Thursday, January 26, 2006

The West Wing: Martin Sheen's Personal Soapbox

During my brief sickness I viewed Sunday night's episode of The West Wing which I had on tape. I enjoy TWW for the process it shows not so much the politics since everyone on there is unabashedly liberal. This episode was even more so as we were treated to a nuclear accident in California which illustrated two issues:

1. How a President is supposed to run a disaster. In this case by taking full charge of the operation, listening to all the advice of the experts and making all the decisions right down to asking whether or not the Red Cross had anti-radiation medicine available. President Bartlet(Martin Sheen) also crushed all state and local resistance to evacuation plans from the get go and basically steamrolled them in assuming control of the disaster. It was clearly aimed at Bush as a criticism of his role in the Katrina disaster. I also think they were not totally wrong in having the President play such a take charge role in overseeing the Federal response. Of course in TWW-World, many of the standard rules of reality are left out for the sake of dramatic effect. During the Katrina disaster there were a variety of state and local issues, including the total buffonery of LA Governor Kathleen "$500,000 Office Remodeling While My Constituents are Homeless" Blanco and New Orleans Ray "Chocolate City" Nagin. The action or rather inaction of both of these figures complicated the response effort. Yes, FEMA Director Michael Brown was also a buffoon, and yes, Bush should have returned to D.C. from Texas, but the situation was not as clear cut as TWW's nuclear disaster. In the case of nuclear accidents, the Nuclear Regulartory Commission can take control of the plant and shut out all other entities.

2. The show was vehemently anti-nuclear to the point of intellectual dishonesty. Though I would need to research it, I am pretty sure Martin Sheen is rabidly anti-nuclear power. The Republican Presidential candiate on the show, Arnie Vinick, Senator from California(played by Alan Alda) stated in the debate episode that nuclear power was completly safe and even lobbied for the opening of the plant in question 25 years prior. Bartlet was adamant about the horrors of nuclear power, as was Democractic candidate Matt Santos and his people even to the point that Press Spokesperson Donna Moss asks the totally asinine question: Why do they put these plants near population centers? Bartlet channels Martin Sheen at one point and rails about how pumping a nuclear reaction 20 times more powerful than the bombs that hit Japan can in no way be safe. He rails against the failures of Federal regulations and how much damage an accident can cause.

Now, I live 20 miles from a nuclear power plant and if there was an accident and the wind is blowing northeast, I might have a problem there. Then again, I cannot think of the last time I thought about that plant, except when I went fishing there with a friend some 13 years ago. In the history of nuclear power there have been two accidents: Three Mile Island in PA and Chernobyl in Russia. I tend to take Chernobyl from the equation given the state of things in the USSR such as lack of funding, which I do not believe are reflected here in the U.S. In the case of Three Mile Island, the core actually experienced a partial meltdown which was contained. The crisis went on for about four days and at one point pressured radioactive steam was released from the auxillary building(something which also happened on TWW). Eventual testing showed, that despite releases of radiation into the atomosphere, 2 million people in the area received about 1 millerem of exposure or about 1/6 of the amount one gets from an x-ray. There were no long term effect found from the accident even though there was an actual meltdown.

Where TWW erred, in my opinion, is presenting a nuclear accident in such horrific terms as though the world were coming to an end. Barlet at one point speaks of the potential for a whole generation of children with thyroid cancer. Basically it was classic fear mongering to advance a political/environmental agenda. I think all energy sources have problems. Coal and oil produces serious pollution and recent news has reminded us that those who work to produce these particular sources routinely die in their work. Solar and wind are too costly to produce and not that reliable. Geo-thermal and hyro-electric only works in certain area. Nuclear, while emissions free, is riskier in nature and there is an issue of nuclear waste which cannot be negated in a reasonable debate. In other words there are no easy answer so please dispense with the pointless scare tactics.

So to sum up, The West Wing, should stop trying to hock Martin Sheen's personal political leanings. They should also be a bit more realistic in there election story since I am not sure all the states which were firmly Vinick states would necessarily jump ship over an issue like this. The episode was about peddling fear over nuclear power and it was done so without an ounce of intellectual honesty or consistency.

Update: I was talking to a friend last night who pointed out that European countries have been using nuclear power for much longer than the U.S. and have not had any major accidents either lending more anectdotal evidence to the idea that it is a relatively safe source of power.

You're right that all energy sources have some issues to go with them. As an engineer at a nuclear plant, I also agree that the WW scenario was "silly" (a technical term we use).

I think we'll make better decisions about our energy future if we understand our energy present. So I wrote a novel that starts with energy and electricity basics and proceeds to an insider look at the US nuclear power industry and how an accident might be handled. It's at and it's free to readers - who seem to like it, judging from the comments on the homepage. Take a look, and if you find it useful, please pass the word.
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