Clear data, informed public key to nuclear power debate
The China Post news staffOn midnight between Jan. 23-24, 1961, a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air over North Carolina. The crew ejected at 9,000 feet. Five landed safely and two died. Falling along with the plane was its payload of two nuclear bombs, each 260 times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
September 24, 2013, 12:17 am TWN
The two Mark 39 nuclear bombs on board the B-52 were last seen intact with the bomber. One of the bombs armed itself during the fall and according to a declassified report by Parker F. Jones, obtained by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act and recently reported by UK newspaper The Guardian, all but one of the four safety mechanisms designed to prevent accidental detonation failed.
Jones, a nuclear safety supervisor at Sandia National Laboratories, said in the report that “one simple, dynamo-technology, low voltage switch stood between the United States and a major catastrophe.”
The revelation appeared on the front page of a local daily on top of coverage of Typhoon Usagi yesterday, a rarity in Taiwan's locally oriented news scene. Aside from the sensational “almost Armageddon” narrative, the story of lapses in safety and the U.S. government's efforts to downplay risk struck a chord in Taiwan.
The Guardian pointed out that “the U.S. government has repeatedly publicly denied that its nuclear arsenal has ever put Americans' lives in jeopardy through safety flaws.”
Schlosser, who studied Jones' report as part of his research for a book on nuclear weapons, found that between 1950 and 1968, there were at least 700 “significant” accidents and incidents involving 1,250 nuclear weapons.
Schlosser told the Guardian that “It's not like I have a megalomaniacal 'I'm going to save the world' mentality, but what my work is designed to do is to provoke discussion.”
Even before the dust dies down on the recent “September political struggle” between President Ma Ying-jeou and Legislative Yuan Speaker Wang Jin-pyng, the debate on the fate of Taiwan's Fourth Nuclear Power Plant has already become a casualty. The Kuomintang quietly retracted a legislative proposal for a referendum on the plant.
The nuclear plant, which has mostly been built but has yet to become operational, has been a hot-button issue for over a decade. There has not been any lack of debate over the plant, especially after the Fukushima Nuclear Plant meltdown in 2011 in Japan.
What has been lacking is the specific information on Taiwan's nuclear power incidents and accidents. The debate in Taiwan is generally a showdown between big principles. Supporters of nuclear power stress its importance to Taiwan's economic and energy stability; while opponents highlight the potential devastation of nuclear disasters.
Such debate often leads to ideological battles with no concrete conclusions, which in turn allow the government to rush through the tough issue by citing polar opposition between the two camps as reason for lack of decision or progress.
Discussion over the plant should not be just a vague debate over the pros and cons of nuclear power. To heighten public confidence and to provide transparent information, the government should base the debate on the concrete details of the plant, for instance its design and safety measures.
The media should play the role of an educated monitor of the government's transparency on its nuclear power policy. It should help the public to navigate the complexity of the technologies involved by tackling technical (and therefore less sensational) information and putting it into perspective for public understanding.