Econ 210a: March 16, 2011: Walter Bagehot's Lombard Street in Contemporary Perspective?
The Arrival of the Tsunami in a Japanese Town

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps?

Outsourced to Clive Crook:

The Fog of Nuclear Emergency: Like everybody else, no doubt, I am finding it difficult to pay attention to anything but the catastrophe in Japan. Coverage of the nuclear emergency is probably as informative as it can be under the circumstances--but still I find it frustrating. Purportedly analytical accounts are muddled; obvious questions are left unresolved or unaddressed; there are inconsistencies all over the place. Much of this is unavoidable, I know, but the problem is compounded by the journalistic propensity to glide around what you don't know or have failed to understand.

From the start of this calamity I have wanted to know, "What is the worst that can happen at these nuclear sites? Suppose everything that could go wrong does go wrong: what then?" I still don't know the answer. In what I have read so far--dozens of articles--nobody who knows what he is talking about has spelt this out carefully. My father... was a mechanical engineer in the British nuclear power industry.... I vividly recall his telling me decades ago that the thing that concerned him most about nuclear power was not the reactors but the storage of spent fuel.... The conversation passed through my mind as soon as the first reports of problems at Fukushima appeared. Where do they put the spent fuel?

Today the New York Times tells us where: on "the top level of the reactor buildings". The piece worsens the worst-case scenario yet again, saying that this fuel may pose a bigger risk at Fukushima than the reactors themselves (reactors, plural, of course: the small-footprint approach bunches many of them together). Elsewhere one reads that hundreds of workers have already been evacuated from the site and only 50 remain, scrambling to stabilize six reactors, and to keep the storage pools replenished. What happens if and when those last workers are pulled out? The Times cites, without further comment or context, a 1997 study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory:

[The study] described a worst-case disaster from uncovered spent fuel in a reactor cooling pool. It estimated 100 quick deaths would occur within a range of 500 miles and 138,000 eventual deaths. The study also found that land over 2,170 miles would be contaminated and damages would hit $546 billion.

I'm interested to know that, but as this stands it is another semi-digested fragment of analysis. What does "land over 2,170 miles mean"? Land within a radius of 2,170 miles? What does "contaminated" mean? Why the specious precision over distances and costs, yet zero guidance on how to interpret the numbers? Above all, is this is a plausible analogue? Might the situation at Fukushima be worse than this? What is the reader to make of this information?

Where are the science and technology writers when you need them? And where are their editors?


More on the Nuclear Fog: Still tearing my hair out in frustration at media analysis of the nuclear emergency in Japan, I had word from my friend Peter David (Lexington at The Economist, and a former science writer) directing me to this blog maintained by nuclear engineering students at MIT. It's good, and it's worth a look. Helpful information! It brought my core temperature down a little.

But I still don't know the answer to the question: "If everything that could go wrong does go wrong, what are we looking at?" Answering this does not require full knowledge of what's actually happening at the plant,  which nobody, including the people on the site, appears to possess. It calls for little speculation: in the first instance, I'm not asking for a probability. (One thing we've learned: statements of what's likely or unlikely in this affair need to be heavily discounted.)  I simply want to understand the outer limit of the emergency. My guess is that this knowledge would be reassuring rather than panic-inducing, but in any event it would be good to see the scenario explained.

Under the circumstances it's wrong to single out articles that have driven me up the wall this past few days, since there are so many. With apologies, though, I cannot resist clipping this Reuters piece, Japan scrambles to pull nuclear plant back from brink. (The brink of what? That's my question. No answer, needless to say.) The piece does actually contain some information, so thanks for that, but then it concludes:

"This is a slow-moving nightmare," said Dr Thomas Neff, a physicist and uranium-industry analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Get an expert on the phone, and make a careful note of the most useless thing he says. End your piece with that. I hereby close my collection of Triumphantly Worthless Expert Quotations. I don't see that one being surpassed.

I cannot help but note that neither Crook nor David recommend anything from the news organizations that they work for but rather recommend... a weblog: It is a very good weblog. But it does underscore how the ecology of information is shifting away from the purveyors of Triumphantly Worthless Expert Quotations and Opinions of the Shape of the Earth Differ.

I cannot let this pass without noting that Peter David is one of the worst practitioners of "opinions of shape of earth differ" on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand journamalism. For example, his most recent, claiming that here in the United States: "Islamist terrorism is the clear and present danger."

In American politics to say that something is the "clear and present danger" is a call for suspension of constitutional rights and procedures. See Justice Holmes for the unanimous Supreme Court in Schenk vs. United States:

[T]he words... in such circumstances... are of such a nature as to create a clear and present danger that they will bring about the substantive evils that the United States Congress has a right to prevent.... [A]t war many things that might be said in time of peace are such a hindrance to its effort that their utterance will not be endured... and... no Court could regard them as protected by any constitutional right.

Peter David:

Lexington: Muslims and McCarthyism: A witch-hunt on one side, denial on the other, as the threat of home-grown terrorism rises: IS A new Joe McCarthy strutting his stuff up on Capitol Hill? You might think so, to judge by the abuse that has thundered down on the head of Peter King, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, following his decision to start hearings on “The Extent of Radicalisation in the American Muslim Community and that Community’s Response”. Even before the first one took place this week, the very idea of the hearings came under withering fire from liberal America....

It is indeed hard to find much to like in Mr King. The representative for Long Island has approached this most sensitive of subjects with the delicacy of a steamroller, plus an overactive imagination and a generous dollop of prejudice.... He is the author of a novel, “Vale of Tears”, in which a heroic version of his thinly disguised self busts a home-grown al-Qaeda cell at a Long Island Islamic centre. His own attitude to terrorism, though, is conveniently elastic. In the 1980s this Irish-American Catholic sympathised strongly with the Irish Republican Army, going so far as to compare Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, the terrorist group’s political wing, to George Washington.

Beyond these objections to his person, prejudices and past, most of the available evidence suggests that Mr King’s central thesis is overblown, if not flat wrong. Muslim co-operation with the authorities is not perfect, but by most accounts—including those of Robert Mueller, the director of the FBI, and Eric Holder, the attorney-general—the community has in general worked hard to expose terrorist plots in its midst. In one prominent case last year, for instance, five men from northern Virginia who had travelled to Pakistan in search of jihad were convicted after their families tipped off the FBI.... 48 of the 120 Muslims suspected of plotting terror attacks in America since the felling of the twin towers in 2001 were turned in by fellow Muslims....

But it is worth noting that the liberal side has a defect of its own.... It is true that not all terrorism takes an Islamist form, but Islamist terrorism is the clear and present danger—and al-Qaeda has lately shown an unexpected ability both to recruit American Muslims and to move its battle back to American soil.... Anwar al-Awlaki, an al-Qaeda leader in Yemen, grew up in New Mexico. Adnan Shukrijumah, probably al-Qaeda’s director of external operations, is a Saudi-American who grew up in Brooklyn and Florida. David Headley, from Chicago and now in custody, scouted targets for the attack on Mumbai..... Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a Palestinian-American, killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Texas... Faisal Shahzad, a Pakistani-American, tried to set off a car bomb in Times Square in New York. “The American melting pot”, Mr Bergen and Mr Hoffman concluded, “has not provided a firewall against the radicalisation and recruitment of American citizens and residents, though it has arguably lulled us into a sense of complacency that home-grown terrorism couldn’t happen in the United States”...