Europe’s Energy Future: Flaws, Hopes & Challenges in Science Journalism

Click on the image to download the full presentation by Wolfgang Goede

EUSJA Seminar at ESOF 2012 Dublin – It was a few hours before the closing ceremony on Sunday, July 15, when the EUSJA seminar finally was held. „What will power Europe’s future? Nuclear Energy: Hope, Disaster, Flawed Alternative“ attracted some 60 people in Dublin’s Conference Center. EUSJA’s honorary secretary Wolfgang C. Goede explained Germany’s surprising turnaround to renewable energy in the wake of the Fukushima disaster on March 11, 2011, and the impact of journalism.

The 3/11 psychological fallout hit Germany and caused deep concern. The following Monday the country’s leading news magazine „Der Spiegel“ declared the „end of nuclear age“. As the public fiercely debated the security of nuclear power plants, the conservative-liberal coalition lost the state elections in Baden-Württemberg (Stuttgard region). Chancelor Merkel panicked. While she had launched efforts to overthrow a nuclear moratorium of the previous coalition of socialdemocrats and the green party (Schroeder/Fischer), aimed to phase out nuclear power generation in Germany, Ms. Merkel all of sudden changed around and declared Germany nuclear-free by 2022. So this decision had been the result of a political move to please the electorate and stay in power.

German anxiety about the perils of atomic power goes back to the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986. This was like a Big Bang which caused great alarm and pulled the plug on nuclear power in Germany. The explosion of the Sovjet reactor resulted in a communication implosion on all levels, both in communist Russia and Germany. Facts were withheld, scientists contradicted themselves which resulted in a great confusion and fear in the German public. Again, the media played a decisive role. While the „Spiegel“ took a leading role in the Fukushima event, some media tried to ignore the Chernobyl disaster, for example the weekly magazine „Stern“ and the daily „Frankfurter Allgemeine“, the German Wall Street Journal. The latter took this position because of „economic reasons“ as one editor later revealed. All this propelled a grassroots search for alternative energies and made Germany a „Solar World Power“ (Bob Johnstone in: “Switching to Solar, Prometheus Book).

Some of the panelists: Ed Sykes (UK Science Media Centre), Viola Egikova, Barbie Drillsma and Japanese science journalist Mariko Takahashi from Asahi Shimbun.

Since the very first ESOF in Stockholm EUSJA has investigated in its seminars the adequate role of science journalism in society. (ESOF 2004 Stockholm: Are Sci Journs loudspeakers? // ESOF 2006 Munich:Spot the Spin! // ESOF 2008 Barcelona: How Sci Journs support(ed) totalitarian systems // ESOF 2010 Torino: Change End of Pipe into START OF PIPE Debates!). The message of ESOF Dublin 2012 is: Cheerleaders: Flip the Coin! In short, if we don’t want to reduce ourselves to loudspeakers, „auditors“ (Kaianders Sempler//Sweden) or communicators of science, we need to look underneath, behind, all over. Where the sun shines is also shadow, said already Aristoteles.

This needs to be implemented on a European level. The term “Science in Society” needs to be reframed and changed into “Society in Science” and integrated into “Horizon 2020”. The main question remains whether major research projects such as nuclear fusion really meet the needs of the citizenry. The provocative question regarding so called breakthroughs in particle physics is: Does the God Particle ban God from the universe, as the catholic church claims – or the tax payers and the electorate from European science, as some NGOs view the CERN revelations? If science and science policy want to become sustainable, don’t we need more participation, in other words: Can innovation without representation work?

In an attempt to advance this, the German Association of Science Writers TELI has suggested to establish a “Science Journalists’ House of Debate”. It’s based on the Galileo model which places the citizens, taxpayers and consumers in the center of society, whereas institutions and officials revolve around this core. Debates facilitated by sci journs bridge the gap between scientists, politicians and lay men on topics such as energy, nutrition, demography, health: “Major surgery and prostheses only until 60” could be the title of such a debate, which initially is triggered in the internet and then becomes real and face to face. Especially in election times this could be a very useful tool to put science on the political agenda!

 

This new methodology applies to all kinds of scientific issues, above all energy. The hazards of nuclear power cannot be ignored. For example, the prestigious Max Planck Institute of Chemistry has found: Major nuclear accidents could occur in Europe once every decade – the risk is 200 times higher than estimated. Furthermore, there is no

protection for nuclear power plants against natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis, especially in Japan. Lastly, the storage of nuclear waste has not been resolved yet. So nuclear power is up in the air and has been operating already for 50 years without a sound foundation.

 

Likewise this criticism also applies to other forms of energy, of course also to renewable energy. Its pitfalls are: The majority of the German population resents new power lines. Wind and solar energy need vast storage facilities which have not been invented yet. Every household would need tons of lead for the batteries. If we wanted to use water, storage reservoirs much larger than Lake Constance were needed. Taking these findings to a debate, its focus would be: “Electricity as expensive as gasoline?”

To cope with these hazards and pitfalls science journalists need navigation. Dorothy Nelkin’s book “Selling Science” (Freeman Company) examines the understanding of science journalists. The scope ranges from the cheerleader type of writer to the more critical representatives of this profession. “True descendants of Prometheus, science writers take the fire from the scientific olympus … and bring it down to the people”, W. Laurence is quoted. On the other side, E. Ubell goes on record with: “I’m neither proscience nor antiscience. To me as a reporter, the scientist is just like a rat is to you. I’m looking at you through my microscope ….” Last but not least, Germany’s renowned Hajo Friedrichs claimed: “As a journalist I don’t chum up with any cause, even if it is a good one.”

