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Beware Nuclear Policy Experts Talking About Japan

March 14, 2011

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I have quick piece up at CFR.org assessing the potential policy consequences of the ongoing Japanese nuclear disaster. Short version: Take a look at political prognosticators’ track record from the early days of the BP oil spill before you decide to believe anything that’s being predicted right now.

I chose not to write about the nitty-gritty of the current technical situation for a simple reason: I don’t really have anything to add to what the honest-to-goodness experts have to say. I know more than enough about the technical ins and outs of nuclear power to speak intelligently about related policy issues, but the situation at the reactors is complex and opaque. Even bona-fide nuclear engineering experts have severe limits to their ability to predict where things are going. A disturbingly large fraction of the people currently opining on television and radio, though, aren’t even experts on nuclear technology. They are policy experts who apparently can’t say no when people ask them to go on TV and talk about the technical ins and outs of the unfolding situation.

I’m not naïve: I know that the airwaves are always full with people who don’t quite know what they’re talking about. But the current situation is special. Nuclear incidents are inevitably amplified by fear, and fear is multiplied when people lose trust in their information sources. It is particularly important right now that people get the best information possible, and it’s incumbent on the media to make sure that they go to people who really know what they’re talking about. I’ve said no to more than a few interview requests over the last few days, and have directed producers to real engineering experts instead. I’d be thrilled to see more nuclear policy experts do the same.

And there are plenty of people for the media to turn to. I often have policy disagreements with the nuclear skeptics at the Union of Concerned Scientists, but David Lochbaum, in particular, has been great at giving clear technical information in the last few days. Olli Heinonen, formerly of the IAEA and now at Harvard, has been solid; it helps that he spent several years as an inspector based in Japan. The reporters of the New York Times have been doing a stellar job, which isn’t a surprise, particularly given Matt Wald’s deep expertise in the area. Finally, the pro-nuclear World Nuclear Association has been publishing a great series of detailed technical updates.  Bookmark their page and update it frequently; I certainly have been.

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