“Most of us were taught that the goal of science is power over nature, as if science and power were one thing and nature quite another. Niels Bohr observed to the contrary that the more modest but relentless goal of science is, in his words, ‘the gradual removal of prejudice.’ By ‘prejudice,’ Bohr meant belief unsupported by evidence.”
–Pulitzer Prize-winner Richard Rhodes
Margaret Harding is a nuclear engineer with an outstanding record. For 27 years she worked on reactor designs for General Electric and now has her own firm, 4Factor Consulting. She also posts comments on a nuclear-energy oriented listserv that Matthew Wald, a reporter for the New York Times, reads.
Soon after the Fukushima-Daichi plant in Japan began having problems keeping its reactor fuel cooled because of loss of power to run water pumps, Wald queried her about what was going on in the reactor core and quoted her comments in a story.
As a result, Robert Bazell, NBC’s chief science correspondent, contacted her and asked her to provide background information to him about nuclear energy and nuclear accidents.
In place of speculations and general assumptions, most of them dire, that were flooding the media, he was able to report crisp facts and to help raise public awareness about how nuclear energy works.
Just one example of the impact Harding has had on public discourse: Bazell now knew that nobody was killed by the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island. After Ed Schultz, a commentator on MSNBC, described thousands of deaths at TMI, he then went to Bazell for an update on the nuclear crisis in Japan. Before reporting on Fukushima, Bazell promptly corrected Schultz, informing him that TMI caused zero deaths.
This is an example of how nuclear literacy can be passed along in a chain reaction. It can help to overcome all of the misinformation repeated by well-meaning but misguided people and publicized by the anti-nuclear sector.
Because Harding can communicate in a clear, matter-of-fact, friendly manner, accurate information about nuclear issues that tends to be confined to the technical community reached tens of thousands of people, perhaps millions.
In the early days of the crisis, not only reporters but also—surprisingly– the general public became eager to learn about the technology.
If reporters happened to talk to a self-appointed expert spouting information from dubious sources and focusing on getting rid of nuclear plants, then the public received terribly worrisome bulletins—for example the claim by Joseph Mangano that 16,000 Americans would be killed by the plume from Fukushima.
Fortunately that lie was thoroughly debunked in Scientific American and elsewhere—but no doubt there are many people who still believe that headline is true.
During this period of uncertainty about what the final outcome would be for the troubled Japanese reactors and for the frightened thousands who were rapidly evacuated, a small group of nuclear professionals and supporters of nuclear energy convened to create the Nuclear Literacy Project, an independent resource to help the public learn more about nuclear technologies and to understand how they affect our daily lives.
We may not associate nuclear medicine with reactors, for instance. Yet millions of Americans benefit annually from nuclear diagnostic and therapeutic applications.
We may not think very much about the defense of the United States provided by the submarines, battleships, and aircraft carriers powered by small nuclear reactors that can operate for decades without refueling—and yet we’re free to go about our lives knowing we’re protected, thanks in part to Navy vigilance.
We may not spend one second of our lives wondering where our electricity comes from, but if all our nuclear plants were suddenly to shut down and the supply dropped by 20%, Americans would quickly learn how crucial they are to the grid.
Very few people outside the technical community know that nuclear energy is actually safer and cleaner than all the alternatives. Overall they continue to have a better safety record than coal-fired plants, natural-gas plants, and even wind farms.
The Nuclear Literacy Project thinkers, who come from a variety of backgrounds, recognized a need that was mostly going unmet, and they’ve put together a number of approaches to improve the general understanding of how nuclear energy operates.
- The Nuclear Literacy Project is working with the technical community to hone communication skills so that that experts can present information with simplicity and accuracy.
- The Nuclear Literacy Project is encouraging people who work in the nuclear industry to talk about what they do and why they feel comfortable living within a few miles of a nuclear plant and sending their children to nearby schools and playgrounds.
- Online, the Nuclear Literacy Project is providing access to information through educational interactive media like videos, games, quizzes, and apps.
The Nuclear Literacy Project is not just a quick reaction to Fukushima but rather a sustained and growing effort to inform the public.
The goal: to provide a basic context so that a nontechnical person can determine fact from fiction regarding the operation of nuclear plants and enlarge his or her perspective.
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