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View from Brussels: We need informed reporting, not scare stories

If nuclear issues had been less sensationally reported in the media, then we would maybe have had a more rational energy policy. Journalism has been starved of resources to cover complex issues, writes Pelle Neroth

Ah yes, the nuclear debate. There are those who believe it’s a baseload long-term investment which has been mishandled by governments and misunderstood by the public, but that it is still not too late to revive it and make nuclear part of the British energy mix for the next half-century. Thus the proponents of nuclear power.

On the pro-renewables side, there are those who say the lock-in electricity price for the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, built by the Chinese and run by the French, is far too high given the rapid decline in prices for solar and wind power. Japanese or Korean plant technology would have been better, but French expertise was used for political reasons. But the French have their own credibility problems, given delays to their plants being built at Olkiluoto in Finland and Flamanville in France. Much better to go for renewables – Britain has great potential for wind. Solar power, if the price of solar panels continues to drop, could be revolutionary. Ever think about how the internet has turned us into our own publishers? The solar power revolution will make everyone generate their own electricity, sell it back to the grid. Independence for everyone. Nuclear power stations are so 20th century: centralised, enormously expensive, run by the state. A massively inflexible commitment, hugely expensive to build and decommission.

Ah, the pro-nuclear people hit back: you dreamy solar people still haven’t solved the problems of intermittency or battery storage. Or how to handle electricity transmission over long distances. Because the wind is only in some places. And sun? There will never be enough sunshine at these northern latitudes. The regions with plenty of sun are like those with plenty of oil (often the same set of countries). Politically problematic. And do you solar power people really imagine Brits will install solar panels on their roofs?

There will be more people dying from ladder falls than ever died in nuclear accidents. Besides, handling a constantly varying influx of a huge multitude of energy sources into the grid creates its own engineering problems. If the public were totally self-motivated and dedicated, and capable, then maybe we could run a country on renewables. But people being the shlubs that they are – most can never stick to their diets – are they capable of looking after their own interests in supplying themselves with energy? Maybe 10-20 per cent of the high-achieving part of the population. But the remaining 80 per cent? No, these things need to be supplied centrally. And nuclear power stations are great for that. Lots and lots of carbon-free baseload energy, 24/7/365 for 60 years. Tried and tested.

Instinctively I have always been pro-nuclear. Antinuclear people to my prejudiced mind always tended to be so irrational in the fears about nuclear radiation from power plants that I tended to dismiss them out of hand.

Then came Fukushima in 2011, the event which caused Frau Angela Merkel to totally reverse the energy policies of Europe’s most important country. Maybe nuclear wasn’t so harmless after all? And then, even more convincingly has come the recent large fall in the price of solar panels, as well as the technological exploitation of new alternative forms to exploit solar power. This is not to deny the challenges of solar power just mentioned (and the regulatory load on solar power will continue to rise, for sure). But surely renewables have never offered a better alternative case? And costs will certainly fall further.

Just two days, ago, as if to confirm the wisdom of Frau Merkel’s nuclear ban, Sky News reported menacingly: “Fukushima - Fears radioactive water has leaked from damaged reactor.” The body of the article contained the claim of 18,000 deaths resulting from the 2011 incident.

I have just been rereading Nick Davies’s book ‘Flat Earth News’. It reminds me of everything that is wrong with Britain, if you take what is wrong with journalism – an area I know well and follow closely – and project it to the rest of society. Lousy labour productivity, slack standards, hurried work, poor management, a terrible deal for those at the bottom of society or the bottom of an organisation. Of course, he is not talking about the people behind the till at Poundland stores but the junior members of what is ostensibly a respectable profession.

Journalists in his idealised 1970s, when bobbies whistled on the beat and everything was as it should be (okay, okay) covered every court hearing and every council meeting. Now many courts are barely covered at all, especially outside London – which is how the Asian grooming scandal took so long to be discovered. There were dozens of reporters in the parliamentary gallery. Now the sketch writers rule the roost, and mostly what they do is sneer at politicians. Local news agencies that used to hawk their best stories to the big media have shut up shop. The BBC used to have 12 people covering Sussex/Surrey; now – just three. The same fall in coverage everywhere. In the old days, journalism was the lifeblood of democracy and brought to light a whole mass of interesting and important narratives about what is going on in the country. Politicians were held to account; genuine conflicts between social values were highlighted by court reporting.

You could make a case that the decline of journalism has been as important for the hollowing out of democracy in Britain as the transfer of powers from Westminster to the European parliament.

