Monday, May 9, 2011

Nuclear Hysteria, or Why We Can't Trust the Media

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

NPR 89 374 1530
Fox News 291 602 5758
HuffPost 196 1630 5560
9News (Denver) 328 654 670
KnoxNews 16 32 191
Average 184 658.4 2741.8
Actual deaths 43000 45 0

*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?"


  1. Hi, Miss AB!

    I think we can stipulate that news value doesn't exactly track death counts. LOL cats, and all the rest.. there is a psychological dimension involved. And is that wrong? Would you rather that the airline industry were held to car industry standards, and had, oh, maybe 100 crashes a year, going by your numbers? Since by flying you give up far more personal control than you do by driving, you feel more psychologically vulnerable and demand a higher safety margin. Granted, it doesn't entirely make sense, but the point is to make us happy, after all.

    Similarly, the esoteric nature of nuclear power, and its drama of possible catastrophe, is catnip newswise, and prompts people to feel alienated, compared to, say, their local organic farmer, who likely causes a great deal more unpleasant havoc, to be entirely truthful(!)

    Clearly, one answer is education, since it is ignorance that makes people set crazy risk margins. But another answer is sufficient engineering to make the risk profile fit what people feel they deserve. For instance, I would offer that the number of deaths in your graph for nuclear power was not actually zero. Chernobyl is still causing death and misery on a substantial scale. Look at some anecdotes.

    Catastrophe that counts out to thousands or even millions of years deserves higher risk standards. Global warming deserves more attention and care from that perspective too, of course- an ironic technological and safety tradeoff.

  2. Burk, I do have to say that I respectfully disagree... the total number of deaths related to nuclear incidents in 2010 is zero. Even with Chernobyl, only 50 deaths are directly attributable to the disaster, and only 4000 total are expected according to the latest research (the link is given in the footnote for the table). That's 4000 in no less than 20 years, or 200 per year maximum, which still doesn't warrant the media attention it gets. As for engineering risk margins, there's nothing in the world engineered as much as nuclear power... the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant had to prove that it would remain safe for a million years. We can't even know whether people will still exist then, so why are we demanding such ridiculous risk margins?

  3. (I should qualify, in fact, that the 4000 quoted deaths expected from Chernobyl is over the lifetime of those exposed... so it's not over 20 years, which is, as I stated, a worst-case value, but is over 60 or 70 years, which lowers further the death rate.)

  4. Chris O'NeillMay 21, 2011 at 3:40 AM

    Anti-nuclear campaigners would say the Fukushima power station should never have been built but where is the criticism of risk-taking people who built their homes and cities in the tsunami zone? The tsunami killed far more people than nuclear electricity ever would. The lack of comparison of risk could not be more glaring.

  5. Chris, thanks for the comment. You're right - the media places so much blame on one scapegoat (nuclear) that they neglect all else. Two oil processing plants caught fire after the earthquake and burned, unheeded, for weeks, releasing plumes of black, carcinogenic soot into the air. Where was the news coverage of that?
    I have heard intelligent men say that watching the Fukushima events unfold has actually strengthened their trust in nuclear power. If, after all of nature's fury, this is the worst that happens, it shows that the nuclear industry has done a pretty damn good job.


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