Former GE VP: Japan Comparable to Three Mile Island

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Welcome to Politics Bites, where every afternoon at It's A Free Country, we bring you the unmissable quotes from the morning's political conversations on WNYC. Today, as the world follows the threat of a nuclear meltdown in Japan, Margaret Harding, a nuclear safety consultant and former Vice President of Engineering Quality at GE Nuclear Energy, discussed nuclear reactor safety.

"I have a standing policy that do not spread fear, uncertainty and doubt," Harding said.

Harding likened the radioactive releases in Japan to the scale of what happened in the partial core meltdown on Three Mile Island, an incident that looms darkly in the memories of many on the East Coast.

We're talking of numbers on the order of what you would receive getting a cat scan or getting other diagnostic x-rays done over the course of your lifetime, so you have those done without fear, I believe that there's no fear in an increase of radiation here.

Harding discussed the destruction and illness that resulted from the Chernobyl accident in the Ukraine, considered one of the worst nuclear disasters in history. The World Health Organization says as many as 4,000 people developed Thyroid cancer in the area after Chernobyl.

Thyroid cancer is one of the most treatable cancers on the planet, very few people die from it. So yes, may have happened, one of the real problems with that area of Ukraine is we don't have much data from before, so we don't know what the delta is. But let's not argue about Chernobyl. We know that was a terrible event, I am not going to argue that Chernobyl wasn't horrendously and horrifically a bad thing to happen.

Harding said that compared to the rest of the energy industry, the nuclear industry's record is at least as good, and perhaps better, even if it has at times painted dramatic images in the public imagination.

I look at the gas explosions that have occurred at operating gas plants that have killed dozens of people, I look at the effects of the coal industry and the people who die from the pollution of coal, and I look at the over all safety of the nuclear industry, even including Chernobyl, on a world-wide basis is still far safer than any other power source than we have.

Harding pleaded the case to keep the nuclear industry up and running, giving the analogy, "planes crash and we don't shut down the airline industry."

As for the nuclear plants on the east coast, she said it was "kind of silly" to worry about a disastrous earthquake affecting a plant in Georgia, because it doesn't lie on a major fault line.

General Electric declined to comment about Harding's remarks.


Margaret Harding

Comments [41]

michael100 from alabama usa

These insulting comment against Ms Harding are indicative of a sadder aspect of our society: an individual that states facts and is considered a "hack" of the nuclear industry. Shame on you. Note: currently approximately 6500 persons are confirmed dead from the earthquake and tsunami. Not a single human life has been lost due to the nuclear plant accident.

Mar. 18 2011 09:41 PM
shame on you
U.S. Calls Radiation ‘Extremely High’ and Urges Deeper Caution in Japan

To whom does WNYC answer?

Divert your donations to real journalism: support the New York Times.

Mar. 16 2011 05:22 PM

Re: Tom,

There are several types of thyroid cancer, with one being highly malignant.

Do you know which one radiation poisoning causes?

Mar. 15 2011 08:08 PM
Michele Berman from Manhattan

Dear Brian,
I was incensed by the opinions of your guest,
Margaret Harding, and disappointed that you would waste precious air time on an industry
insider when the stakes are so high. The fact that she would trivialize the reality of people developing thyroid cancer is unconscionable.
In addition, It is infantile to compare the risks of flying to that of nuclear power. People have a choice of whether or not to fly. We do not have a choice as to the building of nuclear power plants in our neighborhood. As a contributor to WNYC, I would prefer to hear specialists who speak the truth that the public needs to hear.

Michele Berman

Mar. 15 2011 07:44 PM

Your assertion is incorrect, the WHO said 4,000 cases of thyroid cancer, not deaths. The figure is now 6,000 as of 2005 ( Googling around confirms that thyroid cancer is highly treatable as well.

Mar. 15 2011 06:50 PM

That was the most painful segment of BL I've ever listened to. It was pretty obvious how much bias the guest had w.r.t. nuclear power. I'm actually somewhat in favor of nuclear power (relative to other forms of power that we can produce at scale at this point in time). But after hearing this guest's spin ... ugh.
I wanted to throw up when I heard her say "thyroid cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer". That's right after it appeared she wanted to say that the WHO didn't confirm any deaths - until she must have found out on the internet that the WHO did indeed state 4000 deaths.

Ugh - no heart and pretty aggressive tone on human health when she didn't even have her facts in line.

