Media and Nuclear Energy

how did the media perform ?

essay by Bram van Es

First an introduction explaining the importance of the mass media in the context of environmental awareness and especially nuclear energy, then an explanation of the role of the media in a general sense, touching upon ethical concepts and setting out the norms by which a judgment on the position of the media can be formed, thirdly four cases are presented in which the norms are applied and finally I give a conclusion with recommendations. In the context of this essay the emphasize will be on the sources of actual information that are directly available to the masses.


introduction, background1

General introduction In mans’ development from cavemen to high-tech consumers we have steadily increased our impact on nature but at the same time we distanced ourselves from it, we retreated in cities and we placed ourselves outside the natural domain, because of this we were blind to any environmental problems we caused and if we saw them we were to disconnected to feel reprehensible or even responsible. It is this combination of practical separation and relentless consumption that caused so much of the damage that was done during the industrial revolution. Fortunately with the industrial revolution came the realisation that human beings are vulnerable to the fumes and the waste that were created in the production processes. This lesson was taught, of course by experience but the lesson material was presented to a large audience by newspapers who recognized it as a social problem. Newspapers were in fact the first mass medium where actual information was transferred directly to a large audience. The environmental norms that were established by the governments were centred around the workers and the populations surrounding the industry. We were still only focused on the impact we had on ourselves. Ironically it were the Nazi’s who were first in pro-claiming to be environmentalists, however this was based on an pagan ideology and it was mostly used for propagandist purposes, it did not stem from a certain pre-occupation of Germans with the environmental impact of man’s actions. There was simply no awareness within the general public that nature’s resources were exhaustible and nature’s state fragile, although Thomas Malthus warned for shortages in food with a continuous population growth in as early as 1778 [wikipedia]. It was in the second half of the 20th century that mass media technology gave us the means needed to directly see the impact of our actions on nature. Through the increasing affordability of television sets television become widespread in providing news coverage; environmental catastrophes became visible. Still environmental awareness was poor, the aftermath of World War II and the tension of the Cold War gave that most of the developed world had different priorities than discussing the environment and our role in influencing it. That we are in fact disturbing or at least influencing our environment is clear to everyone who reads the papers, the social relevance of this reality becomes more significant the more people are aware of it and that is why mass media (especially television) has been and still is of prime importance in this process of awakening mankind to understand it’s place in the natural environment.


this essay reflects only the more developed regions of the world, in a very broad sense that is


The media and nuclear energy We need alternatives to relief our environment at least to the extent that damage is reversible or containable. That need is understood and realized, we can at least assume a consensus on this part, there are however strong differences in opinion on what actually are solutions and what our priorities should be. In the entire range of topics regarding our impact on nature a major discussion of the last decade has been about the use of nuclear energy, this subject is very sensitive among the general public because it relates strongly to public health and safety, at least in appearance. Because of this sensitivity the mass media has a large influence on how nuclear energy is viewed. The introduction of the public with radioactivity started in 1895 with the discoveries of Roentgen, Roentgen radiation or X-rays as it was called was a revolution in the medical sciences and earned Wilhelm Roentgen the Nobel price in physics in 1901. Very soon after Roentgens discovery in 1896 it was Becquerel who, while investigating fluorescence of uranium salts, discovered by accident the radiation that was emitted by his sample of uranium. Not much longer after that Marie Curie discovered other radioactive materials (thorium, radium, polonium) and she developed an electrolytic procedure to isolate radium, for which she received the Nobel price in chemistry [wikipedia, misc]. These pioneering radiologists were accompanied in there nucleic venture by the theoretical physicists who were discovering new worlds altogether, worlds of ever smaller particles, multiple dimensions and random unpredictable motions. The world was introduced with nuclear science by champions of science like Marie curie, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and of course Albert Einstein, the world was amazed about the advancements of science and radioactivity was part of it’s marvellous wonders, it was exciting and new. In this atmosphere of amazement people attributed general healing powers to radioactivity, radium was a “cure-all” medicine and people were encouraged to consume it for it’s positive health effects []. Although radon and radium could indeed be used for treating cancers ('Curie therapy') it was not healthy by itself, at least not in the doses that were considered normal at that time. It is important to note that Pierre Curie did indeed discover that besides certain forms of cancer “radium rays” kill healthy living cells, in fact there was scientific information available about the dangers of radium but people could not see past the scientific marvel and the mass media did not either. Despite the knowledge that these “rays” can kill cells, it took until the fifties that the causation or stimulation of cancer by radiation was realized []. The possible detrimental effects of radium and with that radioactivity were soon to be discovered by the world through the so-called Radium Girls; the Radium Girls were in fact five women who worked for US Radium where they were in daily physical contact with radium. As did most of the workers these women suffered from radium-related diseases (which were not recognized as such). Through an earlier investigation2 the controversy of radium became clear and the women decided to sew US Radium (1924) for the physical pain and the medical expenses.


