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Statement from All of Us at Social Media Today, Hosts of The Energy Collective

In the past few days, the member bloggers of The Energy Collective have engaged in an active discussion about the unfolding disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan. We have published a number of reports and analyses on Fukushima, written by analysts on all sides of the nuclear energy debate.

One analysis in particular, by MIT economist Joseph Oehmen, has become the most heavily trafficked post in the history of The Energy Collective. Because Dr. Oehmen’s article has attracted a great deal of critical scrutiny, both on our site and on other sites, we are taking this opportunity to clear up a few popular misconceptions about the post and about The Energy Collective.

Dr. Oehmen is an economist and mechanical engineer who holds a research position at MIT’s Lean Advancement Initiative. Last weekend Dr. Oehmen sent a lengthy email to relatives in Japan, providing technical background on the Fukushima crisis and arguing, based on information available to him at the time, that the reactor failures did not represent a significant risk to human health.

The email was then reproduced on the blog of Dr. Barry Brook, a climate scientist at Adelaide University in Australia who is also a featured blogger on The Energy Collective. We republished the post because it provided a great deal of useful background on nuclear plant construction, much of which has been missing from mainstream media coverage of the disaster. It’s important to note, however, that publishing Dr. Oehmen’s argument did not mean that we endorsed or refuted his relatively optimistic take on the Fukushima disaster.

Over the past few days, a great deal more information has emerged about the situation at Fukushima, requiring Dr. Oehmen’s factual account to be revised in light of current events. This work was undertaken by members of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering (NSE). We have posted the edited version on The Energy Collective. You can also read it on the NSE site.

The Energy Collective is an independent, moderated community of professionals focused on the complex challenges of meeting the world’s energy needs sustainably. Our members are our content contributors, and include leading scientists, activists, policy makers, executives and entrepreneurs. We receive sponsorship support from Siemens Energy, but Siemens has no influence over our editorial process.  

Our members’ perspectives are as diverse as their backgrounds, but all share a commitment to respectful discourse and an appetite for innovation. We know that consensus on the way forward can only be achieved when stakeholders from all sides of the energy and climate debate have a seat at the table. This is especially true today as the global energy community debates the future of nuclear power in light of the Fukushima tragedy.

Robin Carey's picture

Thank Robin for the Post!

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David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on March 17, 2011

As of now they are considering whether to send suicide squads into the reactors in Japan to control what is happening at any cost.  The perceived largest possible threat in some minds, given national news coverage such as MSNBC’s blithe unsubstantiable pronouncement that 1 million people died or are dying because of what happened at Chernobyl is that Tokyo’s habitability is at risk.  

It so happens that there are calm, well informed to the extreme, voices who have thought about what can happen if an American designed reactor melts down who are saying fears like this are grossly out of touch with reality.  

 I wonder why two posts I have submitted containing the thoughts of one of thse people, i.e. Ted Rockwell, Technical Director of the US Navy program that built the first commercial nuclear reactor in the world, have yet to be posted here.  You can walk into any US nuclear reactor control room today and if they have someone there who was part of that program hired by Rickover they are proud of it and they let you know.  The US naval reactor program has an impeccable record.  Rockwell was Rickover’s right hand man.  I’m not saying his is the last word on the subject of what the threat is, but his voice is certainly a voice that should be heard, and given that people are preparing to die at the moment one wonders what could possibly be holding you back from posting his views. 

It is an amazing contrast, what is happening with this nuclear issue here and what happens here with climate change.  You can post all manner of ill informed gibberish, such as people who claim nothing can happen as a result of the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and your words will not be sent to some university department for vetting before being posted on some other site while TEC itself distances itself from them making sure to call climate change an ongoing disaster.  

Fukushima is immediate, vital, and serious.  Yet whatever happens as a result, even if it is Chernobyl times ten, it is dwarfed by the potential of climate change.  Hansen writes that the inhabitability of the planet itself is at stake. The current President of the National Academy of Sciences is on record calling Hansen the best climatologist that there is.   I’m not calling for special treatment for climate or nuclear.  

I’m questioning this policy on nuclear.  Your policy on both issues should be the same.  

If you can’t post thoughts from a source like Ted on an energy issue like this at a time like this, you’ll have to consider changing your name.  The playpen, maybe.  TPP.  What we do here is fool around pretending we discuss significant matters, but when the sh*t hits the fan and it looks like too many in the outside world are tuning in to see what we’re up to, we get nervous.  We’re afraid to try to be a place where the best minds in civilization would turn to at a moment like this.   

Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on March 17, 2011

Hi David:

I am the moderator at TEC. TEC itself does not have a policy on anything- nuclear power or on climate change. TEC serves as a forum for professionals to, like yourself, submit content. You were recently featured making the points above, and received exposure to thousands of readers. However, TEC does not guarantee that all posts submitted by users will be published.

Thank you for your contributions.

Sincerely, Amelia

Amelia Timbers's picture
Amelia Timbers on March 17, 2011

Hi John,

As I mentioned above, I’m the content manager at TEC. I published the article. For better and worse, it was some of the only information on Fukushima at the time. I don’t get the impression anyone meant to be deceitful about risk. If someone had submitted another post the same day cogently arguing the other direction, it would have also gone up in the same location. 

Location on our site does not reflect endorsement; nothing on our site reflects endorsement. As I emphasized to David above, TEC itself has no policies. What I want is to provide a forum for professionals to engage in a high level discussion *about* policy. If you’ll notice, this occurs almost nowhere else on the web regarding energy/climate issues. And it really doesn’t occur with the diversity of voices you can find on TEC. For example, despite what turned out to be inaccuracy in the article, the comments illustrate a high value discussion of professionals from around the globe debating the facts in the article.

There was no intentional misrepresentation anywhere along this path. In the context of an emergency, where information is imperfect and incomplete, and especially where there’s now obvious communication issues at the highest levels- it’s a crunch for everyone. Everyone was doing what they thought was right at the time. That is certainly true on my end.

 

Cheers, Amelia

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on March 17, 2011

Without taking anything away from the seriousness of the unfolding situation in Japan, but as someone whose work appears here often, and proudly, I’m concerned by some of the reactions I’m seeing to the original posting in question.  Although TEC hosts many fine blogs from a diversity of viewpoints as Robin notes above, readers would be mistaken to treat these blogs as more than what they are: opinion pieces, however educated and experienced the authors may be in their subjects, and neither peer-reviewed science nor the kind of fact-checked articles one finds on major news sites.  The same caveats apply as if one were investing on the basis of something found on the Opinion pages of the Wall St. Journal, rather than the news pages.

The whole point of blogging about energy issues is to shine a light on them from a different perspective than the mainstream media, whose writers are rarely experts in the subject matter, but who have the resources of sprawling global news organizations to draw on.  So even though I’ve been blogging about energy for going on eight years, I can assure you that when something blows up, my firstsource for real-time information on it is not going to be a blog, unless I can’t find anything on it after a thorough Internet search of authoritative sources.  Anyone not taking what they read in various social media with a large grain of salt, and treating it as something for which they are at least equally responsible for fact-checking, is inviting trouble.  That’s not a critique of social media, but merely an attribute of them that can be a pro or con, depending on the circumstances.

As a result, I’m perplexed by the whole fracas over Dr. Brooks’s posting of Dr. Oehmen’s description of the situation, which I have read in both its original and revised versions.  I saw his optimistic take on events as just another data point, offsetting some of the histrionics I was seeing elsewhere.  I’m reminded of some of the more extreme views of so-called experts concerning how far the spill from Deepwater Horizon would ultimately extend, and what the consequences would be.  As far as I know, no one has been called on the carpet because of such overblown predictions, nor should they be, unless they were made in sworn testimony.  While TEC may have responsibilities concerning how it vets the bloggers it features, don’t readers also have responsibilities concerning how they treat the views they see here?

Geoffrey Styles's picture
Geoffrey Styles on March 17, 2011

That started when news departments began to be treated as part of the “entertainment” divisions.  Mainstream media aren’t what they used to be, but they still have resources that I envy.

David Lewis's picture
David Lewis on March 17, 2011

I found myself looking at the mainstream media sources, and looking, and looking, and obviously up came some gems, but the way this is being covered astonishes me.  Its (Fukushima) getting better as time goes on, I feel.  I respect you for putting that written statement up there by the way.  

I’ve looked to the future of gathering information with a lot of confidence and that belief has not been shaken even in the face of report after report of cutbacks at the great news organizations.  I never saw them as faultless.  I remember the day, not the date, when the paper of record in Canada took editorial direction from its owners and started reporting climate science as other than what it was and moving the issue from its front page.  That was a very long time ago, in the early 1990s.  

Times have changed since when Hemmingway worked for a major outlet and told the world with a straight face he felt they cared deeply about the truth.  Maybe we are degenerating for the moment, but greatness is there for any group at any time they want to wake up and start doing it.  And what’s left of the news organizations, as can be said for any number of institutions in Western Civilization, is better than it sometimes seems we deserve to have inherited.  

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