Mar. 15 2011 06:10 PM
harry from Locust Valley

The guest indicated that it is hard to determine if there were significant casualties as a result of Chernobyl.
In stark contrast is the following, from an article by Rory Kennedy in The Daily Beast:

The scope of that disaster was well documented. Today, as testimony to the true "cleanliness" of nuclear energy, we have 220,000 members of the Chernobyl cleanup crew who subsequently died or became disabled, according to their union; we have a reported 2.4 million Ukrainians with health problems related to the incident; we have an estimated 10,000 children born with serious defects, half of whom did not survive birth; we have 369 farmers in the distant United Kingdom who to this day cannot use their contaminated land; we have 350,000 people subjected to forced relocation; and we have 50 people who died as a direct result of the explosion. The argument that radiation is "clean energy" stands as an insult to all these victims and the thousands of undocumented ones.

I don't mind if the show presents a single point of view in a particular segment. However, in this case, I'd like to know which rendition of the truth is more accurate? There's quite a discrepancy here!

Mar. 15 2011 05:31 PM
Louis from Bayside

Margaret Harding's unwillingness to describe a worst case scenario are disconcerting as reality has shown that worst case scenarios are certainly possible. Uncertainty is the nature of reality; statistics are meaningless when you are the one suffering at the hands of an improbable disaster. Her comments regarding Chernobyl were heartless. She would feel differently if it were her child born without hands and feet.

Mar. 15 2011 04:28 PM
Listeners want to know

To "It's A Free Country Producer"
As someone else asked how did this guest get on the air?

Does WNYC have any guidelines at all?
Do you require guests (and hosts) to at least reveal conflicting interests?

Mar. 15 2011 03:34 PM

Hi All-
Thanks for your comments. The audio has been fixed, and the interview with Margaret Harding should now appear on this page correctly. Also, tune in tomorrow, Wednesday, for a different perspective on the future of nuclear energy with Matthew McKinzie, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council. You can contact listener services at 646.829.4000 with any other questions. Thanks!

Mar. 15 2011 03:19 PM
Bob from NYC

Really disappointed with this segment -- upset with it actually (btw, at present you need to to the next story in this show to hear this audio clip, hopefully will be fixed). I'm sometimes annoyed with the interviews and guests on the BLS, but this time I find it appalling. I see nothing wrong with giving both sides of the story, a truly 'fair and balanced' report, if you will. Information. Accuracy.

This was not that: only one side was represented. As someone pointed out, this woman's linkedIn profile indicates that she's LOOKING for work in the nuclear industry, consults FOR the nuclear industry. How far do you have to think to realize it's in her interests -- it's her JOB -- to spin it pro-nuclear power?

How is this segment helpful in any way to the listener community in trying to make sense of things? You could perhaps have had the ubiquitous TWO sides to the story (this woman and an informed environmental scientist) or at least one scientist who would (hopefully) cut it down the middle. I urge the listeners who find this incident problematic to give WNYC a call or drop them an email and tell them what you think.

Mar. 15 2011 01:49 PM
Zeco from Germany

In case listeners are wondering why Brian didn't get a better conversation partner on this subject: I'm afraid they're pretty much all like this in the US.

I've read countless discussions with nuclear engineering experts (some close to being retired, some just graduated and certified, some professors) since Friday and nothing they predicted held up.

* It started shortly after the earthquake, when experts dwelled in descriptions of how the scram automation and the cooling systems with all their backups will be working.
* As the cooling system failed there were claims that after so many hours the thermal energy output of the decaying core material would have fallen to such a level that the danger was practically over.
* After the first reactor's roof then exploded they immediately pointed to this merely being a hydrogen detonation (which by the way came from water at insanely hot temperatures) and gave not a single thought what kind of damage this might have done to the controlling facilities.
* At that point they started to praise the steel containment, apparently so strong that even god couldn't crack it, combined with the concrete floor, so steep and so certainly undamaged by the 9.0 earthquake that nothing could ever steam through its cracks.
* Finally they retreated to their last, rather semantical than technical stronghold: It's not Chernobyl! Because it's using water (which only produces explosive hydrogen) instead of graphite! Thus, all will be well. Also, Chernobyl is in Ukraine, not Japan, duh! (ok I made that last one up)

At none of these stations did I see an expert allow even the slightest margin of uncertainty or predict what might potentially (and subsequently did) happen next. If a discussion partner asked critical questions, they were often snubbed for obviously lacking the education and buying into sensationalistic media hype.

Perhaps I was a bit general and snarky in my summary but I can assure you that the big picture stands. The US nuclear engineering community appears to have a contamination problem that appears to originate at their basic education (too expensive and too tightly tied to the nuclear industry and its public standing?) which discourages critical thinking even more than the common effects of no-child-left-behind type policies.
While France is one of the world's most heavily reliant country on nuclear energy, their engineering elite seems to be much more ready to discuss possible downsides, which makes them much more trustworthy in my opinion.

