When I was a kid growing up on Long Island, anti-nuclear sentiment rose to a crescendo in the early to mid-1980s, just as the Shoreham nuclear power plant on the Island's eastern end was nearing completion. If you know your history, you know what happened around this time. As Wikipedia explains:
The [Shoreham] plant faced considerable public opposition after the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster. There were large protests and two dozen local groups opposed the plant. In 1981, 43 percent of Long Islanders opposed the plant; by 1986, that number had risen to 74 percent.
In 1989, the utility that built Shoreham conceded to the politics of the day and agreed not to open the plant. But the deal LILCO (Long Island Lighting Company) made with New York State also called for much of Shoreham's $6 billion construction cost to be passed down to Long Island residents. (Long Islanders are still paying this debt off.) In 1992, the Shoreham plant was dismantled. Twenty years later, New York is embroiled in another heated nuclear power debate, this one involving the future of the Indian Point nuclear plant, which generates 2,000 megawatts of electricity, enough to power all of Boston and Baltimore, with juice to spare. The facility sits along the Hudson River, 28 miles north of New York City. As with Shoreham, similar concerns about safety and emergency evacuation have animated a campaign calling for Indian Point's closure. Post 9/11, the specter of terrorism has been added to the mix. Throw in the Fukushima disaster and you can imagine the potency of the anti-Indian Point message. There is, however, a strong argument to be made in favor of keeping Indian Point in operation. The two sides of the debate came together last night at Columbia University's law school. The panel discussion, which I attended, was represented by two anti-Indian Point environmentalists and two pro-Indian Point advocates. Each side made forceful, compelling cases for their respective positions. I felt that the anti-Indian Point team was least convincing on the economic and energy issues (as in, where will NYC get the 20 percent of electricity that comes from Indian Point, and at what cost to the consumer?). I felt the pro-Indian Point team was least convincing on the safety issue (they played down concerns about terrorism, fuel containment, and orderly mass evacuation). But both sides made statements which should guide the larger nuclear debate, where ever it plays out. Ashok Gupta, Director of Energy Policy for the Natural Resources Defense Council, admitted:
We don't live in a world with no [energy] impacts; we don't live in a world of free and cheap energy. We know there are tradeoffs. We have to make tough decisions. What risk do we want to take? That's the challenge.
On the other side of the podium, Arthur Kremer, a former New State Assemblyman and currently the Chairman of the Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, said emotion and fear shaped the public discourse on nuclear power. On Indian Point, he asserted:
The debate has been short on facts and honesty.
The media, it goes without saying, plays an important role in the public's understanding of nuclear power and related safety and risk issues. Alas, the public's mind is most concentrated in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, when perspective narrows and the coverage is often breathless. (As for those economic and environmental tradeoffs, it would nice if there was more discussion of them, especially now that countries like Germany are providing a real-world case study.) Anniversaries of nuclear disasters are also a time when press coverage spikes and the public tunes in. We are entering such a moment now and the signs (for level-headed coverage) are not encouraging, assert Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger of the California-based Breakthrough Institute, at Slate:
With an eye to the first anniversary of the tsunami that killed 20,000 people and caused a partial meltdown at the Fukushima power plant in Japan, a recently formed nongovernmental organization called Rebuild Japan released a report earlier this week on the nuclear incident to alarming media coverage.
"Japan Weighed Evacuating Tokyo in Nuclear Crisis," screamed the New York Times headline, above an article by Martin Fackler that claimed, "Japan teetered on the edge of an even larger nuclear crisis than the one that engulfed the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant."
Nordhaus and Shellenberger go on to argue that the Times story credulously peddles the nuclear doomsday was narrowly averted slant of the Japanese NGO's post-disaster report. Journalists at other esteemed outlets are viewing Fukushima through a similar lens. At the New Yorker, Evan Osnos writes:
Good fortune is not the first thing that comes to mind when we talk about Fukushima these days. But it is, in fact, one of the clearest"”and most troubling"”lessons to be drawn from the Fukushima story: plain old luck, along with a colossal dose of heroism and quick-thinking, prevented the Fukushima nuclear meltdowns from wounding Japan even more thoroughly than they did.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger question that take. In their Slate piece, they note:
The same day the New York Times published its story, PBS broadcast a Frontline documentary about the Fukushima meltdown that invites a somewhat different interpretation. In an interview conducted for that program, then-Prime Minister Naoto Kan suggests that the fear of cascading plant failures was nothing more than panicked speculation among some of his advisers. "I asked many associates to make forecasts," Kan explained to PBS, "and one such forecast was a worst-case scenario. But that scenario was just something that was possible, it didn't mean that it seemed likely to happen."
Nordhaus and Shellenberger suggest that the media's emphasis on the potentially worst outcomes of Fukushima skewers the reporting and inflates the risk associated with nuclear power. Indeed, this is a criticism that journalists are already acquainted with, says Osnos in his New Yorker article:
When the [ Fukushima] anniversary arrives in two weeks, reporters and analysts will note correctly that nobody has died so far from the Fukushima meltdowns (this, of course, does not refer to the tsunami). One of the questions will be whether the media overplayed the dangers"”whether it scared people away from nuclear power.
In light of what happened on Long Island two decades ago and the debate that is now playing out over the Indian Point power plant, that is not an unreasonable question to ask. UPDATE: Bryan Walsh at Time has a related piece I didn't see until after I posted. Taking stock of the one-year Fukushima anniversary stories starting to come out, he says that,
nearly a year after the event, the question still remains: was the Fukushima meltdown that dangerous?