the consumers league performed an investigation into the suspicious deaths of four radium factory worker between 1922 and 1924


When the case finally went to court in a courtroom fashion3 (1927) the media picked up the news and they did so with “sensationalism and muckraking”. Because of the generally accepted view that radium was healthy, it was regarded as breaking news around the world, it was because of this world wide media campaign (so to speak) and the sensationalism with which it was presented that radium fell out of grace and US radium factory conditions improved []. The worldwide media battle surrounding the Radium Girls made very clear to the public that working conditions generally found in the production processes with radium were unacceptable, furthermore the general view of radium as a universal medicine was justly debunked. In the gathering of socially important knowledge the media performed it’s task and informed the public about the dangers of radium but it did so in the pursuit of sensation, in the pursuit of higher sales. It was not a case of professional integrity to report weekly about the fact that the Radium Girls were facing a certain death []. The positive influence the media had was thus unintentional or at least, the motives were based on self-interest; the Radium Girls were reported by the newspapers because the international controversy ensured a large audience. The research in nuclear science continued and with the experiment4 of Enrico Fermi in 1942 the world was introduced with the controlled nuclear chain reaction.[]. The introduction of nuclear energy went parallel with the introduction of nuclear weapons, and indeed the funding for research on nuclear energy had to do more with gathering fissile material for the first nuclear bomb then developing a peaceful application of nuclear power[].5 The actual implementation of nuclear energy was directly related to the nuclear arms race (now with Russia6) and large amounts of fissile materials were needed to supply for the huge nuclear stockpile that was to be created by both the USSR and the NATO. Stimulating nuclear energy for civilian use had less to do with technological development and more with international politics. Nuclear energy was advocated as the energy for the people, limitless, free and safe, of course this was far from the truth. In fact, there was no need for nuclear energy at the time, coal was plentiful and green house gasses were not an issue, the fact of the matter remained that the US and the USSR needed fissile material one way or the other. The risk of nuclear energy was not discussed publicly, it was even advocated by the US department of energy that for instance nuclear explosions were an instrument by which ruff terrain could be made flat so man could utilize it, it was depicted as a harmless tool7. The public was unaware of the risks, they were simply kept ignorant by the governmental organisations and indirectly by the mass media who largely refrained from criticism, there was official protest by renowned scientists like Enrico Fermi against the construction of the early reactors because the risks were partly unknown. The nuclear safety reports were still being drawn up when the first reactors became active. Nuclear energy was hasted despite the grey area in safety, the world would be introduced with the risks not by reports a priori but by sensationalized coverage’s of real life disasters []. This would prove to be disastrous for the image of nuclear energy.

a formal structure for news gathering, i.e. the case was made public december 2, 1942, On December 2, 1942, man first initiated a self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, and controlled it. This was done in a former squash court of the Chicago University. [] 5 Leo Szilard, the collaborator of Enrico Fermi initialized the Manhattan project by urging president Roosevelt to develop nuclear weapons in fear of the nuclear ambitions of Germany [] 6 Mainly due to German nuclear scientists who fled or who were taken to Russia, Russia developed a nuclear program within years 7 President Eisenhower presented the “atoms for peace program” in 1953



With respect of the image of nuclear energy, the connotation with nuclear weapons and the cold war is highly unfortunate, the media can not be blamed for the fact that nuclear energy was developed when it was developed but the media can be blamed for initially blindly following the governments in furthering their pro-nuclear propaganda. Where was the outcry for truth as with the Radium girls? The scandal was not clear cut, so it was difficult to “sell”, the cold war was still active so it was not in the interest of the NATO countries, it was not ‘patriotic’. Nuclear powered warships, nuclear powered submarines and nuclear weapons, Nuclear energy was developed with in the background a nuclear threat of unimaginable proportions, this threat was exercised daily in the US through the “duck and cover” campaign [], it may be argued that the children that were confronted with this propaganda would have a natural resentment against nuclear energy later on in life8 (the anti-nuclear generation?). Important in this respect are the environmental groups that resisted the use of nuclear energy, partly because of it’s relation to nuclear weapons and partly because the governments at that time were far from truthful in describing the risks and properties of using nuclear energy(as discussed earlier). The start of these environmental groups meant to a large extent the start of an organised environmental movement which would later become the prime advocate for maintaining the LNT theory, which is discussed further on. In promoting their cause environmentalists found an ally in the mass media, which would function as the amplifier of the environmentalist’ voice and the visual means by which the nuclear accidents could be dramatized. A good example of the suggestive relation to danger that is used by environmental organisations is a book by Greenpeace, it is called “The Greenpeace book of the nuclear age”[Gollancz,1989], the book gives a summation of all accidents somehow related to radiation, from accidents with nuclear weapons to nuclear power plants, it’s all summated as if the risks are intrinsically related. This is representative for the manner in which opponents view nuclear energy and it forms the basis for their argument against nuclear energy, or at least, that’s how the argument it presented. The risk they transfer to the populous is primarily based on the connotation of nuclear power with serious but unrelated accidents, this gives the impression that the relation between those accidents (from sunken nuclear submarines to nuclear power plants) is a risk itself, they teach or rather we have learned to fear radioactivity. The image of fear would haunt nuclear power to this day and environmental groups use this relation for instance by speaking of nuclear energy in terms of “a slow nuclear detonation”, which is true of course but then again, when you light a candle you start a slowly reacting explosion, still we don’t dive away in fear when we have lighten the candle. It’s all about connotation, a nuclear bomb relates to death and destruction, so nuclear energy relates to death and destruction because it is related through “radiation” and the hazard thereof. The importance of these rhetoric descriptions lies in their emphasis on the negative association one generally has with nuclear energy, you can say that the voice of these rhetoric descriptions exploits the influence of emotion on ones reasoning, of course provided it is the intention to persuade the receiver.


