Have sympathy, readers

I’ve finished Day 2 of the McCormick Institute seminar on nuclear energy. The goal of the seminar is to help reporters cover nuclear energy issues fairly. The result, so far, is to remind me how impossible it is to provide balanced coverage.

The dean of UT’s nuclear engineering department is an ardent proponent of nuclear energy. He’s a bit weak on facts, but big on patriotism. He was explaining, with arms waving, that Chernobyl only killed a dozen people. I don’t know how accurate that is, but I know a Chernobyl at Browns Ferry would wipe out Decatur and Huntsville. I complained that reporters can’t count on TVA officials to be unbiased, but we thought we could count on university experts. Not him, apparently, although other UT folks seemed more reasonable.

On the other side is the panelist from the Union of Concerned Scientists. He seems to see everything nuclear as a doomsday device.

A New York Times reporter, also a panelist, and incredibly knowledgeable on all things nuclear, started his presentation saying, “Nuclear energy is a business, not a religion.” He was, I think, expressing my concern.

There is no way I, as a reporter for the Daily with a beat that occasionally includes Browns Ferry, can understand the details of nuclear energy. I need to be able to count on experts. What I have found in the past, and I have found in this seminar, is that there are few unbiased experts. What do we do as reporters? Do we give two extreme views, leaving readers as confused as we are? Do we spend a week on the issue and trust our 1-week training to lead us to the correct result?

I’ll keep doing my best. But readers, please be patient. We live downwind of three nuclear reactors, and I have yet to understand how much that should worry us. What I do know is that another Chernobyl would have different results in North Alabama than it did in rural Russia.

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