Sociology of Nuclear Disaster Reporting

Dhirendra Sharma
(From: Vol 1 Issue 2)

The Issues raised in two articles which were published by Media Monitor (Nov| Dec 1986) are critically important particularly for India and oilier Third World societies where science reporting is still in its infancy. There are no specially trained journalists, nor training centres, for science reporting. Only recently, a few newspapers have started periodic science supplements, which primarily aim at popularisation of science, as against critical reporting on high science and nuclear activities and manmade nuclear disasters. For example, to my knowledge, no science supplement has so far carried a story on TMI, Chernobyl and Challenger disasters or on radiation hazards from the Chernobyl fallout

Let us recall how the Chernobyl disaster was reported in India. The explosion took place in the early hours of April 26, 1986, and it was detected over Sweden by the next morning. By the 28th ail western media were buzzing with Chernobyl news, comments and criticism, assessments and mostly guesswork as to what might have occurred inside the USSR. On the morning of the 29th first news of Chernobyl reached India over the BBC but no newspaper carried any report that morning. Between the two official media, TV (Doordarshan) placed embargo on the news while AIR managed a brief mention in its late night broadcast. Only on the morning of the 30th—full four days after the accident—our national dailies reported the disaster mainly quoting Reuter, PTI and A.P. TV finally reported the accident in its regular night news bulletin almost six days after, and still without any comments from any Indian or foreign scientists. On May 1, The Statesman carried a special report from its Paris correspondent and based on European sources indicating the severity and possible threat to population and environment posed by the accident. It also indicated that full details were still awaited to make an assessment of the distaser. But TOI, in contrast, while reporting the accident on April 30th, came but with a hurriedly written editorial, “A Major Mishap”, in which a rather poor attempt was made to pre-empt criticism of nuclear power and cushion the impact of the worst disaster. Describing it merely as a “mishap”, without any scientific basis, the editorial attempted to defend a basically indefensible position by claiming that “the kind of pressure that seems to have caused damage to the reactor at Chernobyl is not created in Indian reactors”. Upto that time we did not even know the type of reactor system involved in the Chernobyl accident. Apparently, the inside information came from the Department of Atomic Engergy. which was troubled lest public papic should also turn against the nuclear power programme in India.

Indian Express, in contrast, carried long reports on the 30th morning based on western news agencies but its science correspondent (Somnath Sapru) gathered technical details of the reactor and raised a pertinent question whether the radiation fallout could reach the Indian sub-continent. IE was the sole exception in this regard and it invited my critical comments. Later, I learnt that no Indian scientist was willing to make comments to the press. It was in direct contrast with the western scene where, as David Rubin has reported in MM, the media had collected techno-scientific details, in cluding probable ill effects of radiation fallout from 300 scientists of various institutions within the first few hours.

Indian media in the following days, weeks and months showed little interest in the outcome of the accident. The only exception was when The Observer (London) team released their best-seller. “The worst accident in the world Chernobyl: The end of the nuclear dream“. Almost all national dailies and several weeklies published excerpts from the book and highlighted the seriousness of the accident But there was still no critical reporting, gathered from independent sources, nor was there any deeper, attempt to bring details of the disaster to Indian readers. Of course, the official media (TV)made special programmes to boost the damaged prestige of nuclear energy in this country. It was repeatedly asserted that our country’s nuclear safety records were the best in the world and that there is no possibility of a Chernobyl in India. While many publications gave no credence to the official claims, TOI, and The Hindu remained fervently pronuciear to the extent that they opposed any weakening of the nuclear energy programme. The Hindu even editorially ridiculed those who opposed nuclear power on environmental grounds. IE under the editorship of George Verghese was exceptionally critical of nuclear energy and maintained a critical posture vis-a-vis nuclear technology.

From a journalist’s perspective a nuclear power plant accident is not like a natural disaster hurricane, floods or earthquakes where, as David Rubin described, “disaster information specialists” arc ready to assist him with information. But there are not many precedents of a nuclear disaster, there is no-one to brief you on the spot and there is little scope for a courageous reporter to rush to the site of nuclear accident and give an eyewitness account of the scene. All nuclear accidents immediately make the site inaccessible, if it was not already so. In order to avoid public panic, strict secrecy is maintained by the authorities, and the media are totally dependent on official sources for comments and details. A reporter’s own knowledge and understanding of nuclear problems is. therefore, critically important in providing the public with a comprehensive picture of the disaster. Only journalists with such understanding and knowledge and good resources at their disposal, good contacts with official and independent scientists, can effectively report on a nuclear disaster.

Nuclear power has come up as a commercial and industrial activity not due to peaceful scientific research but as a direct outcome of war-oreinted research activities. Thus it is conducted under total secrecy and only with government funding and patronage. And since governments have vested interest in promoting nuclear programme all official efforts for the last 40 years have been directed to projecting pro-nuclear arguments. This over selling of nuclear energy has made our journalists conditioned to pro-nuclear perspectives. Nuclear power has been propagated as the ultimate in energy sources. Because it has been equated with national progress and technological advancement, without reflecting on the possible consequences for future generations, our media have shown a general consensus that does not want to upset the country’s nuclear boat.

