Scientific American | John Horgan | October 13, 2014
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
Yes, the Cold War ended long ago, but we still live in a nuclear-armed world, in which the possibility of nuclear war, terrorism and accidents is all too real. That is why my school, Stevens Institute of Technology, hosted a “Workshop on Nuclear Education” last year, organized by Edward Friedman and Julie Pullen of Stevens and by Charles Ferguson, president of the Federation of American Scientists, which disseminates information on the risks of nuclear weapons and other threats. After I posted a column on the workshop (“We Must Start Thinking Again about the Unthinkable“) and Q&A with Ferguson (“Leader of Venerable Scientific Watchdog Group Renews Focus on ‘Nuclear Dangers‘”), Ferguson suggested I interview Peter Rickwood, founder of Atomic Reporters. According to its website, Atomic Reporters “acts as an information broker improving journalistic understanding and coverage of nuclear issues,” including “nuclear weapons, the safety of nuclear power, nuclear security, and concern about the soaring use of ionizing radiation in medicine.” Several of my students are writing papers on nuclear issues this semester, and I’m going to urge them to check out the site, which I have found enlightening. Rickwood responds to my questions below:
Recent U.S. “modernization” of nuclear arsenal “will probably mean that nuclear weapons will be with us for another 100 years,” says Peter Rickwood of Atomic Reporters, “and trigger a response by Russia and China to build-up their weapons programs.”
Horgan: What is your background? How and why did you end up founding Atomic Reporters?
Rickwood: I’m a journalist, and I was working as a press officer in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Vienna, Austria, based organization, in 2003 when the never-ending Iraq train wreck first went off the tracks. The failure of the press at the time is history. It was largely due to sloppy reporting, groupthink, but in the case of the nuclear file it was business as usual.
On October 6 I opened the Washington Post, and a regular contributor to its op-ed page, writing about Iran’s nuclear program, commits two errors in one sentence, declaring Parchin a “key enrichment site,” to which “the West” has had no access. Wrong. The military site has been visited by IAEA inspectors – they want to go again – and there’s never been the whiff of suspicion that it harbours enrichment facilities.
This is the clay from which Atomic Reporters has emerged. Missteps in nuclear reporting are not uncommon – journalists stumbled at first after the March 2011 Fukushima disaster. And sometimes major stories, such as the nuclear black market – potentially a greater threat than any single state’s nuclear ambitions – are neglected, with few notable exceptions. Mea culpa, I’ve committed my own sins as a reporter stumbling through the nuclear thicket.
But it’s a hell of a good subject for a journalist, and the public deserves to be better informed about a life and death issue. At the very least it should be reported accurately. This is Atomic Reporters’ purpose – to be a reliable, independent, non-partisan resource for journalists, brokering information and providing access to tools and resources.
By nuclear, we mean the science itself and the various technologies it supports–power, medicine, agriculture and industrial applications–as well as the nuclear weapons file.
Much of the terrain is far from friendly – protected by the pickets of classified information and redaction. State security rules here and secrecy is its friend. Nuclear is also a convenient tool to politicize for various ends and there is scant attention given to fact-checking claims. Reporters approaching the subject need to do so with caution and suspicion. Nuclear power, a spin off from weapons development, has not completely shed its past. But all the issues associated with nuclear–safety, security, the risks of proliferation–are too important for the public not to be informed about and to be neglected by journalists.
I learned from writing about the environment on The Toronto Star in the seventies and eighties – I cut my teeth on Love Canal – that it requires strong evidence-based technical information to counter the resistance of powerful interests.
Atomic Reporters’ first steps have been to work with journalists from the Middle East, holding workshops in Jordan and the first of two events in June in Vienna attended by participants from Iran, Israel, Syria, Egypt, and eight other countries in the region.
We are also trying to confront generational issues: there are younger reporters writing for whom the Cold War, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, are names in books. And there is very little transfer of institutional memory in journalism; new skills need to be developed. Another key target group are journalists working in so-called newcomer states to nuclear power who have a vital role in informing the public and acting as watchdogs.
Horgan: What are the worst mistakes the media make when reporting on nuclear issues?
