It’s going to be a few weeks before we know whether the national media’s fears of nuclear catastrophe in Japan are justified, but at first glance some of the reporting has been off the wall. Take this example of “burying the lede” in a story about the troubled Japanese reactors by ABC News’s Matthew Mosk. First paragraph:
Thirty-five years ago, Dale G. Bridenbaugh and two of his colleagues at General Electric resigned from their jobs after becoming increasingly convinced that the nuclear reactor design they were reviewing — the Mark 1 — was so flawed it could lead to a devastating accident.
More than halfway down, however, we discover that “Bridenbaugh told ABC News that he believes the design flaws that prompted his resignation from GE were eventually addressed at the Fukushima Daiichi plant”:
Bridenbaugh said GE agreed to a series of retrofits at Mark 1 reactors around the globe. He compared the retooling to the bolstering of highway bridges in California to better withstand earthquakes.
“Like with seismic refitting, they went back and re-analyzed the loads the structures might receive and beefed up the ability of the containment to handle greater loads,” he said.
The plant is much improved, in other words, though he feels it is still less safe than more contemporary designs.
The story that prompted my interest in the subject was in the New York Times, which can be counted on as a bellwether of alarmism. This was the first Times piece I fact-checked. It too begins with an alarming lede:
The warnings were stark and issued repeatedly as far back as 1972: If the cooling systems ever failed at a “Mark 1” nuclear reactor, the primary containment vessel surrounding the reactor would probably burst as the fuel rods inside overheated. Dangerous radiation would spew into the environment.
The author, Tom Zeller Jr., goes through contortions similar to ABC’s. He trots out numerous quotes from atomic energy officials (Steven Hanauer, Joseph Henry circa 1972) to the effect the reactor design was unsafe. A critical indirect quote comes from anti-nuclear activist David Lochbaum of the Union for Concerned Scientists, referring to “the potential global ripples from the Japanese accident.” Eventually, Zeller manages to squeeze in a perfunctory denial from GE and point out that modifications had been made to the plants, the effects of which were unclear.
Did Lochbaum steer Zeller and other reporters to those decades-old quotes? Concerned Scientists was part of an anti-nuclear disinformation campaign over the weekend. At the time, browsing my Droid, I noticed that a fair number of flaky hard-left sources — including the Institute for Policy Studies (in a conference call, for goodness sake) and something called Ploughshares — were working the press to set their narrative in place. Charlie Martin wrote about this first over at Pajamas Media, and included the gory details along with an excellent account of the design of the nuclear plants and the likely course of events.
I’ve now looked hard at exactly two stories. The Daily News, along with a host of other papers, managed to lose a bullet train that wasn’t. Now we have a reactor portrayed as unsafe by the Times and ABC that isn’t all that bad, according to their own sources, plus a left-wing disinformation campaign. At this point I wouldn’t dream of taking a position in print about what’s “really” going on (see Hurricane Katrina and Deepwater Horizon), but I know how I’d bet in private.