In the US, I'd be especially wary of California, with its history of earthquakes, energy deregulation, Enron to flipping power plant switches for price gouging, being completely broke, voting in incompetent governors, "starve the beast" regulation-defunding Republicans and paying public workers with IOUs.
(I know it's on the other coast but I only listen to WNYC. New York still has some similar issues, even if mitigated)

Take care.

Mar. 15 2011 01:37 PM
Susan from Manhattan

The file that plays when I click on the National Nuclear Review clip is actually the Pension Review clip. How do I get access to the former clip?

Thank you

Mar. 15 2011 01:22 PM
sophia canellos

"Neither party has any one opinion toward science"

But the representatives do, which is why Republican Presidential candidates will deny evolution, and Democratic ones won't.

We have a corporate sturucture and a party which is completely unwilling to learn from the past when it comes to deregulation. There is a constant push for less regulation. Even in the midst of the blow up in the Gulf, the companies were working in front of and behind the scenes to defeat it.

Mar. 15 2011 01:04 PM

Re: Tom
"Oh and 10,000+ people may have died in an earthquake."

Good point! With the Nuclear catastrophe that number can multiply several times.

Mar. 15 2011 12:51 PM

"The Republicqan party is based around denial of science and deregulation, which is why if any country can be trusted with nuclear power, it isn't this one."

Neither U.S. political party has any one opinion toward science, most people pick their political beliefs and either ignore or listen to scientists based on that.

If we had a repeat of 1986 every few years and a nuclear industry unwilling to learn from the past, then we would have no business playing with fission.

Fortunately, we do a pretty alright job.

As far as other methods of electricity generation go...

Solar is unable to generate enough electricity and is limited to certain locales (deserts). The Andasol plant in Spain generates a mere 50MW (each of the reactors in Japan generate between 450 and 1100MW, about 4500MW total). Also, we can't "ramp up" energy production like with fossil fuels. Solar is great in that it takes some load off of traditional fossil fuel plants during peak (afternoons in the summer).

Geothermal, wind, tides, etc all have the same "limited to certain places where few people live" issues. We're doing well with the initiative to build high efficiency transmission lines, but we'd still have trouble generating enough of these types of electricity.

Nuclear isn't perfect, but given a choice between all known methods of generating power, it's a reasonable choice.

I'm pretty sure I spent 100% of my post shilling for nuclear power this time.

Mar. 15 2011 12:42 PM
sgs from nj

Hey Brian why don't you just head home a little early we'll just call this a 30 minute info-mmercial for the nuclear industry. Pathetic!

Mar. 15 2011 12:26 PM
Listeners Unite!

How about a web protest?
Next time WNYC has a fund raiser post a link to this segment and ask where your money is spent?

Mar. 15 2011 12:21 PM

"I mean do you want to listen to scientists only part of the time?"

The Republicqan party is based around denial of science and deregulation, which is why if any country can be trusted with nuclear power, it isn't this one.

"Oh, and 10,000 plus people may have died in the earthquake."

Wow. Someone who spends the majority of their post shilling for nuclear power, then ends with a literal throwaway line about the dead. That's just about perfect.

Mar. 15 2011 12:17 PM

Thanks for having this segment. While this guest obviously comes from the industry, it's telling that the vast majority of the industry is calm and not hoarding iodine tablets like the journalists covering this event.

For this one topic, reasonable people swap places with climate deniers and start saying things not based on science or reason. I mean, do you want to listen to scientists only some of the time?

"This is about 2/3 of the way to Holocaust denial."

Wow. I realize it's harder to understand nuclear reactors than fossil fuels (burn limited resources, ignore smoke going into atmosphere, turn up A/C), but if you're going to hold such strong opinions, please spend a few hours over the next week reading about nuclear power from people who know what they're talking about.

We need baseline power to continue our power-hungry lifestyle. You're either going to:

- dump more carbon into the atmosphere,
use nuclear power
- invest in fusion research (any day now...)
- invest in and solve the problems with "green" power (land use, night time, environmental damange)
- borrow that perpetual energy machine the Ayn Rand Institute has stashed in its basement.

Pick one, preferably 20 years ago.

Oh and 10,000+ people may have died in an earthquake.

Mar. 15 2011 12:04 PM
Listeners Unite!

How about a web protest?
Next time WNYC has a fund raiser post a link to this segment and ask where your money is spent?

Mar. 15 2011 12:03 PM
art525 from Park SLope

I am embarrassed for this woman trying to make her argument. At what point do you look at your life and reevaluate your career choices?