see list of sources for a direct link to an original “duck and cover” video


The mass media increasingly provided the platform for these rhetoric statements and the environmental movement would increase its active role in distributing biased information through books and websites, see http://nirs.org9 for example or read one of the many books environmentalists have written on this subject. The problem is not that these opinions are shared through the media, the problem is that it is not clear whether a statement is in fact coming from a biased individual who is bounded by loyalty to a certain ideology or collective or if the statement is coming from an independent expert. In this respect I would like to remind the reader of the difficulties individual journalists had expressing critique on the US government in the aftermath of 9/11, not because of censorship but because the media itself implicitly enforced patriotic codes of conduct. In wartime, a certain general difference in position of the media is noticeable, the media is more likely to demand a certain level of patriotism in reporting about conflicts that are more integral to their home societies and they are more likely to openly express critique when a conflict is more international in nature. This is illustrated by the difference in media coverage of the recent Iraq-war by the US and the European media. to quote a US military report about the active role the media plays during wartime : “It is difficult to generalize about the international media, a heterogeneous entity that includes representatives of numerous organizations with varying political and cultural foundations. But it is nonetheless an incontrovertible fact that the international media as a whole are not a neutral force on the battlefield.” [payne,2005] . Illustrating what you may have concluded already, media coverage is prone to mistakes, arbitrariness, bias and corruption. We have accepted this to the extent that human beings are intrinsically subjective in their judgment so that objectiveness is at most a goal rather than a norm. Also, factual mistakes are readily made, through haste, negligence, incompetence or any other non-culpable cause, we accept them as a fact of life. But what is considered culpable in specific relation to the mass media and what are the underlying values of these norms? These ethical aspects will be discussed in the next section.


media, it’s influence and some ethical considerations

The media have a clear function; whether it is opinions, entertainment, infotainment or news, the fundamental activity of the media is transferring information. The ethical relevance comes from the fact that information has an impact on the receivers and mass media serve millions of receivers at any given time, the impact of the mass media is therefore not restricted to individuals but it extents to whole communities or even societies. media influence The influence of the media affects various actors, to discuss the influence the media may have on the society I will shortly consider governmental organisations, environmental groups, the general public and the scientific community, how they influence and how they are influenced by the media.


Nuclear Information and Resource Service


Governmental organisations To a large degree the positions of governments are determined by the constituents and their collective organisations, therefore, as the positions of the various constituencies differ, the positions of the governments differ. The media controls to a large extent the information that is transferred to the general public and since the standpoints of the public are determined mostly by the information that is presented to them the media controls to a certain extent what the public may think about a certain subject and it certainly determines (to a larger extent) which subjects are considered at all. So through the constituents the media can (to a certain extent) control the actions of the governments. Likewise the governments influence the media in the sense that the media can only operate within the legal boundaries that were established by the governments. Environmental groups and political parties Environmental groups are connected to politics in various ways; their supporters are part of the constituency of the political parties and the environmental opinions are very often ventilated through mass media which in turn influence the political decision-making process. The influence of environmental groups on the media is restricted to individuals working for media corporations and news articles that are related to actions of environmental groups. In a pluralistic media system influence by interest groups is inevitable but depending on the transparency of this identity it can lead to a falsely informed audience. If interest groups publicly ventilate their opinion there is a fine line between propagating an ideology and informing the public about relevant facts. scientific community The general task of the scientific community for the society would be the spreading of relevant falsifiable objective information based on empirical data. The peer reviewing system of the scientific community functions as the checks and balances by which the importance and correctness of any theory or article is weighed. Scientific journals, articles and peer reviews fall outside the domain of conventional mass media, scientists have mass media of their own so to speak. These scientific mass media are not transparent at all for the general public, not a problem in itself but it makes the general public very dependent on the conventional mass media to relay what is relevant. The media is influenced by the scientific community in that the scientific community more or less decides what scientific advancements are presented as important. However the media is bound by what is found interesting by the viewer, by what guarantees high view ratings, for that matter the media is dependent on the demands of the sponsors which keep a large portion of the media financially viable. general public The opinions of the general public are influenced by all of the above with the media as the binding factor; the general public is influenced through the mass media by the mentioned actors (and others, the sponsors for instants) and by the mass media itself through the affiliation of the editing staff with the various actors, interest groups in particular.


