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

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Why America Needs the MOX Facility

If Isaiah had been a nuclear engineer, he’d have loved this project. And the Trump Administration should too, despite the proposal to eliminate it in the FY 2018 budget.

The project is a massive factory near Aiken, S.C., that will take plutonium from the government’s arsenal and turn it into fuel for civilian power reactors. The plutonium, made by the United States during the Cold War in a competition with the Soviet Union, is now surplus, and the United States and the Russian Federation jointly agreed to reduce their stocks, to reduce the chance of its use in weapons. Over two thousand construction workers, technicians and engineers are at work to enable the transformation.

Carrying Isaiah’s “swords into plowshares” vision into the nuclear field did not originate with plutonium. In 1993, the United States and Russia began a 20-year program to take weapons-grade uranium out of the Russian inventory, dilute it to levels appropriate for civilian power plants, and then use it to produce…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…