Mar. 15 2011 11:57 AM
Chris from manhattan

I'd like the show's producers to explain how this guest was booked. Who contacted who? Did you seek her out specifically? Was she offered as a rep by a PR agency or trade group? What is her current employment status? I don't believe this was addressed in the introduction of the segment.
For a different perspective on this particular situation and the wider problem of the design of these antiquated reactors(built in some cases by GM) check out former nuclear engineer, Arnie Gunderson, on today's Democracy Now show. I have no connection to this particular program or to Mr. Gunderson- I simply found it informative...

Mar. 15 2011 11:53 AM

"2/3 of the way to Holocaust denial"

what a handy scale! Personally I place padded bras in this category. A hater's confection indeed. Also ground meat: just yuck.

Mar. 15 2011 11:50 AM
Ansis Vallens from Columbia County, NY

The guys at Ms. Harding's PR firm are giving each other high fives right now.

Mar. 15 2011 11:50 AM
Amy from Manhattan

"Thyroid cancer is one of the most treatable cancers"?? So what! It's still better not to get it, & people who get their thyroid glands removed still need to take thyroid hormone replacement for the rest of their lives! Harding's dismissive treatment of this aspect of the issue throws her downplaying of all the rest of the risks discussed into question (if they weren't already).

Mar. 15 2011 11:46 AM
Jesse Lemisch from New York, NY

Brian moves further and further rightward. What notion of "balance" brings this lying nuke industry apologist and justifier to WNYC? This is about 2/3 of the way to Holocaust denial.

Mar. 15 2011 11:45 AM
fred from brooklyn

No doubt she works for GE which designed the Japanese nuclear plants.

Mar. 15 2011 11:43 AM
Yosif from manhattan

You know what's even safer? Solar, wind, geothermal and biomass

Mar. 15 2011 11:42 AM
JD from jackson heights

Nice booking job, Brian Lehrer show. I'm really learning a lot from the PR spewed by this nuclear industry flack.

Mar. 15 2011 11:41 AM
Adam from NY

What is the end game for this fuel? Could we dump into the deepest part of the ocean?

Mar. 15 2011 11:41 AM
Mary from nyc

Hmm.. I wonder what side of the nuclear safety question the nuclear safety consultant and former Vice President of Engineering Quality at GE Nuclear Energy will come down on?

Mar. 15 2011 11:40 AM

Half of the Republican base denies scientific evidence for corporate reasons, the other half denies scientific evidence for religious reasons, ans both halves deplore regulation.

This country can't handle nuclear energy.

Mar. 15 2011 11:37 AM

What about metal fatigue due to repeated aftershocks?

Mar. 15 2011 11:36 AM

What are the best/worst case scenarios for Japan and Canada?

Mar. 15 2011 11:32 AM


is ny prone to terror attacks ?

Mar. 15 2011 11:26 AM
Mike from Park Slope

Why are we even comparing the potential for Nuclear disaster in Japan vs. one in NYC? Japan is on a major fault line. They have guaranteed earthquakes. NY is not. We like to think that, because we are all egocentric New Yorkers and everything New York is more important, that the occasional 3.0, mid-tectonic plate tremor every hundred years somehow means we are just as vulnerable... but that is simply not true. New York will never have a 8.9 magnitude quake like the one in Japan. So the issues of safety for plants is very different. We certainly shouldn't build plants on the west coast for this reason, and there are many other reasons not to build them in NY, but don't be ridiculous and cite this incident as one of them.

Mar. 15 2011 10:39 AM

Cost of nuclear is high.

I hate to be the one to say this...but is it higher than our status quo?

Thanks to fossil fuels, our water, our food, our air, our backyards and parks, not to mention blood and treasure, they're being consumed or spoiled before our very eyes.

Is that better than a 200 square mile area of Planet Earth getting blotched out every 30 years or so by a nuclear catastrophe? I don't know the answer but this is a good time to seriously consider the question.

Mar. 15 2011 09:41 AM

i guess the left was right. (again)
never build nuclear. it will never be 100%
and the cost is too high.
its another big government subsidy. we insure them, (maybe at no cost to the industry?)
and the waste will be around forever.
think of the children
all so u can heat that big ugly house! GREED!

Mar. 15 2011 08:43 AM
Trillions of dollars

Margaret Harding in the New York Times, March 11, "'It’s not like they have a breach; there’s no broken pipe venting steam'"

How did she know this?

Mar. 15 2011 08:00 AM

Margaret Harding's linkedin page:
"Interested in opportunities to work with companies in the nuclear industry. "

"performed core and fuel designs for every BWR reactor design in current operation. "

Mar. 15 2011 07:45 AM

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