Covering Fukushima With a Little Help From Our Friends

IEEE members in Japan helped shape Spectrum's coverage

Photos: From Left: Iwao Hyakutake, Eiki Hotta, Tsuneo Futami

Special Report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power

Editor's Note: This is part of the IEEE Spectrum special report: Fukushima and the Future of Nuclear Power.

Journalism is about access—to people, places, documents, and other things. And here's why good journalism is hard: When a journalist most needs access to something is often the exact time it's hardest to get that access. The reason, of course, is that lots of journalists are all flocking to the same person or place, in response to the same news-making event. For example, everyone wants to talk to the cabinet minister the day after he resigns amid scandal.

And so it was with the Tokyo Electric Power Co., whose Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant suffered core meltdowns in three reactors in the days after an enormous tsunami inundated the plant. The world's journalists besieged TEPCO, which behaved in an all-too-predictable fashion: It hunkered down and gave terse and essentially useless updates about the unfolding disaster.

For us, perfunctory coverage of this calamity wasn't an option. IEEE members expect us to give them authoritative insights into engineering-related events. And the bigger the event, the greater the expectations. Besides, we had a reputation to live up to: IEEE Spectrum won its first National Magazine Award—the highest honor in U.S. magazine publishing—for a report published in 1979 on the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania.

Immediately after the news of trouble at Fukushima broke, our Japan correspondent, John Boyd, began filing blog posts [see Back Story, this issue]. But we also needed a staffer in our New York City office to anchor our output, which was being directed by Samuel K. Moore, Spectrum's news editor. Associate Editor Eliza Strickland accepted the challenge.

We had hired her to be our Asia editor, a newly created position, and her first day of work at Spectrum was Wednesday, 9 March. The Fukushima disaster began not quite two days later. For a true journalist, there's a kind of thrill, a mix of butterflies and fervor, that you feel when something huge occurs in your beat area. Strickland had never written on nuclear technology before, but she was well prepared to do so: She came to Spectrum from Discover magazine, where she had been a Web editor specializing in energy and environmental issues.

Over the next month she wrote or edited dozens of posts and stories, including ones on worst-case scenarios and a buoy-based tsunami warning system. She soon found that, in the endless quest for access, she had something important on her side: the global reach of IEEE. Strickland contacted Professor Eiki Hotta, chair of the Japan chapter of the IEEE Nuclear & Plasma Sciences Society (NPSS). He put her in touch with Professor Tsuneo Futami of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who is a former superintendent of the Fukushima Dai-ichi plant. Professor Futami became Strickland's guide and champion, patiently answering her questions for two days at his Tokyo office and securing for her an exclusive interview at TEPCO headquarters.

Although the executives at TEPCO didn't reveal much during the interview, the scene there was memorable. With summer coming on, the utility had embarked on a stringent energy conservation regime. So Strickland was startled on arriving to find TEPCO's senior management in suits and ties, rushing around dark, hot hallways as they grappled with the repercussions of the second-worst nuclear power plant accident in history. It was thanks to Professor Futami, too, that Strickland secured an interview with officials at Japan's Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, who oversaw the response to the Fukushima crisis. The vice-chair of the NPSS, Hiroshi Akatsuka, accompanied her to that interview.

IEEE's dynamic Japan organization helped at every turn. Just before Strickland left Tokyo to travel to the city of Aizu-Wakamatsu, she learned that her interpreter wouldn't be able to meet her there. The head of the IEEE Japan office, Iwao Hyakutake, wheeled into action and arranged for a replacement. In an empty school in Aizu-Wakamatsu, where Strickland interviewed the mayor of an evacuated town, she was touched by the sight of corridors lined with strings of paper cranes, sent by well-wishers from around the world.

We would like to thank Professor Futami, Professor Hotta, Professor Akatsuka, Mr. Hyakutake, and the many others who helped us with our report on Fukushima. By believing in what we do and by being generous with their time, they enabled us to start a discussion about exactly what happened at Fukushima and what it all means.

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