The Columbus Free Press

This Is Your Life, Atomic Flackery!

by Norman Solomon, Apr. 25, 1997

Born more than 50 years ago as an instant luminary, you're still going strong today. This is your life, Atomic Flackery!

Some call you a has-been. No way. Just the other night, Mr. Flackery, you triumphed again when the PBS program "Frontline" hoisted you on its broad public-TV shoulders. The New York Times cheered, and so did the nuclear industry.

But that's nothing new. In the 1950s, you came up with President Eisenhower's oratory about "Atoms for Peace." Ever since, you've been telling Americans not to be scaredy-cats.

During the spring of 1979, you inspired George Will to write a Newsweek column denouncing "The China Syndrome" -- which dramatized a nuclear reactor accident -- as hysterical Hollywood propaganda. "Nuclear plants," he scoffed, "like color-TV sets, give off minute amounts of radiation."

A few days later, however, a lot of people in Pennsylvania stopped laughing at nuclearphobia when the Three Mile Island plant came close to turning much of the state into a nuclear wasteland.

It was a setback, Mr. Flackery. But as a great counter-puncher, you never took unfortunate events lying down. And you're still slugging away.

The New York Times has published many dozens of editorials extolling the virtues of nuclear power. So, Times television critic Walter Goodman was in sync April 22 as he praised the "Frontline" nuclear documentary right before it aired on PBS.

"Frontline" recycled themes from a pro-nuclear hour that NBC News produced in 1987, soon after NBC was bought by General Electric -- the nation's second-largest vendor of nuclear power reactors. These days, CBS News employees are also in no position to scrutinize nuclear matters now that CBS belongs to Westinghouse, another firm heavily invested in atomic power.

TV viewers might have hoped that PBS -- "public television" -- would be different. But you, Mr. Flackery, didn't miss a beat. Echoing what NBC/GE provided 10 years ago, "Frontline" proclaimed that nuclear power works in France, where people "trust their experts."

The narration was soothing. It contrasted sober "risk analysis" with fearful "risk perception" by "ordinary people." Overall, "Frontline" depicted worries about nuclear power as functions of ignorance.

I spoke with the producer in charge of the documentary, Jon Palfreman, the day after it aired. He admitted that he hadn't bothered to interview a single anti-nuclear scientist for the program, which showcased several scientists enthusiastic about nuclear power.

Palfreman told me he'd stuck to "credible, mainstream scientists" -- in other words, the ones accepting the rosy assumptions of the nuclear industry.

In the glowing spirit of Mr. Flackery, the "Frontline" narrator Richard Rhodes intoned that "no one was injured or killed in the accident" at Three Mile Island. Later, he widened the assertion: "In America, there have been no deaths or injuries from nuclear accidents in commercial power plants."

But two months before that claim went on the air as supposed fact, The Washington Post published a very different news report: "Researchers have linked radiation releases from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant to higher cancer rates in nearby communities."

The findings appeared in the Feb. 24 edition of the journal of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Science. As the Post reported, the study concluded that neighbors who were exposed to radioactive releases "suffered two to 10 times as many lung cancer and leukemia cases as those who lived upwind."

When I asked Palfreman about those findings, he said they were not worth mentioning in the "Frontline" documentary.

Also judged irrelevant was the Ukrainian government's estimate of at least 8,000 deaths due to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. Acknowledgment of that figure would have made it tough for "Frontline" to stick with its script: "The actual death toll from Chernobyl is surprisingly low. Thirty-one firefighters died in the accident. So far, leukemia and adult cancers have not measurably increased."

And so it goes, Mr. Flackery. You're still on the case. And your favorite pro-nuclear hat trick is still in use: "Frontline" showed a piece of paper blocking plutonium's radioactive rays. No need to explain how tiny particles of plutonium, cesium, strontium and many other isotopes do horrendous damage to human bodies if swallowed or inhaled.

This is your life, Atomic Flackery! There's so much more to say about your achievements, but we're out of time.

Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His book Wizards of Media Oz (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) will be published in June by Common Courage Press.

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