Last night, a firefight between Russian and Ukrainian forces at the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant raised alarms for officials and the media around the world. Proclamations of imminent explosions spreading radiation across Europe and far beyond—and sensational claims that the reactors had been shelled and were on fire—were rampant as the media engaged in hysterical coverage of the incident.
Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine: “If there is an explosion – that’s the end for everyone. The end for Europe. The evacuation of Europe.”
Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine Minister of Foreign Affairs: “Russian army is firing from all sides upon Zaporizhzhia NPP, the largest nuclear power plant in Europe. Fire has already broke out. If it blows up, it will be 10 times larger than Chornobyl! Russians must IMMEDIATELY cease the fire, allow firefighters, establish a security zone!”
Graham Allison, Harvard Kennedy School: “We should remember that Chernobyl in ’86 was a meltdown that spewed radioactive material all over Western Europe,’ Allison told a Kyiv-located Cooper. “So it is conceivable that one could have another version of that. I hope not, I pray not.”
Joe Cirincione, CNN national security analyst: “Very concerned” about the blaze. “There are multiple ways this could get very terrible very quick”
Hyperventilating nuclear “experts” blanketed the cable news channels, egged on by anchors who, despite having no idea what they were actually looking at, comfortably freestyled over images captured by a dark CCTV camera.
In one particularly egregious incident, CNBC’s Shepard Smith interviewed a former Department of Energy official, Jeff Navin, only to interrupt him to show a looping video of what he described repeatedly as a “strike on the number one reactor by Russian troops.” In reality, even on the darkened video stream, it was clear that the “strike” was actually an illumination flare landing in a parking lot outside the reactor building. The camera capturing the footage was positioned in front of the reactors, pointing toward the entrance to the plant and away from the reactors, which you can't see in the video at all. My colleague, Seaver Wang, figured this out with about five minutes on Google Maps as he was analyzing the incident in real-time.
Navin was one of the few experts brought on to the cable news networks who even attempted to offer a calm assessment of what we knew and what the risks were, which prompted Shepard Smith and CNBC to cut him off and bring on long time anti-nuclear physicist Michio Kaku, who has spent decade making over-the-top claims about nuclear accidents, memorably asserting in a televised appearance in 1979, that after a fire at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in 1975, “we almost lost half of Alabama.”
Kaku proceeded to wax apocalyptic about how the shelling could “blow the top off” of the reactor and cause a Chernobyl-level accident, despite the fact that the Chernobyl reactor had no containment system at all. Ukraine’s reactors, like virtually all modern ones, are, by contrast, sheathed in 4 feet of concrete and steel. Without using bunker buster-type munitions and intentionally trying to blow up the reactor, such an outcome is basically impossible.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t serious risks at play. With Russian and Ukrainian forces battling around the reactor, the primary risk was not that the reactor would be shelled but that there would be a precipitous shutdown and loss of power from the reactors, the Ukrainian grid, and backup generators. That would have resulted in loss of cooling. These were exactly the risks that Navin was trying to discuss before Smith cut him off and shifted to Kaku.
After the smoke cleared, literally and figuratively, what became clear was that there was no serious damage. There was a short battle to take control of the plant, involving flares, tracer fire, perhaps some sporadic shelling and mortar fire. An administrative building on the outskirts of the plant, beyond the nuclear island, caught fire. This was repeatedly misconstrued by both the “experts” and the anchors as the actual reactor building. In fact, there was no fire in the reactor, no compromise of power or cooling, no compromise of containment, and no release of radiation.
Of course, in the fog of war, it was difficult for anyone to know exactly what was going on. But that is all the more reason to be cautious rather than hyping catastrophic claims that were highly speculative and unlikely at best. Worse, both Ukrainian leaders and the cable news networks had strong incentives to exaggerate what was happening, in the former case to further galvanize global support and increase pressure on NATO to intervene and in the latter case to goose viewership with a “what kind of monster would do this” angle.
The result may have been good for ratings. But what has become the standard approach whenever the specter of nuclear accidents arises discredits the profession and misinforms the public. The fight to defend liberal democracy is likewise miserved when the ostensibly independent Western media uncritically repeats the claims of one of the belligerents, even when the cause is just. At a moment when liberal democracies around the world have rallied to resist an autocrat and war criminal, the media, upon which democratic governance depends, needs to step up as well.