Atoning for Environmentalism

To PBS Frontline Producer, Scientists Critical of Nuclear Power Are 'Flat Earthers'

"Electricity from nuclear fission continues to be the most comprehensive source of energy available to meet growing U.S. demand," declared Richard Rhodes, beginning his 1993 book Nuclear Renewal. He ended it 126 pages later declaring "whether it will be or not depends on leadership and public education."

Rhodes and John Palfreman made their contribution to this pro-nuclear power "public education" with an hour-long Frontline program, "Nuclear Reaction," broadcast on PBS on April 22—Earth Day. Rhodes served as correspondent, Palfreman as producer and writer. "Nuclear Reaction" was essentially a TV version of Nuclear Renewal. It maintained that irrational fear is the chief reason nuclear power has been rejected in the U.S.

The program has generated intense criticism. Nobel laureate Henry W. Kendall, professor of physics at MIT and chair of the Union of Concerned Scientists, called it "seriously unbalanced" and, in a letter to Frontline executives, accused it of "serious omissions and incorrect statements." Dr. Michio Kaku, professor of nuclear physics at the City University of New York, described the program as "representing a fringe element within the nuclear establishment."

Rhodes could not be reached for comment. Palfreman, however, in an hour-long interview with Extra!, stressed that he does not see a "scientific debate" as far as radioactivity and other dangers of nuclear power are concerned. That is why, he explained, he did not arrange for any scientists critical of nuclear power to be on "Nuclear Reaction." The Chernobyl nuclear plant accident, for example, was in the "basic ballpark of industrial disasters." As for the normal operation of a nuclear plant, "if you live at the boundary fence of one of these things" a person would receive less radioactivity than "if you sleep next to somebody for eight hours. You’re getting as much [radioactivity] from their body," he said.

To have included anti-nuclear scientists, he said, would "give the impression of a scientific debate when there isn’t one." The issue he set out to explore, he said, was the public’s unjustified nuclear fears.

As to the airing of the program by Frontline, Palfreman, who said he was a senior producer for the PBS program for four years before forming his own production company 10 months ago, described it as "really, essentially we’re atoning." Frontline took "some sort of liberal, environmental kind of stances up until three or four years ago," said Palfreman. "They did shows on Frontline in the 1980s that were very credulous," raising environmental issues and being "just basically wrong."

Now, he said, there is "concern" at Frontline about the

anti-scientistic notion in the culture at the moment, that basically everybody’s afraid of everything, you know, and there’s a lack of sort of rationality out there and so forth and that basically good journalism has to sort of get to grips with it. At the moment, it seems there is more nonsense, it seems to me, being talked by environmental groups than by corporations. People like Ralph Nader, it’s amazing, they’ve have had such an easy time of it from the press. The press has been asleep on this issue.

TV’s Lonely Scientist

Palfreman noted that he "was trained as a physicist," received an undergraduate degree in physics and a masters in the history and philosophy of science in England. After working for the BBC, he came to the U.S. in 1989, joining Nova and then Frontline. He described himself as specializing in "political, policy subjects" and said that aside from himself, "there are no political journalists on television who have any sort of scientific knowledge."

"Nuclear Reaction" took $450,000 to make, said Palfreman. Most of the money came from PBS through Frontline and was "public money." Some $150,000 of it, said Palfreman, came from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Established in 1934 by Sloan—who was president and later chair of General Motors between 1923 and 1946—the foundation currently includes among its trustees retired GM chair Roger Smith, of Michael Moore’s Roger and Me. Part of the Sloan Foundation’s mission is to "stimulate a more realistic portrayal of scientists and engineers," according to its literature, and seek "to reach a wider audience about the importance of science and technology through such mass media as commercial television and films." The foundation earlier helped Rhodes publish two of his books, The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Dark Sun: The Making of The Hydrogen Bomb.

Prior Frontline documentaries by Palfreman include "Breast Implants on Trial" (2/27/96), which attacked reports of health problems caused by Dow’s silicone breast implants, and "Currents of Fear" (6/13/95), which cast doubt on the health impacts of the electromagnetic fields (EMF) generated by power lines and other electric systems. Louis Slesin, editor and publisher of Microwave News and a specialist on EMF, described "Currents of Fear" as "a one-sided show in which Palfreman shopped for quotes to support his predetermined position."

Palfreman said his next Frontline project involves Gulf War Syndrome. He said he wants to show that neither chemicals nor depleted uranium had anything to do with health problems experienced by Gulf War vets. "Basically," he said, "the angle I’m taking is that it’s very hard to make all that stuff stand up and why in our culture we have rejected psychogenic explanations for certain illnesses, such as stress."

Contaminated Debate

"Nuclear Reaction" received a glowing review by Walter Goodman, the New York Times’ establishment-defending TV critic (4/22/97). "Explosive reactions to ‘Nuclear Reaction’ are to be expected from the anti-nuclear cadres. Fine," concluded Goodman. "Let’s hope they will make their case with scientific evidence, as Mr. Rhodes did tonight, rather than with the toxic imagery that has contaminated the debate."