Rickwood: Coming to the story ill-prepared – accepting information offered on a plate and not ensuring a broad variety of independent sources to verify what’s being provided. Unfortunately, there’s a conservative side to news gathering, a tendency to rely on a small community of experts whose focus may be limited, or who may be serving an agenda. Find as many sources as possible. There are many independent, reliable experts and institutions available to help reporters. Atomic Reporters is erecting signposts pointing to them.
Horgan: Does Atomic Reporters ever take a stance on issues?
Rickwood: Yes, we’ll blow the whistle when we spot egregious and inaccurate reporting. We will draw attention to errors made and information that is clearly not evidence based – and careless or sloppy reporting. We will also defend the rights of journalists to have access to information in the public interest. The crucial issue of the fate of nuclear arms will not compete with images of grumpy cats but we will encourage more coverage of the subject.
Horgan: Most of my students are unconcerned about nuclear weapons and know little or nothing about them. Why should they care?
Rickwood: Best estimates (states do not post the size of their arsenals on Facebook) is that the hangover of the Cold War is a collection of 16,000 nuclear warheads, most of them in the USA and the Russian Federation, some 1,800 on high alert. Do they pose a greater danger than the security that mutually assured destruction (MAD) claims to offer? Cold War warriors led by US Secretaries of State Kissinger and Schultz have opined that they do. But untying the Gordian Knot has become even more challenging since relations worsened between the two major weapons holders, the US and Russia. The history of nuclear disarmament records that public involvement has driven major achievements. Time for your students to get worried unless they are happy sitting on unexploded Cold War nuclear munitions.
Horgan: What do you say to greens who insist that nuclear-energy proliferation will enable nuclear-weapons proliferation?
Rickwood: Atomic Reporters is agnostic about nuclear power. There is no question that nuclear proliferation is a potential risk from domestic nuclear power. The front end and back end of the fuel cycle are its vulnerabilities. Most of the countries – except for the P-5 official nuclear weapons states – with nuclear power have not built atom bombs.
Horgan: Is the U.S. right that Iran’s nuclear program is a cover for a weapons program?
Rickwood: Atomic Reporters defers to the IAEA, which has an extensive verification process ongoing in Iran and whose extensive safeguards reports, issued roughly every quarter, are an open source for assessing and understanding Iran’s nuclear activities. Most of the claims about a weapons program are based on intelligence data provided the IAEA by some of its member states, which cannot be independently verified by IAEA inspectors. To date the IAEA has found no nuclear material diverted from Iran’s civil program and no nuclear weapon activities involving nuclear material. Now it would appear that the most effective way forward is best left to a successful outcome to the EU3+3 and Iran negotiations.
Horgan: Do you see any hope for a resolution of the impasse between the U.S. and Iran over the latter’s nuclear program?
Rickwood: In December 2003 I organized a media opportunity to witness Iran’s then head of mission to the IAEA Ali Akhbar Salehi and DG Mohamed ElBaradei sign an Additional Protocol to its Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) providing access to important areas previously off limits to IAEA inspectors. The point is breakthroughs are possible although the 2003 deal soon fell apart.
Horgan: Does the International Atomic Energy Agency have any power to achieve such a resolution?
Rickwood: The IAEA has a legal obligation to verify Iran’s nuclear activities under the mandate of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement. It has been providing regular reports since 2003 and the IAEA has concluded that there is no evidence of diversion of nuclear material from peaceful activities to nuclear weapons. But as yet it cannot provide a conclusion that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran, as it is no longer implementing its Additional Protocol.
Horgan: Are Russia, China and/or any other major powers upgrading their arsenals? What about North Korea?
Rickwood: This a response from our experts: Overall, there is broad upgrade of nuclear weapons and their related systems in US, Russian, China, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel (not sure about the validity of claims about the last two).
Horgan: What effect will U.S. decision to rebuild its nuclear arsenal have on non-proliferation efforts?
Rickwood: It will probably mean that nuclear weapons will be with us for another 100 years – and trigger a response by Russia and China to build-up their weapons programs. It does underline the fact nuclear weapons are a clear and present danger and journalists should try to get on top of the issue.