Skip to main content

Matt Wald on the News Media and Nuclear Energy

Matt Wald
Last week, NEI's Matt Wald gave a short talk to the NEI Lawyers Committee on why the media covers nuclear energy the way it does. After spending 33 years working for the New York Times, it's clear he knows of what he speaks. Here's a short excerpt:
Most reporters and editors can’t tell the difference between a kilowatt and a kilowatt-hour and many of them don’t know why they’d want to tell the difference. That makes it unlikely they’re going to give a clear picture to their readers or viewers. Add onto that some fuzzy thinking among the general public, that includes ideas like, “electricity is a human right and therefore ought to be free,” and you’ve got a recipe for mis-communications.

Nuclear comes out badly not because it’s nuclear, but because of several overarching attitudes in newsrooms. One is that editors like disagreements, he said/she said. It’s an easy way to structure a news story. But the editors and reporters have rather limited ability to independently evaluate the arguments. Why do we have this persistent societal meme that vaccines cause autism?

Because news media got it started and to some extent, keep it alive. The idea that proximity to power lines causes cancer. If it can’t be disproved, it’s a good story. Journalists dislike expertise. They discount it. Maybe it’s the evolving nature of human knowledge. This year, we’ve changed our minds and high cholesterol doesn’t come from your diet. Some fats are good for you. DDT was a modern marvel of the mid-20th century because it nearly wiped out malaria. It also nearly wiped out bald eagles.

We were running out of landfill space. We were running out of oil. We aren’t any more.

Journalists also dislike the government, and pillars of the establishment. That started in Vietnam and it’s still true. Journalists sometimes think of themselves as speaking truth to power, or maybe to the power company. The operating theory is sometimes that if somebody sounds like he knows what he’s talking about, he must be wrong.

And, of course, some people don’t like power companies. We have a bias against big business, and reactors are always big business.

There’s another problem. Editors and reporters are biased against risk, without being able to compare risks. The risks of measles epidemics. The risks of generating the same electricity with other technologies. The risks that banning genetically modified crops adds to world hunger. These risks aren’t probabilities; they’re certainties.

Applied to the nuclear context, this worldview keeps alive the idea that the spent fuel pools of boiling water reactors are kept in tree houses, in tin shacks.

These ideas aren’t confined to newsrooms. They are common among TV viewers, newspaper readers, internet browsers, guests waiting in the green rooms, and people who obsess over situations we haven’t yet resolved, like nuclear waste. There’s an aversion, a vague sense of dis-ease. For some people, Nuclear is the N word. Not understanding has its downside. Familiarity may breed contempt, or so the cliché goes, but black boxes breed fear.
The full text of the speech, "Nuclear Power: Redeeming Energy's Prodigal Son," can be found on our website.

Comments

Anonymous said…
This is a really interesting post. I went and read Matt's entire speech at the link you provided. Well worth the read.

Popular posts from this blog

A Billion Miles Under Nuclear Energy (Updated)

And the winner is…Cassini-Huygens, in triple overtime.

The spaceship conceived in 1982 and launched fifteen years later, will crash into Saturn on September 15, after a mission of 19 years and 355 days, powered by the audacity and technical prowess of scientists and engineers from 17 different countries, and 72 pounds of plutonium.

The mission was so successful that it was extended three times; it was intended to last only until 2008.

Since April, the ship has been continuing to orbit Saturn, swinging through the 1,500-mile gap between the planet and its rings, an area not previously explored. This is a good maneuver for a spaceship nearing the end of its mission, since colliding with a rock could end things early.

Cassini will dive a little deeper and plunge toward Saturn’s surface, where it will transmit data until it burns up in the planet’s atmosphere. The radio signal will arrive here early Friday morning, Eastern time. A NASA video explains.

In the years since Cassini has launc…

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.

Huh?

The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.


What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…

Why Nuclear Plant Closures Are a Crisis for Small Town USA

Nuclear plants occupy an unusual spot in the towns where they operate: integral but so much in the background that they may seem almost invisible. But when they close, it can be like the earth shifting underfoot.

Lohud.com, the Gannett newspaper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley in New York, took a look around at the experience of towns where reactors have closed, because the Indian Point reactors in Buchanan are scheduled to be shut down under an agreement with Gov. Mario Cuomo.


From sea to shining sea, it was dismal. It wasn’t just the plant employees who were hurt. The losses of hundreds of jobs, tens of millions of dollars in payrolls and millions in property taxes depressed whole towns and surrounding areas. For example:

Vernon, Vermont, home to Vermont Yankee for more than 40 years, had to cut its municipal budget in half. The town closed its police department and let the county take over; the youth sports teams lost their volunteer coaches, and Vernon Elementary School lost th…