Churnalism and science reporting

So that was “good old days”. And now, according to Davies? Media companies chase profits so hire the youngest and most inexperienced reporters, who are swept off their feet by the burden of the number of stories they are expected to produce per day. It is ‘churnalism’ - as in churning out a dozen articles a day - not journalism; quality suffers. No time for fact-checking. Very little time to get to know the local beat, hang out in pubs and get to know cops and local politicians. To get background, context and understanding. Now you have regional news hubs where reporters huddle in offices in conditions scarcely more dignified than call-centres. How can journalists produce good work if they are not granted dignity and self-respect, let alone a proper salary? That is much of British journalism as Nick Davies, one of the Guardian’s old-school reporters, describes it.

Even the big national newspapers suffer from the same problem, especially in recent years after the advertising market collapsed, cutting profits and jobs, and putting those journalists still in jobs under enormous pressure. Davies has collaborated with Cardiff University journalism school (famous and respected) to analyse the source of national newspaper articles. This is the crème de la crème of the profession.

A large proportion of news stories are sourced from press releases, or lifted off the wires and ‘renosed’ to give the appearance of original hard work. NGOs, with their ready-made narratives, make easy inroads, which – to belatedly get to the point – even affects science and technology journalism.

First Nick Davies explains how the fake news story of the millennium bug threat spread and took over newsrooms. Then Davies, a self-described classic leftie, admits openly that he had to reconsider his stance on Chernobyl after taking the trouble to penetrate the fog of biased, ill-informed ‘churnalism’ to get to the facts. He and a researcher checked with numerous scientific bodies after watching a BBC ‘Horizon’ documentary, which to its credit debunked the mass-death myth, and found they confirmed the BBC’s story. Mea culpa. Davies has the graciousness to admit he and many journalists just don’t take the time and effort to understand science issues properly, and that has affected the nuclear industry because of journalists’ biased coverage of nuclear disasters.

Best to quote Davies in full: “85% of radiation occurs naturally as a byproduct of our planet. 14% comes as a result of X-rays and other medical activity. Me and my researcher (sic) found that nuclear power workers are exposed to less radiation than air crew or even coal miners. And in spite of the continuing restrictions on eating sheep from areas where rain brought down particles from the Chernobyl plume, they told us you could eat a chop from those sheep every day for a year and still absorb less radiation than you would from a single hospital X-ray.”

As for Fukushima and those 18,000 deaths and the continuing health scares? Well, let us not forget that the deaths came from the two big events, the massive earthquake and the tsunami that followed it. In contrast, science paper sources say that the crippling of the three operating reactors and one non-operating reactor did not cause a single death. A scientific paper published in Genes and Environment (2016.38:12) follows the same line of thought: Estimated doses these days in the Fukushima area are about 3mSv per year. The paper adds: “Since even after acute irradiation, no significant differences are found below 200mSv for leukaemia and below 100mSv for solid cancers, these data indicate that cancer risk is negligible in Fukushima.” People have lived for millennia in areas with high background radiation – 10 times the current Fukushima figure – like Kerala in India – and suffered no ill effects. The paper's author, Dr Shizuyo Sutou, of Sjuhitsu University in Japan, wryly observes: “The most threatening public health issue is the adverse effect on mental health caused by undue fear of radiation.”

Ask yourselves: Was the Sky News story, with its sly reference to 18,000 deaths and the psychological link one makes between that and nuclear power, an example of good journalism or bad journalism? Typical ‘churnalism’?

To summarise, maybe nuclear has never been a less favourable alternative compared to renewables than today. But maybe if more money and effort had been invested in nuclear earlier, it would have benefited from economies of scale and we would have saved ourselves decades of fossil fuel pollution before solar came on stream. But the public was afraid of nuclear because the public was ill-informed.

In fairness to the media companies who have cut journalism numbers back to the bone, the debate was lacking in sophistication before the arrival of churnalism described by Nick Davies. Chernobyl was in 1986; Three Mile Island in 1979 and even during this period of journalism Davies idealised, there was still a lot if misinformation. Nevertheless, the problem of today’s churnalism doesn’t help.

Maybe the various branches of the energy industry – biofuels, nuclear, solar etc – should get together and fund one full-time energy correspondent for each broadsheet newspaper, with a remit to be accurate but also fully intellectually independent. Pay them well. Let us have a proper energy debate in the mainstream media.

In five, ten years time, at a minimal cost – say two million pounds in salaries – I guarantee you Britain would be a better place. Incidentally, the manufacturing industries could have done the same and paid for a full-time Brussels correspondent, completely editorially independent of any lobby groups or interest, with a remit only to freelance high quality, informed journalism to the nationals. It is a bit late now.

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