousness of news stories is to be used as a gauge for the number of deaths, we should anticipate something like 700,000 deaths due to nuclear related incidents per year. Yeah, right. (Cohen also found this to be absurd.)
Since I haven’t yet been able to locate his original study (I plan on ordering a copy of his book), I’ve decided to take my own sampling. In order to get a fair assessment across the board, I went to NPR, Fox News, The Huffington Post, and two small, local news channels (9News in Denver and KnoxNews here in Knoxville). I searched each news agency for three representative danger categories: "car accident," "tornado" and "nuclear." Because of the way each individual site performs its story search, the absolute numbers shouldn’t be given too much weight, but the obvious trend is still easy to see. Here’s what I found:
|# of stories by type of death (2010)|
|news agency||car accident||tornado||nuclear|
*Actual deaths: car accident statistics for 2008 from AAA; tornado statistics for 2010 from NOAA; nuclear statistics for 2010 from WHO/UN. Consider that even the Chernobyl accident, the worst nuclear accident on record, will likely result in only 4000 total deaths – TOTAL – which is still only a tenth of the number of people who die in car crashes every year.
To put this in a more visual form, here’s a bar chart:
And here’s a graph plotting the averages against one another:
Note that in BOTH plots, I’ve had to make the y-axis log scale (meaning each tick is a factor of ten) to fit everything in. In this last graph, in fact, I had to make the number of deaths in 2010 due to nuclear-related incidents (that would be a bit, fat ZERO) into 0.00001 simply so that Open Office would know to draw a point there.
The conclusions are obvious – the media is fear-mongering the public with regard to all things nuclear, and there’s little doubt that this feeds the public misperception of the dangers of radiation and nuclear plants. The dangers associated with nuclear energy and radiation are being grossly misrepresented – on a logarithmic scale, no less – and the public is falling for it.
As Chuang Tzu once said, "Great truths do not take hold of the hearts of the masses. And now, as all the world is in error, how shall I, though I know the true path, how shall I guide? If I know that I cannot succeed and yet try to force success, this would be but another source of error. Better then to desist and strive no more. But if I do not strive, who will?"