ethical considerations From the viewpoint of consequentialism the media can be judged based on the values it maximizes for the general public, the media is then judged based on it’s usefulness for society. As was said, the media functions as a transferor of information and with transferring information the media can help maximize values like pleasure, entertainment and knowledge, these values however do not apply or they do not apply in a specific manner to issues that are related to actualities, controversies and most importantly to risk. There is however the intrinsic value of truth that should indeed be maximized when dealing with items that are relevant to society, this may function as a leading goal but it is not sufficient to say that the media must simply tell the truth and consequentialism alone does not provide the tools to give a firm judgment on whether the actions of the media are ethically sound. Therefore it is not practical to judge the role of the media based on consequentialism but it can be said that the value “truth” will be one of the prime values in forming a judgment. In defining the relevant ethical values, ethics of virtue does not provide the means to describe the concept of mass media, virtue’s apply to personal characteristics or if I extend that to the media, it defines right or wrong based on the development of certain moral characteristics with respect to the moral framework of the society. Since the media serves the public it should first and foremost be dependent on the effects each individual action has on the public, implying that simply abiding by the moral characteristics is not enough to do the “right” thing with respect to the public for any specific case. Therefore ethics of virtue is not considered as suitable for giving an ethical judgment on the media. Kantian ethics will form the basis for the ethical considerations, the values that are important for the media are the values that treat humanity as an end instead of a means, the media serves humanity through transferring the truth. Also, in speaking of media in a general sense the moral law must be defined independent from cultural moral frameworks, requiring that the moral law is based on motives and reasoning rather then results alone. Thirdly, since the media cannot to be seen separately from the actors (as discussed earlier) and since the behaviour of the media is directly visible for the public the media must fulfil the first categorical imperative, giving the right example. Specifically important for the relation between mass media and media nuclear energy is the fact that the media is the most important risk communicator for the general public; besides the individuals’ experience people are made aware of risks by or through the mass media. The direct consequence of this is that the media has the obligation to publicize knowledge on risk’s insofar that sharing the risk doesn’t form a risk in itself; in sharing information the media must be aware of the consequences it has on the receiver, when sharing information on risks it is always important to consider the stress and panic it may induce with those who are affected by the risk. Also, the decision on sharing information on risks should be made independent of any third party, it should only be affected by the relation between the medium and the receiver. Independent of the considerations whether a risk is relevant enough to be publicised the mass media should be consistent in considering all information they have knowledge of ; the media thus has the obligation to be truthful. In sharing important information on risks the description of the information and especially the description of the risk is vitally important for the interpretation of the receiver. The information presented must be complete as much as possible, preventing miscommunications and providing the basis for a thorough and constructive discussion, so completeness is an important value supplementing the value of truthfulness. If important information is missing or if the information is speculative in nature the media have the obligation to make notice of this fact, as to abide by the value of completeness and truthfulness. The absolute requirement is that the information is judged based on rational and


