Digging complexity: an example

This is a follow up post after my talk to science students at UBC yesterday. The instructor asked for an example of using my science background to make sense of something complex. My answer on the spot wasn’t great, but a better one came to me as the session ended (isn’t that always the way?). So I thought I’d post it here.

I have to stress, a scientific background is not necessary — anyone can ask the same kinds of questions. But, for me, the muscles I exercised in science help. I imagine it would be similar for someone with a background in economics or the law, who can skip a couple of steps en route to finding interesting information in those fields.

Meltdown in the media

Still from an animated graphic showing ‘exposed’ fuel rods. (CBC)

After the earthquake in Japan caused damage to reactors in Fukushima, there were a lot of scary headlines about radiation.

I remember waking up to a news that the nuclear fuel rods were “exposed” and in danger of melting down. I was tasked that day with explaining to our audience, an ocean away, what that meant.

Step one: what does “exposed” mean? Many of the early reports were not explaining that bit, leaving the audience to wonder whether the nuclear fuel was exposed to the outside world—meaning the reactor was totally compromised. So what was happening?

The officials were slow to release information, the aerial shots were not clear, and I had no idea what the inside of a nuclear reactor looked like (despite growing up in nuclear towns).

So, I needed the help of people who know about nuclear reactors, would pick up their phone, and be willing to talk to me. Happily, I found two: one at UBC’s TRIUMF laboratory, and one a former neighbour (and nuclear engineer) at the Hanford nuclear facility in Washington State.

They explained that “exposed” meant the water that is supposed to be covering and cooling the rods inside the reactor was boiling off. Unless they could be cooled, the rods could create so much heat they’d melt the metal holding them apart, and fall, and keep getting hotter. A complete meltdown was possible, but considered unlikely. The impact of a meltdown would be mostly local; the fuel would literally be melting out of the reactor onto that site. Very different than an explosion.

The situation was not good. But it also wasn’t yet as dire as it had sounded. The rods were still inside the reactor, the reactor’s containment vessel was still in place, but possibly leaking. We created graphics to show our audience what was going on.

Here are videos with my stories from that week (March 14 | March 15). If you prefer text, here’s a good explainer from Richard Black, the BBC’s smart Environment Correspondent.

Numbers in context

Putting radiation levels in some kind of familiar context. (CBC)

The numbers on that story were also a challenge. If we talk about the size of a fire, or the height of a wave, people can imagine that. But what is a millisievert—and what does a certain level of exposure mean? I had no idea.

These risks are unfamiliar, which tends to make them more scary. The challenge is to put them in context.

I compared the radiation exposure at the plant to things people are more familiar with. I dug up charts and checked them with experts, and found that the radiation had been very high, but fell to a level between a chest X-ray and CT scan. (Note, I mispronounced millisieverts.)

None of these “digging” examples are particularly sexy, or investigative exposés. In fact, as I learned more, the story became less sensational, but more true. And I think our audience has an appetite for that.

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