Vilanilam, while comparing NYT and TOI reporting on the Three Mile Island accident, explained one possible reason for the newspaper’s benign attitude towards nuclear power as “national pride and support to one’s government”. Admittedly such is the case as was vividly demonstrated by the cold war rhetoric of the US media during early report-ing on Chernobyl. Nuclear reporting is very much linked with foreign (and defence) policy perspectives of the media. This chauvinism has been a determining factor on nuclear accident reporting, or non-reporting, in this country.

The same reason governs the behaviour of our political parties and parliamentarians which do not insist on discussion of budgetary details of critical ministries—Atomic Energy, Spare and Defence. There are hardly any critical books written by Indian scientists and / or social scientists, economists, or even environmentalists of this country on social ramifications of nuclear energy, and space research, as these are inherently linked with the country’s defence aspirations. Indian journalists are integral to our social ethos and scientific detachment from one’s national bias is too tall a parameter for the Indian media.

TMI and Chernobyl accidents have raised the fundamental question of reassessment of nuclear fission technology as a reliable source of energy for the 21st century. But judging from TOI and The Hindu coverage of these accidents and contrasting them with reporting in The Guardian, The Observer, and New Scientist (Weekly) of England and Indian Express, Sunday Mail, Sunday Observer, and Illustrated Weekly (under the present editor ship of Pritish Nandy), it appears that the pro-or anti-nuclear stance is shaped by attitudes in respect of the Establishment in general. ‘Political realism’ determines the depth and direction of reporting on a nuclear crisis, even if it glosses over scientific facts. Anthony Tucker, a noted journalist and science editor of The Guardian, and several writers in New Scientist have published substantial data indicating that nuclear power after Chernobyl has become a ‘phasing out’ proposition. Indian publications, in this critical group, also appear to have maintained a pro-environmental position and have reported strong public concern against nuclear radiation Hazards.

Sometime, after the TMI accident in 1979, Illustrated Weekly carried an extremely pro-nuclear article. When I approached the Weekly for a critical view to be given equal space, the then editor replied that so long as he was in that chair no anti-nuclear view would be published in the Weekly. And then he confided, “I have to live in Bombay (the headquarters of the department of Atomic Energy)”. There is another, more serious and committed, attitude which also inhibits objective reporting of nuclear accidents. The Hindu sincerely believes that nuclear energy offers a powerful means for our national advancement and, therefore, any adverse reporting would harm the national cause. Its proprietor-editor told the writer that he has placed his unquestioned faith in the knowledge and authority of India’s nuclear scientists.

All nuclear accidents are caused by human error (technical failure has not yet been established). While in a natural disaster, no-one is humanly responsible, in case of nuclear disaster, fixing the responsibility of blame or error is critically important. The journalist’s task is, therefore, very sensitive, as it brings him | her in direct conflict of interest with those who are the sources of information, and in all probability themselves are the epicentre of the disaster. In India, thereforce, there has never been a public enquiry into a nuclear accident, and there has never been a case in which responsibility has been fixed for radiation leaks. The gap between the official source of information and the journalist’s investigation is too wide for any reliable reporting on nuclear accidents in this country.

Besides, as stated above, there are no independent scientific sources (non-government) or public interest organisations which can help the media persons. There are also few vocal, non-official scientists in our country. Many members of Parliament have told this writer that government must listen to the scientists who are qualifiled and paid by the exchequor to advise on the complexities of nuclear policy. But nuclear reporting requires easy access to critical data (official briefing is not sufficient) which, in the prevailing secrecy and non-accountability of our nuclear sub-government, is not possible. A poor Indian or Third World journalist unprovided and unprotected (against the official wrath), cannot prepare an authentic story on nuclear disaster.

In reporting a nuclear accident the most crucial point is then to respect the responsibility of news-media to the public interest, particularly in a closed information system. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster is not the first, nor is it the last, but the worst atomic accident of our times. Indian news-media must be prepared for any future eventuality, especially since government has launched an ambitious programme of producing 10,000 MWe nuclear power from inherently unstable breeder reactors. It is suggested that special training programmes may be worked out for our science writers and reporters in order to update them with necessary information, critical data, and details on earlier accidents and on safety measures and management of atomic crisis systems. Our media must also be familiar with civil defence administration, available to the public in India, in the event of an atomic disaster like TMI and Chernobyl.

Dhirendra Sharma

Courtsey : Media Monitor March/April, ’87
Dhirendra Sharma teachers science policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

He is author of books and articles on Indian nuclear issues.

Contact Address :
Institute of Socio—Political Dynamics M-120,

Greater Kailash—1, New Delhi 110 0485