unprejudiced contemplation, indeed this is required to consistently abide to the set out values and norms ; thus objectivity is a norm rather than a value. Also, in transferring the information that has been gathered with regard to scientific publications, the media should be focused on delivering the information in the context that was intended or provided by the scientist(s) responsible for the publication. reality The popularity of programs is more or less democratically determined, but what about news broadcasting? If one would consider a single broadcaster and a single press agency then, sure the media can control the masses, they would be unlimited in manipulating the masses to their (or the corporations’ or the governments’) pleasing, there would be simply no rebuttal, no different voices that might argue publicly about certain issues. Fortunately the western world maintains pluralism as the norm for the general mass media, albeit in different forms, the US maintains a policy of more or less uncontrolled diversity and the Netherlands has a system of public stations (radio and television) which are filled by subsidised broadcasting collectives and commercial broadcasters. The pluralistic principle is maintained throughout the western world as a reflection of the free market economy and of course as a reflection of the democratic values that are upheld; therefore the mass media are market regulated; through the existence of a large amount of press agencies and broadcasters there is a natural division based on what the public wants to see, hear or read and most importantly, the public has free choice. So, the audience has a free choice in the channels that are watched and listened to and the newspapers that are read and anyone is free to provide news. This freedom in sharing, providing and choosing sources of information guarantees an overall independence, but that is if one would use all sources of information. The mere fact that people may seek other sources for news is not a justification for bringing news in a biased fashion, indirectly propagating any particular ideology may still be described as corrupt if the viewer assumes impartiality, therefore the qualification of independence should apply to all forms of and elements in the mass media, reaffirming that independence is a value to judge mass media. It directly follows from the required clarity of ones motives that integrity is a specific value to be adhered to by those presenting the information having no ulterior motives besides presenting relevant information. The values of independence and integrity are not enough to ensure that the information is not systematically in favour or against any particular way of thinking, therefore neutrality should be considered as a separate but intrinsically related value that ensures a general independence of the media with respect to the actors. Overall one can say that the media is sensitive to corruption and manipulation by the various actors, the media itself is dependent on the actors, for viewer ratings, legislation and income; there is a fine line between being dependent on the actors and being corrupted by the actors. Therefore in informing the audience the media have large responsibilities; truthfulness, objectivity, integrity and independence are probably the most important values for pluralistic media and more specifically neutrality is important for systems where there is a more centralized role for particular players within the media.


For giving a normative judgment on fulfilling the general responsibility I define the most important norms and values based on the previous ethical considerations : integrity = consistency in being upright, having no ulterior motives truthfulness = abiding by the truth, being consistent in sharing the truth when one has knowledge of it completeness = presenting the whole truth to the extent that information is present and applying reasonable restrictions to ones statements when information is not available objectivity = being rational and unprejudiced in ones contemplations independence = being impartial in ones judgment neutrality = being unbiased in appearance and contents To apply these values, I will describe 4 subjects related to nuclear energy and I will judge the role of media based on the above set of values, in doing that I consider the media as an “organisation” in terms of accountability. The subjects are; the Linear No-Threshold theory, the Windscale accident, the Harrisburg accident and the Tsjernobyl accident.


Cases for judging the media

I have chosen 4 different point of discussion, being the Linear No-Threshold theory and 3 well known incidents namely Sellafield, Harrisburg and Tsjernobyl. LNT The safety measures surrounding radioactivity were at first aimed at preventing the direct physical consequences of high radiation doses, in 1955 this standard was abandoned by the ICRP10 and it adopted the limitation of cancer and genetic risks as the factor for determining safety levels. This change in philosophy was instantiated by “epidemiological evidence of excess cancer malignancies among radiologists and indications of excess leukaemia cases in the survivors of the atomic bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki” [M.Cutler, 2004]. The research showed that for high levels of radiation there was a linear relation between cancer occurrence and radiation intensity. This relation was assumed to be applicable to the entire range of radiation doses. This assumed linearity had the following theoretical explanation; an individual occurrence of ionizing radiation on an individual cell nucleus can initiate cancer, therefore the probability of cancer development is linearly dependent of the amount of radiation occurrences, which is linearly dependent of the radiation intensity and the mass of the subject [L.Cohen,1998,M.Cutler,2004]. This simple theory is called the Linear No-Threshold theory (LNT) and it has been used ever since it’s introduction in predicting the health effects of radiation and with that the health effects of nuclear accidents. The validity of this theory is crucial for justifying the safety regulations with regard to radiation that are in place all over the world ; safety regulations that amount to most of the required cost for keeping nuclear power plants and nuclear waste storage within governmental safety limits.