Depletion, pollution, unconditional growth:The catholic church has warned that we’ll need a new planet by 2030, if we don’t change our way of thinking and living, our economy and research, and, equally important, journalism. The condensed version of this wake-up call reads: Ship out – or shape up!

Another thorough look at the situation, but from another geographical angle took Mariko Takahashi, editor of Asahi Shimbun, with a circulation of near 10 million copies one of the largest newspapers of the world. In her presentation, she made three points:

 

Ed Sykes, from the UK Science Media Centre, illustrated the point of view of the International network of Science Media Centres, that includes a Japanese centre that dealt with the Fukushima crisis.

Firstly, European countries like UK, Italy and Germany lacked fact checking skills in their reports on the Fukushima disaster which resulted in a media meltdown. “They were printing rumors, sensations, hysterical fear-mongering along with racial, cultural and political bias”, Takahashi criticized. In a “wall of shame”, establishedby the Japanese media, these countries along with the US hold a prominent position.

Actually, the human damage was very low for an accident of this category. This view was shared by another panelist, Edward Sykes from Science Media Center in London. Two fatalities were reported and “the level of radiation exposure of Japanese was very low”, reported Ms. Takahashi and “no local resident in Fukushima was exposed to high dose radiation”.

Secondly, the disaster opened up new avenues of thinking, continued the Japanese guest speaker.Before Fukushima, nobody in Japan really believed that there was an alternative to nuclear energy. Now people are warming up to embrace solar and wind power as a new means to meet their energy needs.

Thirdly, struck by this unprecedented disaster the Japanese science journalists stayed cool and did a good job to assess contamination levels, identify the hazardous zones and explore what kind of protection was warranted. So they accomplished something which Chernobyl had grossly missed: making the science behind the meltdown transparent and providing orientation in an extremely stressful situation for the population.

Japanese engineer Fumio Arakawa, member of the Global Engineering Institute in Tokyo.

Takahashi’s Japanese counterpart on the EUSJA panel was the engineer Fumio Arakawa, member of the Global Engineering Institute in Tokyo. While Takahashi left the future open as for the prospective energy policy and the lessons learned from Fukushima, Arakawa strongly demanded the application of more ethical standards in engineering regarding its impact on society. He alluded to the fact that Japan’s electricity companies never had left any doubt that nuclear power was the country’s only resource which could be judged as manipulative. Now it’s time to reassess the options, said Arakawa, and make an all-out effort to reform the country, “overcome the monetary infected society”, “draw the road map to a socio energy community”, in short, “get rid of the energy wasting society”, said Arakawa, who is considered by his fellow countrymen some kind of Japanese Don Quijote.

Viola Egikova, EUSJA vice president and senior science editor at Moscow’s daily Moskovskaya Pravda, took the floor as a discussant and reflected briefly on the Chernobyl disaster. She made a strong point that science journalists tend to be the “scapegoats” of society. So journalists were not informed by the Sovjet officials when the reactor exploded, but were blamed for the lack of information. When they finally learned about the accident almost two days later they were not allowed to write about it. “Until today, we don’t know the truth”, Ms. Egikova told the audience. She regretted that transparency is not common though, neither in Russia nor in the rest of the industrial world and countries with more democratic traditions. The nuclear accidents at Sellarfield, UK, in the years 1957 und 2004 as well as Three Mile Island, USA, in the year 1979 were also handled very badly, observed the Russian panelist. “We often don’t realize that we are subject of manipulation”, she concluded. Science journalists must work harder to get their stories right.

Jim Cornell, president of the International Science Writers Association ISWA, who had helped to engineer the seminar, could not attend the conference. He had phrased the title, which was very well received by the audience and had contributed to balance the seminar between pro and contra, which is the golden rule of journalism in the Anglo-Saxon world. If present, Cornell would have taken a close look at Washington’s energy policy under president Obama. The United States has traditionally counted on nuclear energy, but Fukushima has stirred doubts and generated more interest in saving energy and rely more on solar and wind power.

EUSJA president Barbara Drillsma, a member of the Association of British Science Writers ABSW, moderated the session. She and the producer Hanns-J. Neubert, former EUSJA president and president of the German Science Writers Association TELI, had thought up a new scheme to facilitate the seminar. First of all, they gathered the panelists for a rehearsal, so that they could become acquainted with each other, share their content with the moderator, while the producer made sure that they stuck to their time allotment and presented their findings in the most cheerful and participative manner. During the session the audience were seated at round tables in the room. After their presentation, the panelists and discussants joined them. That broke up the rigid top down conference style and made everyone feel more integrated, adequate and equivalent. Every table discussed separately the contents and the outcome of the seminar. This exchange revolved around two questions. What do the statements specifically mean for Europe’s energy future, and what in particular for the performance of science journalists on the continent. After ten minutes a spokesperson delivered every table’s result.

In the conventional perception there is no scientific truth. Research results usually cause a mulitude of scientific opinions. That’s the reason why science journalists have to speak to as many scientists as possible, before they offer an insight view and orientation. From the experts’ view, security comes always first, claimed a table of nine engineers from throughout Europe. Safety is paramount to all political and economic constraints. The public has always the right to first-hand information.Governments, political institutions, scientific and research organizations and their respective speakers must live up to this reponsibility. All in all, science is never an independent entity, but rather embedded in society with many stakeholders, with the public being its principal constituent.

About EUSJA Board

The board of Eusja is currently composed by Barbie Drillsma (United Kingdom, President), Viola Egikova (Russia, Vice-president), Priit Ennet (Estonia, Treasurer), Wolfgang Goede (Germany, Hon. Secretary) and Menelaos Sotiriou (Greece, co-opted member).