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Nancy Doyle Palmer

Nancy Doyle Palmer

Posted: March 21, 2011 12:53 PM

Nuclear Journalists: Assessing The Risks in Japan


Journalists are used to following the news no matter what but Japan's ever-widening nuclear crisis is creating a pause in business as usual for a profession used to running towards, not away from, the story.

Conflicting and confusing reports about the status of the damaged Fukushima Daiichi power plant near Sendai and worrisome questions about the scope and severity of radiation poisoning have spurred news organizations to examine policy and issue guidelines. The major American TV networks joined forces to share information concerning logistics and security and give their people the choice to stay or leave - other news organizations have done the same and all are calling upon outside experts for advice.

How do veteran journalists view these unique challenges?

NBC's Tom Brokaw:

I think they're doing all the right things but so much is unknown about radiation dangers. There are no Kevlar vests and helmets to help you here, no hiding behind a wall or a sand-bagged bunker. Radiation doesn't announce its presence with a bang or a boom.

It's a fear we've been living with throughout the nuclear age and yet we have so few reliable guidelines...Think about it, if a damaged peaceful reactor can cause this much havoc, what about a nuclear weapon?

ABC's Bob Woodruff- wounded by an IED in Iraq in 2006 and interviewed last week from New Zealand while covering earthquake relief efforts in Christ's Church:

I don't know if there's a difference between bullets or radiation but without question we take precautions. If there is obvious danger we withdraw.

You don't know where the insurgent is, like you don't know where the radiation is. But while you DO know if you've been hit or not, in a situation like Japan you won't know for years, perhaps, if you were damaged or injured.

It's so much more obvious and visible in war.

Another huge difference is that wars have been going on for a long, long time and you know what's going to happen. There are reporters with a huge amount of experience who know how to stay safe, how to avoid getting in the midst of gunfire, but in Japan today, there's probably not a single journalist who has ever covered something that requires you to be in the midst of nuclear radiation.

How you can avoid the fallout is largely impossible - there's not a lot of experience or guidelines.

NBC'S Richard Engel - Chief Foreign Correspondent and veteran war reporter:

The last ten years have included the war on terrorism, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the conflicts in Lebanon, and Gaza. They have produced a generation of journalists who are familiar with car bombs, kidnappings, ambushes and IEDS - all concerns you worry about.

There's a human factor when you are dealing with a conflict - you can learn patterns, develop a sense of the kinds of roads that might have bombs on them and take precautions. In this situation in Japan there is no human factor. Besides protective clothing and some medications, there is not a lot you can do. There is no predictability, no adversaries, and no calculations to understand on the part of someone trying to harm you.

It's an enormous story with a human impact in Japan, across Asia, and around the world that has tremendous economic impact as well. Covering this story and telling the world what is going on and making sense of it is what journalism is all about. But working in a radioactive environment? There's only so much you can do.

I and many other reporters have undergone "NBC" training - nuclear, biological and chemical training - and learned how to deal with situations including a chemical weapons attack, a nuclear terrorist attack, a chemical spill. You can wear protective clothing; you are careful where you walk, etc. But this is all temporary. The chemical masks and suits are designed to get you OUT of that environment, not stay there for long periods of time.

Covering a chemical attack or a nuclear disaster may be the most difficult thing you can do. There is no one you can talk to, no one you can reason with. If you're kidnapped by militants you can talk to them - maybe they want a ransom, it's hard to predict -but at least there is someone to talk to.

But in this case you're talking to a harmful cloud - there is no human factor there and it's particularly unnerving -- you are powerless.

You're dealing with a callous radioactive threat - the only thing you can do is protect yourself physically and not stay there long. Even the wind is unpredictable. There is a lot less wiggle room.

Andrea Mitchell - NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent; Covered Three Mile Island

Journalists take reasonable precautions, but when a story breaks in Japan - Libya - or anywhere in the world, our first instinct is get there. Japan's nuclear disaster reminds me of what we averted at Three Mile Island, almost exactly thirty two years ago. At the time, I was NBC's Energy Correspondent, but my bureau chief didn't want to send me in at first - he said, because I was "a woman of child-bearing age." Of course, male or female, there is no real protection if radiation levels get high enough. Still, as I covered the accident and its aftermath for the next year, we all wore dosimeters and timed our stays in the immediate vicinity. As it turned out, even during initial fears that a hydrogen bubble in the damaged reactor might explode, the nation was reassured by Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter's decision to visit the plant. The image of the First Couple wearing orange protective boots was ridiculed at the time, but it somehow made the "unknown" seem far less threatening. As the Kemeny Commission investigation into the incident later established, the real culprit was not technology. It was human error, fostered by shoddy management by the company that owned the plant at the time.

In 1994, I had a reminder of the long-term risks of a nuclear accident: Traveling with President Bill Clinton's press corps to Belarus, we were again given dosimeters - even though Chernobyl had happened eight years earlier, and not in Belarus, but in neighboring Ukraine to the east. But the prevailing winds were all westerly and radiation was still in the water and food supply. It was a telling lesson about the residual effects of radiation - and a cautionary tale about the importance of nuclear threat reduction on weapons, even as we worry about the safety of aging nuclear plants.

 

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