"Nuclear Reaction" has indeed been criticized sharply on scientific grounds. Among the program’s dubious claims:

  • "The actual death toll from Chernobyl is surprisingly low," said "Nuclear Reaction." "Thirty-one firefighters died in the accident. So far, leukemia and adult cancers have not measurably increased." Bill Magavern of Ralph Nader’s Critical Mass Energy Project referred to Frontline’s number as "the old Soviet lie," noting that "Chernobyl death toll estimates vary widely, from 8,000 to 148,000—31 is preposterous." (The 8,000 figure is the Ukrainian government’s official estimate.) MIT’s Kendall cites thyroid cancer rates "up by a factor of 285 in Belarus." Meanwhile, Palfreman told Extra! that the 31-person Chernobyl death count was too high. "Two of them were probably cardiac cases," he said.
  • "Nuclear critics concede that a normally operating plant may not pose a major threat," said "Nuclear Reaction." Dr. Jay M. Gould, author of Deadly Deceit: Low-Level Radioactivity, High Level Cover-Up, responded: "In fact, even the routine operation of a nuclear power plant releases bone-seeking radioactive strontium-90 and other poisons and my research has shown these routine operations have caused an increased level of cancer near nuclear reactors." Also, noted CUNY’s Michio Kaku, "Nuclear Reaction" did not consider the "enormous fuel cycle hazards—mining and milling of uranium, transportation, and the generation of incredibly dangerous nuclear waste."
  • "Nuclear reactors can’t blow up like nuclear bombs," said "Nuclear Reaction." "That’s not the point," said Kaku. Conventional nuclear plants "can and have undergone steam explosions blowing out the radionuclides inside." David Lochbaum, a senior nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists who worked for 17 years at nuclear power plants, commented: "The main thing is that a nuclear meltdown can lead to an uncontrolled release of significant quantities of radioactive material—we don’t get a mushroom cloud, but do get a dispersal of radioactive isotopes." Moreover, breeder reactors, urged in "Nuclear Renewal" by Rhodes, can explode like nuclear bombs (The Accident: Hazards of Nuclear Power Plants by Richard E. Webb).
  • "The cores of American reactors are surrounded by massive containment domes. Even if an accident occurred, the argument goes, the radioactive material would be confined inside the plant," said "Nuclear Reaction." But Lochbaum cited projections by Harold Denton, former director of the Office of Nuclear Regulation at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, that nuclear plant containments "would not work 90 percent of the time with a severe core melt accident. The energy released would cause the containment to fail." In congressional testimony, then—Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner James Asselstine said that "we can expect to see a core meltdown accident within the next 20 years" with possibly "off-site releases of radiation which are as large as, or larger than, the releases estimated to have occurred at Chernobyl."
  • "No one was injured or killed in the [Three Mile Island] accident," said "Nuclear Reaction." But epidemiologist Steve Wing of the School of Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-investigators (Environmental Health Perspectives, 1/97) found a significant increase in cancer in areas around the TMI plant since the 1979 accident. Harvey Wasserman, a senior advisor to Greenpeace USA, noted that the program "made no reference to the people in Pennsylvania who sued" for damages as a result of illness and death they suffered due to the TMI accident. These people have been compensated by the owner of the nuclear plant—"some $15 million so far." Palfreman’s response: "When people settle a claim [it is] to make you go away. It doesn’t say ‘I admitted this.’"

Balance Urged

Before the program aired, Magavern of Critical Mass complained to David Fanning, senior executive producer of Frontline. "I am very concerned that the Frontline show Palfreman is producing will be extremely biased," he wrote.

During the interviews with me and Nader, Palfreman went well beyond asking questions—he consistently advocated pro-nuclear positions. . . . He was extremely argumentative. In fact, Nader, who must be one of the more interviewed people on the planet, said he’d never seen anything like it. He was very upset by Palfreman’s unprofessional journalism. I urge you to watch the unedited videotape of the interviews and judge for yourself whether Palfreman was engaged in an attempt to gather information for a balanced report or an effort to argue the pro-nuclear position.

Palfreman told Extra!: "Ralph Nader is the most argumentative, aggressive person in the world. The idea that little me is argumentative against a figure like that is amazing."

Scott Denman, director of Safe Energy Communication Council, also a month before "Nuclear Reaction" aired, urged Frontline to include scientists critical of nuclear power on the program. "The filmmakers started out with a bias and developed their story around that bias: that scientists believe that the risks associated with nuclear power are acceptable and that citizens are simply afraid of nuclear power," said Denman. "The fact is that the filmmakers were afraid of the truth because they refused to interview a Nobel laureate like Dr. Kendall and other award-winning scientists who differ with their bias."

Palfreman said that he considers most scientists with reservations about nuclear power as "flat-earthers," the "fringe."

According to Frontline publicist Rick Byrne, in the program’s 15 years it has only aired one program before "Nuclear Reaction" that touched on nuclear power: "The Politics of Power." The 1992 program (10/20/92), a co-production with the Center for Investigative Reporting, looked at the Bush administration’s National Energy Strategy, dealing in part with the drive—still pushed by the nuclear industry—for what the documentary termed a "revival" of nuclear power.

Danny Schechter, executive producer at Globalvision, which, until four years ago, produced documentaries for Frontline, writes in his just-published book, The More You Watch, The Less You Know, that Frontline "began to transform itself in the mid-1990s, moving away from hard-edge investigative reporting." He feels Frontline has been moving in a conservative direction; in the book he cites "Nuclear Reaction" as an example of Frontline’s "work . . . usually of a high standard" having been "cut back or moved rightward."

That’s "baloney," said Palfreman. Schechter has

some notion of what? Fear of funding being pulled? It’s essential that Frontline has funding that’s basically immune from all those things, and it is immune from pretty much everything like that. I mean, it comes from public money. It was under stress. There was a time when PBS, when Gingrich came in, but that’s just kind of fizzled and so forth and everything—there was a time when the whole of PBS, not just Frontline, looked kind of vulnerable like that. But now I think what’s actually happened is that basically there’s been a recognition that the quality of journalism in certain areas was really very low and these are highly technical areas.

Palfreman concluded: "If it turns out that people have particular predispositions to agendas . . . then you expect to get a certain kind of story." He didn’t seem to be referring to himself.