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Praying for meltdown: The media and the nukes

Science and the public lose out with TV's Hollywood disaster film obsession

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First it assumes nature is a person. It then assumes this person is a) making moral judgments about humanity, and b) has decided humanity has fallen short of these moral standards is in some way, and is really angry about it, and c) is handing out arbitrary punishment. Strangely, the kind of people who trot out this metaphor are often well educated, and think of themselves as superior rational beings to religious people. At dinner parties many can be found mocking "sky gods" or "flying spaghetti monsters". But give them a natural catastrophe and they'll instantly conjure up their own Vengeful Overlord to throw back at human scientific progress. One who, uncannily, shares the same political prejudices that they do!

Nuclear energy remains an incredible scientific breakthrough for humanity, one of the greatest, and it can be used to blow ourselves up, or provide huge benefits, taking billions out of discomfort and need. No Gods are needed to be invoked or implied here.

Implicit in the media coverage of nuclear risks is the idea that anything mankind does harms nature's "equilibrium". As Adam Curtis explains in his new series, this is a false notion - ecosystems aren't in balance, but constantly renewing themselves. The idea that nature is in some kind of "harmony", and would go about its business if only it wasn't for those pesky humans is a medieval, superstitious view of the world that was popular at a time when Pagans had a monopoly on sky magic, and life expectancy was 40. After the tsunami surrounded Fukushima, News TV stopped short of sacrificing a goat – or a child – on our behalf, but perhaps it's only a matter of time.

A different choice of talking heads early on would have produced a quite different, and much more interesting picture of events. We might have learned that cancer rates among nuclear workers are lower than those of employees in finance or retail. (Let's close all the shops!) Or that the nuclear workers have suffered seven fatalities in the last decade, while wind farms have caused 44 deaths (Let's ban windmills!).

A calm, technically informed expert without an axe to grind (they do exist) might have explained that modern reactors, such as thorium salt or pebble bed designs, can be operated by a drunken idiot – although we'd prefer them not to be drunk, or an idiot, obviously. Instead we heard from a Green who wondered why the reactor hadn't been built "above tsunami level". A reactor with a fragile floor that couldn't be cooled by seawater? And the reason we don't today enjoy cheap electricity from these even safer reactors?

I'm with Stupid

You can reasonably argue that the mass media has always been incredibly stupid – and loves scientific doomsday myths, economic collapse and immigration panics. There was probably a brief period when it approached scientific subjects rationally and optimistically, and reported them faithfully. But I see the biggest consequences of Fukushima as a problem for the broadcasters here, as the mythological approach shows diminishing returns.

The internet has allowed people to find things out for themselves, bypassing the Hollywood narrative demanded by TV producers and newspaper editors. For example, this splendidly clear technical explanation of the engineering behind the reactors rapidly received several hundred thousand hits. Subsequent reports of the power company's "secrecy" also disappeared as quickly as they arrived, when it was obvious you could watch the radioactivity levels in real-time.

Apart from a few enclaves of the superstitious, who often have a professional interest in the outcome, the public now greets doomsday predictions with indifference or derision. This is a major problem that modern environmentalism has yet to come to terms with. If your politics depends on catastrophe, people reckon, then the policies can't be very good – otherwise they wouldn't require such desperate sales tactics. They wouldn't rely on the suspension of business-as-usual. They'd succeed by calm persuasion.

TV hasn't realised it either - the narrative now looks more like ritual than reporting. By choosing to let us down every time we tune in, it's extinguishing its last reserves of authority, and simply accelerating its obsolescence. ®

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