International Commission on Radiological Protection


The LNT theory is not without controversy, many radiologists firmly believe that LNT leads to a systematic overestimation of cancer occurrence. Indeed the LNT theory is directly contradicted by the effect of low level radiation11 on cancer occurrence among populations living at different altitudes who receive significantly different amounts of background radiation but who have no noticeable difference in cancer occurrence. There is even research that suggests LLR has positive health effects [L.Cohen, ]. These positive health effects have been observed at numerous occasions; observed military personnel who showed lower cancer mortality rates after acute exposure to LLR, animals which showed decreased cancer mortality rates after being acutely exposed to LLR [Robinette et al., 1985; Darby et al., 1988; Raman et al., 1987; Luckey 1990, 1993]. Also, chronic exposure to LLR has been proven to have positive health effects12, a study by Bernhard L. Cohen in 1993 showed that for LLR the lung cancer mortality decreases with increased radiation, supporting the research done by Haynes in 1988 [Cohen, 1993; Haynes, 1988;]. Summarizing, the LNT theory is highly debated as being the appropriate theory to estimate the health effects of radiation and with that the health effects of nuclear accidents. Maintaining the LNT could mean that most of the cost and the burden of handling and storing nuclear waste is unjustified, but abandoning it could be translated into taking a chance with public health for commercial reasons. The precautionary principle is the norm for the public, if one shed’s doubt over the safety of any particular activity, performing that activity would automatically be translated into taking a risk. It would be considered a “risk” because it is not 100% certain that safety levels are indeed sufficient, of course certainty does not exist for any decision we make but for nuclear radiation it seems to be the norm. Odd in this case is the lack of interest from the mass media, this is the most important subject in radiology that relates radiation to safety but there’s no public discussion whatsoever. The discussion in the scientific community about the LNT is over 20 years old, where is the nosy investigative journalist who asks himself why we spend billions on the basis of an arguable theory? A main problem when it comes to scientific investigative journalism is the fact that journalists often don’t have any affiliation to the scientific matter at hand, scientific information cannot be trusted in the hands of laymen when it comes to interpretation, it is the responsibility of the media to provide for this expertise so that detailed information is not placed out of context [Trimble 2004]. In judging the role of the media with respect to this aspect of nuclear energy one can say that the media have lacked completeness and objectivity ; in transferring information about risks with nuclear energy and more specifically radiation the media has ignored the controversy surrounding the theory that underlies the results and it has failed to provide for a platform on discussing this issue.

11 12

defined by Bernhard L. Cohen as being < 0.1 Sv (J/kg) radiation hormesis;


In the operational history of nuclear energy there have been several incidents, I will shortly discuss three of the more noticeable events; Windscale, Harrisburg and Tsjernobyl. Windscale/Sellafield Two years after the ICRP had adopted the LNT for determining health effects of irradiation, there was a fire in the Windscale facility north of Liverpool during which radioactive particles such as iodine 131 were released into the atmosphere and spread over the surrounding area. As a measure of prevention, 2 millions litres of milk from 500 km2 of surrounding agriculture was destroyed for a year [wikipedia]. Tabloids soon got hold of the news and it was sensationalized, “the accident that never should have happened”, milk consumption dropped and the surrounding population was fearful, that were about the only effects of the accident. The predicted amount of casualties would be in the order of tens of fatal cancer related deaths using the LNT but this number was impossible to discriminate from the normal cancer statistics, one simply cannot know what the effect was. After the incident the name of the facility was changed to Sellafield, a name that should quickly come to mind because it gets media attention regularly. The leakages are supposedly a danger to public health, in any case, that is implied if you read/hear the strong worded messages from environmentalists. In Dutch news items about Sellafield you very seldom hear scientific voices underlining the urgency that is implied by the news coverage, that’s because there isn’t any. If there are any noticeable health effects then they are stress related, this was documented for Tsjernobyl and also for the accident at Harrisburg []. Despite this accident and despite the continuous media attention of the leakages Windscale/Sellafield has had no significant impact on public health, the increases in leukaemia can not be attributed to radiation and even the plant workers who were involved in the clean-up showed no significant increase in cancer occurrence [McGeoghegan et al 2000]. An extensive research project of the United States in 1990 has shown there to be no increase in cancer in the area’s surrounding nuclear facilities. Similar research for German nuclear facilities has delivered the same results. Environmentalists claim the results to be inadequate, there’s always a catch, a conspiracy or an error; the fact of the manner is, purely stating that research is faulted or incomplete makes the public mistrust the results. Despite the factual controversy (to say the least), Windscale/Sellafield forms an argument against nuclear energy based on its negative appearance in the media. Again, the media has failed in upholding the principles of completeness, objectivity and it has failed in maintaining it’s neutrality, providing a platform for sharing environmentalists information leading to an unrealistic and unbalanced picture of the health effects of Windscale/Sellafield. The problem is that the mass media hardly (can) discriminate significant risks from insignificant risks, they merely present the information on risks when that information is given. Based on the value of truthfulness that is the right thing to do but if that information is not verified and if it is not placed in a realistic context it gives the information source an illegitimate means of power ; it automatically pushes the debate (on Windscale/Sellafield) in the direction of the information source. This is especially true if the media lacks the effort to provide the platforms for opponents.


