Coverage of nuclear incident: a tale of two newspapers

Two reports on the “incident” at the Pelindaba nuclear facility yesterday, one from Beeld, and one from The Times. You tell me which does the best job of informing its readers (Beeld’s  report is in Afrikaans, I’m afraid… I’ll translate later today when I have time).

Here’s my answer: The Times, using spokesmen of the anti-nuclear lobby as its primary sources, says “alarm bells are ringing” about safety at the nuclear facility, compares the incident to the Cherbnobyl disaster and hints that the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation may hiding something.

If you lived near Pelindaba and you read The Times’ story, you’d be scared. Very scared.

But was it really that serious? Not if Beeld’s  report is to be believed. A small amount of radio-active gas, a by-product of producing isotopes for medical diagnostic purposes, escaped. The gas is only dangerous when directly inhaled; in fact, the factory normally releases it via smokestacks into the atmosphere, where it disperses harmlessly. The amount of gas that escaped yesterday was below the daily of gas released during the normal production processes, although it was released in a shorter time span. The incident was localised, and quickly blew over (pardon the pun). Nobody was in danger at any time. Beeld’s sources are the SA Nuclear Energy Corporation, its CEO DR Rob Adam, and an “informed source familair with Pelindaba’s operations”.

The Times’ story is sheer sensationalism, calculated to frighten and alarm rather than inform. Beeld’s report informs. The one newspaper has done its job; the other hasn’t.

Before you start shouting, oh, but Beeld takes the official sources at face value: yes, it may be that all Beeld’s  sources are lying. But the two primary sources both commented on the record, and if something were more seriously wrong than they’re admitting, they will find it very hard to justify their comments later. And Beeld took the trouble to check their story with a third source (who would have had more credibility, it has to be said, if he/she has been prepared to go on the record). By contrast, The Times’ sources raise a number of spurious issues for which there is no evidence, or which are flatly contradicted by the available evidence.

To give you an example, the newspaper quotes Mike Kantey, of the Coalition Against Nuclear Energy in South Africa, as saying:  “My major concern is whether there was iodine present in the gases emitted. If there was, we could be sitting with a big problem.” He then explains that iodine “was responsible for the severe illnesses caused by the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union, in 1986”. But why is Kantey asking the question about iodine? We know exactly which gases we’re talking about, and there is no iodine involved. To get around this, Kantey hints that the corporation is hiding something: “We just can’t take the corporation’s word for it.”

Then comes the give-away. Asked whether he thought residents in the area should be evacuated, Kantey responds that he would “wait for more details before raising the alarm”. But he has already raised the alarm! If he really is as concerned about the danger as he lets on, it surely is his duty to call for an evacuation of the area.

Methinks in this case The Times allowed its sources to lead it by the nose. Those sources have a clear agenda, though why they should be directing their opposition at Pelindaba I don’t know. Pelindaba is not a nuclear energy plant. It produces radio-active isotopes used in medical diagnostics and treatments. It saves lives.

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3 Responses to Coverage of nuclear incident: a tale of two newspapers

  1. Ray H says:

    Robert,
    I hope you are right. But I think that it’s always a good idea to seek comment outside of those who have a direct interest in a story. We did carry the Pelindaba official view very prominently, but thought it important to canvas some critical opinion.

  2. Robert says:

    Thanks for the response Ray. You’re right about seeking independent comment, but your two sources are not independent – they are in the anti-nuclear lobby, so have a clear agenda.

  3. mike kantey says:

    We have a nuclear agenda that seeks clarity on the risks, dangers and costs. We feel that these risks, dangers and costs are unacceptable — especially when one considers the case of 500 sick former NECSA workers and the contamination of fresh water and soils. On this particular occasion I contacted the NNR (which is supposed to be independent of NECSA) and was given assurances that the contamination was contained within the complex, and that is why I did not call for evacuation.

    If you were to make your pro-nuclear position more obvious, Robert, we might even have a reasonable debate on the matter. You seem to know more about Pelindaba’s operations than anyone else: is there a connection?

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