Fallout, fatalities and news cycles

The media business moves in ever-faster, shallower coverage cycles, pursuing stories with a simple tension that creates a sense of urgency in readers and viewers such that they will stay for the commercial, buy another issue or click into the full story.

The speed of the news cycle and the need for this clear, simple tension obscures even the most important stories once they evolve past urgency into more subtle or complex territory. Take the Fukushima nuclear disaster. It’s been a year since the tsunami hit and the multiple reactor meltdown incidents, so the story is getting a brief, anniversary return trip to the news cycle; a trip down disaster memory lane, some “lessons learned” and some heartening bits on people rebuilding.

There is a story to be told about the ongoing disaster in Fukushima, an important one that might prompt a very useful discussion about the role and shape of nuclear power in the United States even as the first new plant in over 30 years is licensed in Georgia. But the story out of Japan has become more complex and open-ended, lacking simple tension, a clear ending point and gripping images of containment buildings exploding and helicopters dumping seawater on seething rubble.

After Fukushima Daiichi exploded and melted down, a consensus emerged that, while terrible and problematic, the damage was ultimately manageable and nuclear power a safer choice than many traditional power sources. Coal, for instance, was calculated to have killed many times more people per watt of electricity generated than nuclear. Coal mining has killed lots of miners over its long history as a leading energy source and its use has certainly resulted in types of air pollution that have a well understood casual relation with life-shortening conditions such as asthma. Clear and simple.

Less clear and simple, however, are the mortality effects of long term exposure to various types of radioactive fallout and debris. Radioactivity at lower levels is invisible to human senses. Tracking radioactive fallout and its effects is bereft of the clear and simple tension that the media relies on to drive news cycles and its bottom line. Oh, you can still find those efforts happening, they just won’t be part of the news cycle informing our public opinion and debate.

For the link averse, the early indications from Fukushima are not comforting.  Take this podcast interview, for example. In it, it is noted that a medical examination of almost 4,000 school-aged children showed thyroid “lumps” in about a third. Apparently that’s rather unusual. Those kids aren’t dead; they may well live on just fine for decades. If they are, perhaps, tracked by curious medical investigators or scientists and found to have shortened lifespans due to increased incidents of cancers often associated with exposure to radioactive isotopes that may generate a story or two. But those stories will not inform our current understanding of the dangers posed by nuclear power and the handling of its associated waste. Some other story with a more clear and simple tension will be driving the news cycle. Count on it.

Arches National Park meets the dark side of man

I had no idea Moab, Utah was atomic. Dummy me, I just thought it was a famous place to enjoy the outdoors.

This little town of 4,800 people in the Colorado plateau just south of the Colorado River is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. They flock there by the thousands to ride mountain bikes on the famous Slickrock trail, ride off-road in the annual Jeep Safari and visit two nearby National parks.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade was filmed here, as were scenes from Thelma & Louse, City Slickers, Mission Impossible and a bunch of other movies.

There’s a real naturist vibe within this little town nestled among striking red rock canyon walls. People get up early, play hard and relax even harder at places like the Moab Brewery.

Being there today, it’s hard to believe Moab was – not very long ago – the uranium capital of the world. In the 1950’s, it boomed to nearly twice its population, boasting restaurants like the Atomic Grill and Uranium Cafe.

This alignment began changing once the cold war ended, but as recently as 2002 the town petitioned President Bush to change the name of its “Massive Ordnance Air Blast Bomb (M.O.A.B.). This 21,000 pound non-nuclear “mother of all bombs,” (still called MOAB as recently as 2007) didn’t help the town’s outdoor adventurist branding.

While this atomic history has faded away, it came to life eerily as I drove the four miles from Moab to Arches National Park a few weeks ago. Almost literally across the street from the entrance to one of America’s most famous parks, you see trucks hauling dirt on a giant pile along the banks of the Colorado River. To the un-expecting tourist who hasn’t done his research (me), it looks like some kind of massive strip-mining operation.

My immediate reaction was “what the heck is going on here and why on earth is this happening right across from a National Park?”

Turns out this eye-opener is one of the biggest winners of federal environmental cleanup contracts under President Barack Obama’s stimulus program. The “pile” – nearly 130 acres – is made up of mill tailings and contaminated tailings materials left over from the uranium-ore processing between 1956-1984 by the Atlas Minerals Corporation.

The tailings were sending a radioactive plume of groundwater seepage also polluted with ammonia toward the river.

Now owned by the DOE, the clean-up site has created 121 jobs for people shipping the radioactive waste away to a specially designed location 30 miles north. About 6,000 tons are being hauled away each day by train.

I suppose this remediation project is going okay, but every once in a while something happens to make me wonder. The FAQ on www.moabtailings.org says “a tiny fraction of the dust originating from the site does inevitably contain low-level radioactive particles; however, the level of radioactivity in the dust is indistinguishable from background concentrations in the dust and is, therefore, also below the DOE limits for release of radio-particulates from the site.”

Uh, sounds like spin to me, but I hope it’s not.

I didn’t feel better reading that site operations are shut down at sustained wind speeds of 25 miles per hour or greater. The day I visited Arches it was very windy but the trucks were still doing their thing. Maybe they were only 21 mph winds.

I also wasn’t thrilled to hear that a truck carrying uranium mill tailings tipped over and spilled some of its radioactive dirt in October.

What a case study for the beauty of nature vs. the dark side of man. I hope the former wins out.