Harrisburg In 1979 the movie the movie The China Syndrome was a seasonal blockbuster, the plot was centred around a nuclear power plant and the reluctance of the management to act in reducing a known risk for financial reasons. This is obviously related to capitalism and negligence in a general sense, it was in fact also a pamphlet against nuclear energy, as stated by the director; it was “not impartial” and according to one of the screenplay writers it described “the fundamental horrors of nuclear technology”. The featuring actress Jane Fonda claimed that the movie was “intended as an attack on greed, not on nuclear energy”, strangely enough she would be the leading woman in an anti-nuclear tour around America not long after the movie hit the screens [Walker, J.Samuel]. The China Syndrome was released two weeks before there was an actual accident at the Three Mile Island facility near Harrisburg after which the actress Jane Fonda started here 52 city tour of anti-nuclear sentiment. During the incident there were miscommunications between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and government officials; through “garbled” communications the Department of Energy believed that high radiation doses were measured off-site, where in fact the measurement took place directly above the gas exhaust, measuring radioactive gas that was deliberately released. This sparked more uncertainty, the Department of Energy now feared a nuclear meltdown and it believed an evacuation was ordered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The media got hold of these communications and aired them, the result was “a weekend exodus” by the surrounding population, thousands fled in fear of a nuclear meltdown [NEI,]. Eventually, 140.000 people were to be evacuated, already after 5 days they could return but the fear about radioactivity would stay. As was said, directly after the accident at Three Mile Island Jane Fonda started on here media campaign against nuclear energy, of course the effect this had on the public opinion was greatly enlarged by the accident at Three Mile Island. The fear (and ignorance) was commercially exploited through books like “The Warning: Accident at Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Omen for the Age of Terror”, the effect this would have is self-explanatory. The result, shares in nuclear power companies plunged and future power plants were cancelled [Amity Shlaes,apr 26 2005]. Also plants that were under construction were decommissioned, the most striking example of this is the Shoreham plant which was already built for the amount of 5 billion dollars when it was cancelled [techcentral]. Besides the effect it had on US energy policy it directly affected the surrounding population, thousands of people were evacuated and most simply fled the area. This must have been a huge accident, right? Wrong, because the incident caused concerns about negative health effects the Pennsylvanian department of health started to monitor the health conditions of 30,000 members of the surrounding population, they stopped doing so after 18 years without any evidence of negative health effects. More than 12 other independent health studies were performed and they showed the same results, in 1996 a class action suit alleging negative health effects was dismissed []. To this day people living near Harrisburg are suffering from radiation related diseases, not because of actual radiation but because they fear that radiation is causing all kinds of malignancies, from cancer to birth deformities. This same psychological burden, caused for the most part by incomplete or inaccurate media coverage, will also be of prime importance for the health effects of Tsjernobyl 7 years later.


During the accident (and during the media coverage that followed) the Department of Energy took hundreds of samples from the area surrounding the Three Mile Island nuclear facility, all samples showed radioactive levels far below health limits [NEI,]. There was no major media coverage on this and although it would certainly have defused much of the public fears it would remain so. The media had been the messenger of “horror” instead of reality, to quote Walter Cronkite; “Good evening. The world has never known a day quite like today. It faced the considerable uncertainties and dangers of the worst nuclear power plant accident of the atomic age. And the horror tonight is that it could get much worse.” []. In 1982 Margaret A. Reilly, chief of environmental radiation, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources, proclaimed that “to a great extent” journalists “overplayed” the nuclear power accident at TMI [NY times 1982]. It is clear that in this case the media failed to uphold the values of objectivity and neutrality misinforming the public about the urgency and the scale of the event and again the media lacked completeness, forfeiting (out of incompetence or negligence) information on measurements during the accident. Tsjernobyl These incidents still echoed in the media when the accident at Tsjernobyl happened, it served as the final blow of discredit towards nuclear energy. In the aftermath of the Tsjernobyl incident countless books appeared in which nuclear energy was negated strongly and in which Tsjernobyl was more or less commercialized : Chernobyl: The End of the Nuclear Dream, Chernobyl: The Final Warning, Mayday at Chernobyl, Reassessing nuclear power and much more of the same []. The media attention had a strange effect on health reports in the surrounding countries, all of a sudden doctors and nurses saw strong increases in deformities and malignancies, research showed that there was no increase whatsoever [IAEA Wenen 1996]. The media used the dramatic images, the exploded numbers on health effects and the conspiracy theories about Russians withholding information for media specials, attracting viewers and feeding sentiment [Vrij Nederland 1990/91]. The media (and certainly the environmental groups) thrived on dramatic images of deformed babies and the sad state that most of the inhabitants are in (in an socioeconomic sense); Tsjernobyl was a media freakshow, the inhabitants are still in dire straits, where are the camera’s now ? The largest contributor to the negative health impact of Tsjernobyl was not the radiation but the trauma and the stress that was caused by the sudden relocation, by the continuous media coverage and by the international panic in relation to radiation (radiofobia) [skepsis, WHO/IAEA/UNDP]. Think of the Radium Girls, in the media they were continuously confronted with the information that they were slowly dying. As a judge sharply noted “that cannot be positive for their condition”. There’s no doubt that without the psychosomatic health effects Tsjernobyl would still be considered a nuclear catastrophe, but the amount of drama could and should have been considerably less. Just consider the Bhopal accident were 3800 people died instantly and more than 10.000 in the days after, 15.000 to 20.000 premature deaths were reported, put that against hundreds of confirmed deaths and some thousands of theoretical deaths over a period of two decades as a result of the Tsjernobyl accident[Broughton,Edward]. Tsjernobyl pales in comparison to Bhopal, but the media attention of Bhopal pales in comparison to Tsjernobyl.


