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News Media and Evolving Nuclear Events in Ukraine

Dan Yurman's picture
Editor & Publisher NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy

Publisher of NeutronBytes, a blog about nuclear energy online since 2007.  Consultant and project manager for technology innovation processes and new product / program development for commercial...

  • Member since 2018
  • 1,571 items added with 1,196,412 views
  • Mar 7, 2022
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  • News Media and Evolving Nuclear Events in Ukraine
  • American Nuclear Society Advice
  • ANS Rapid Response Taskforce on Ukraine
  • A Case Where the News Media Didn’t Give in to Nuclear Hysteria
  • Spotting Fake News – Key Questions to Ask
  • A Short List of Tips for Responding to the News Media

News Media and Evolving Nuclear Events in Ukraine
 

news mediaWhen an incident occurs like the recent one involving Russian forces shelling a nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the news media reacts with great ferocity. They  often equating the incident to possible consequences which occurred at Chernobyl or Fukushima.  The two events could not have been more different, but this is what comes from short attention spans and even shorter news media headlines

While worst case scenarios under such circumstances are entirely plausible, it is important to emphasize that plant operators have equipment and procedures available to mitigate damages.

So the issue remains, if you as a nuclear professional get as call from a reporter, at any news media outlet, or you are in a public social media dialog that gets the attention of a reporter, here are some key items to keep in mind. Note that this is a short list and that nuclear utilities have public relations professionals who will also be talking to the news media if not exactly the one that calls you.

American Nuclear Society Advice to Journalists and Media Commentators
 

ANS Tab CloudThe American Nuclear Society warns that the dissemination of nuclear-related misinformation could be damaging and counterproductive to Ukraine’s efforts to repel and cope with the Russian invasion.

ANS calls on all those who present themselves as ‘nuclear experts’ in the public eye to avoid speculating or sharing information about worst-case scenarios without providing technically grounded explanations of the procedures and safeguards in place to address operational threats and protect the public.

“We urge all interested parties to consult the website of the International Atomic Energy Agency for up-to-date information.”

ANS Rapid Response Taskforce on Ukraine Mobilized

The American Nuclear Society’s Rapid Response Taskforce network of experts is monitoring Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the war’s nuclear safety and security implications. We are in close communication with our nuclear colleagues around the world and with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

ANS supports the establishment of “safe zones” around Ukraine’s nuclear power plants and endorses the IAEA’s “seven pillars” framework for all combatants to abide in safeguarding nuclear facilities and staff.

  • The physical integrity of the facilities – whether it is the reactors, fuel ponds, or radioactive waste stores – must be maintained
  • All safety and security systems and equipment must be fully functional at all times
  • The operating staff must be able to fulfil their safety and security duties, and have the capacity to make decisions free of undue pressure
  • There must be secure off-site power supply from the grid for all nuclear sites
  • There must be uninterrupted logistical supply chains and transportation to and from the sites
    There must be effective on-site and off-site radiation monitoring systems and emergency preparedness and response measures
  • And finally, there must be reliable communications with the regulator and others.
    For more information, please visit: International Atomic Energy Agency | Atoms for Peace and Development  – Ukraine Conflict Updates

A Case Where the News Media Didn’t Give in to Nuclear Hysteria
 

My interactions with a reporter from an online news service last Thursday evening, as artillery shells were falling on the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine resulted in a news report that explained in plain English why a serious nuclear incident did not occur.

The reporter also interviewed Cheryl Rofer, who blogs at Nuclear Diner, and is a technical expert on nuclear energy issues.  During the very hectic evening of March 3rd, Rofer and I exchanged texts sharing the information we were able to obtain from online sources.

While the resulting headline in the published online article accurately reflected the alarming news about the shelling incident, it is important to note that the reporter did an excellent job of explaining, based on her interviews with multiple experts, why a meltdown did not occur.

Spotting Fake News – Key Questions to Ask
 

The was lots of fake news on the Internet about the incident. The International Federation of Library Associations and Institution has an infographic which offers advice on how to spot it.

how to spot fake news

A Short List of Tips for Responding to the News Media
 

If you find yourself in a situation where you are in a dialog with the news media, or on social media,  here are some tips for handling the conversation.

reporter2Always assume the reporter has no technical or scientific background. That said don’t dumb down the information but do present it as much as possible in plain English.

By their nature reporters have inquiring and skeptical minds so be prepared for questions that are all over the map. Don’t worry about the narrative, worry about the facts.

Be friendly and don’t take offense to challenging questions. The reporter will likely feel some sense of uncertainty since they don’t know what they don’t know and will be on edge a bit as a result.

If a reporter asks a question that requires citing a number or a measurement, try to also cite an online source to back up your response. In this case as citged in this blog post, I was able to verify from an EnergoAtom annual report in 2020 online at its English language web site that the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant provides 20% of all the electricity for Ukraine.

In cases involving nuclear accidents, reporters will usually ask about context and comparison to Chernobyl or Fukushima. In this case, I was able to discuss containment structures relative to Chernobyl. I was able to describe a “worst case scenario” but with boundaries to it in terms of the number of things that would have to go wrong, and which could or could not be corrected by plant operators. By putting the context of the “worst case” in a series of if/then process steps the reporter understood that nuclear power plants do not “blow up” like atom bombs.

Follow up with any promised additional details as quickly as possible and be prepared for follow up questions. Also respond to them as quickly as you can as reporters are often on editorial deadlines.

Assume that your interview is being recorded.  If the interview is done by Zoom or Teams, and you want to share content on the screen, make sure there is no copyright issue as the reporter will feel empowered to use it if they think it will add to the piece. Obviously, don’t share confidential business information or anything not cleared for release to the public.

Be prepared to accept that most of your pearls of nuclear wisdom will wind up as narrative in the piece, if at all, and not be attributed to you except for one or two pull quotes. Don’t make sarcastic or off the wall remarks intended as humor as this will backfire.

If you don’t know the answer to a questions, just say so, and if you can, refer the reporter to a subject matter expert who can answer the question. In this case I was able to refer the reporter to someone who could put radiation levels for spent fuel in perspective, especially based on time in wet storage, and what would happen if the Russian shelling breached the external cooling ponds.

Don’t go beyond what the reporter is asking. Adding in some nuclear physics that seems cool to you will likely be confusing and wastes time.  HT @CherylRofer

Assume, once the interview is over, that whatever happens next – headlines, misquotes, whatever – is out of your hands. Because it is.  HT @CherylRofer

Do not ask to see the article ahead of time. Reporters value their integrity and will see this request as an insult.  However, feel free to ask for a heads up when the piece is published so you can retrieve it from its online presence. If all goes well, you will be able to share the piece far and wide. Also, if so moved, thank the reporter for a job well done.

& & &

This short list is mostly a reminder to use common sense and a cool head when talking to the news media.  Comments are welcome.

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