Comparable to Harrisburg and Windscale, the truth surrounding the conclusions on the Tsjernobyl health effects remain largely untouched by the general media and on top of that the media played an active role in spreading fear with regards to radiation effects. The media was not just reporting on Tsjernobyl health effects, they were causing health effects.



Overall the media failed in sufficiently abiding by the values objectivity, neutrality, completeness and arguably independence for the windscale case. This failure comes from fundamental flaws in the structure of controlled and centralized media. The information given is to limited in quantity and diversity, it is to sensitive for corruptibility and the choice of subjects is to much dependent on the assumed social situation and the level of understanding of the general population, detailed scientific information is often misinterpreted and it is often presented overly simplified, urging the need for scientific expertise. There are huge differences in opinion on how to describe the subject of nuclear energy and indeed many other important environmental issues, it is often hard to discriminate between fact and fiction and it is hard for the media to gain an objective stand point because even the definition of objective is considered as relative in this regard, facts are arguable right or wrong, it all depends on a certain level of trust. It would seem that the conventional mass media in this respect cannot cope with the demand for continuous independent and objective information. A major problem of the media seems to be that it fixates events, ones an image of deformed Tsjernobyl children are shown they are imprinted on the viewers eyes, they leave an impression that will not go away, even if 20 years later it is known for a fact that there has been no significant increase in child deformity in the region, it will probably not even reach the headlines [skepsis] . The media serves no greater goal than it’s own commercial viability and although there are quality newspapers who do provide critical investigative journalism the mass media that provide us with the bulk of our everyday news are not independent of the public they provide the news for. When the bringing of news is commercialised it is made dependent of what the public wants to see and it diverts the media of focusing on news that the public needs to see, news has turned into a commodity. The pursuit of commercial self-interest would not be a culpable act if the existence of independent mass media is beneficial for society and if the self-interest lies in the continuation of this existence. We want the mass media to be objective and independent but for many practical reasons13 the mass media is indispensable and indeed the nature of a free democratic society requires the electorate to be informed about the actual situation on a national level and increasingly so on an international level.


direct information on disasters for instance


recommendations What should be done to uphold the truth, to be objective in the most independent way without disengaging the media from the actors which may be influenced ? The conventional mass media should serve as the gate through which the general public receives relevant scientific information and the scientific community should pursue an active role in selecting and presenting those ideas. The media should at least uphold their independence, they should consider both sides proportionally and without intervention. Without using or allowing emotional arguments and perhaps even without actively participating in the debate. The media should act as observers, they should report the news and not create it. The media should create the platform from which ideas can be broadcast but they should ideally not direct the selection process by which the ideas are gathered. What is considered important in a society is hard to determine, it is unlikely that assuming anything about the opinions of the public (on what is acceptable or not) will serve the purity of the given information because it reforms the context with which information is presented. In selecting the opinions that are broadcast the media should base it’s decision on quality and not social acceptability or desirability, it should be as arbitrary as possible in a normative sense. The opinion should come from a purely voluntary action by an individual who had the ability to freely share his information through the mass media, in this regard, the internet is a certain solution. Disregarding the great firewall of china there is infinite room for as many opinions and if you use search engines, online encyclopaedias and forums that can be found on the net you not only have a huge variety of information, in a combined sense you have an indication of the truth and you have an indication of what is accepted. It is a democratic way of finding out what is relevant or better still, what you find relevant The first important difference of mass media and the internet is the fact that internet is highly interactive, when visiting a news site you can often directly discuss the contents with peers, it stimulates pro-active thinking about the information that is presented. The other main difference between normal mass media and the internet is that the internet contains unverified and verified sources mixed together, it is much harder to distinguish unreliable from reliable sources because there is no filtering of information. Television and radio do have a filtering process through editing and selecting the material, the socially acceptable can be filtered from the unacceptable and experts can be filtered from the amateurs. The editing in the conventional mass media do serve a purpose, but in determining what is socially acceptable they actually make it so to a certain extent because the broadcasts will reflect the social views of the editors, that is unacceptable, intentionally or not, that is irrelevant.


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