Learning from The West Wing: Lessons in Nuclear Power and Public Opinion

I have only just emerged, groggy-eyed and hair standing on end, from a very ill-advised The West Wing re-runs marathon – of all seven seasons. Needless to say, I am now finding some difficulty in adjusting to this post-TWW environment. I am also finding myself increasingly deferring to TWW for political insight. Aaron Sorkin admittedly has a flair for the dramatic, and I cannot very well believe that absolutely all White House staffers are capable of such spontaneous wit as the cast of TWW. That said, (and Sorkin must have of course had a team of qualified consultants to advise him on script authenticity), some of the crisis scenarios that President Bartlet and his band of merry men and women face are rather accurate illustrations of domestic and international politics.

In Season 7, Republican Senator Arnold Vinick, played by the inimitable Alan Ada, runs for the office of the American president. The popular consensus is that despite being an obvious front-runner, he loses the elections because a nuclear power plant in his home state of California has an almost meltdown – bang in the middle of the campaign – and after his very public endorsement of the ‘complete’ safety of nuclear power generation.

At one point, Vinick says, “The President sends troops into Kazakhstan and that’s still not enough to get this nuclear power quote out of the news” – suggesting that a stray comment on nuclear power has the ability to make or break the elections. For an understanding of its electoral potency, one need only look at the German decision, after Fukushima, to completely phase out nuclear power by 2022. It is claimed that this was primarily intended to address Merkel’s coalition government’s dwindling popularity, especially in light of the Green party’s rise.

Vinick has all the right arguments in his support for nuclear energy. Logic dictates that an almost nuclear meltdown at one power plant does not necessarily equal meltdowns at all other plants. But in the wake of an accident such as this and with little public knowledge of the facts, panic is the easiest response. Vinick’s adversary, Santos, has the opposite view – it is not clear whether this is genuine conviction or a politically smart decision.

In real life, the link between public opinion and nuclear power assumed centre stage post Fukushima. In India, protests against the Kudankulum nuclear power plant (Tamil Nadu) delayed the commissioning of the project. Similar protests have been registered against the Jaitapur nuclear power plant in Maharashtra. Why is (Indian) public opinion of nuclear energy so negative? Are these opinions founded on facts? Or are we ill-informed, leading us to subscribe to the philosophy of fearing that which we do not understand?

This is not helped by media coverage that often borders on the sensational – in the absence of authorised sources, conclusions are based on what is most readily available. In TWW, Josh Lyman, the Democratic presidential nominee’s campaign manager, says, “Let the press go after Vinick on their own” – implying that underhand tactics by the opposition to exploit the situation are unnecessary. In a 2011 interview on the Indian civilian nuclear programme with Dr LV Krishnan, who retired as Director of Safety Research and Health Physics Programmes at the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research at Kalpakkam nuclear power plant, my colleagues and I were told, “The English media might perhaps be a little restrained but the regional media might go overboard [with reference to the Kudankulum and Jaitapur power plants in India].”

The Kudankulum protests were lodged not just against the potential of radioactive poisoning but also the lack of local involvement in the decision-making process. There were ecological and livelihood concerns, in addition to complaints of official disinterest in addressing these concerns formally. The unavailability of the results of the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) was heavily criticised. Those from the area, mostly fisher folk, were also warned of the adverse impact of low-grade waste being dumped into the sea on the fishing industry. Opinions will continue to be one-sided – ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’ comes to mind – until the public has access to balanced information from reliable sources. Anything else will seem like deliberate secrecy and fuel further suspicion, especially generic public awareness programmes that are limited in reach and not tailored to specific settings. In Kudankulum, the protestors offered much more access to the locals than the government by disseminating their arguments in the vernacular, Tamil. Most government publications were only available in Hindi and English. Apparently, this is also true of Jaitapur.

The Supreme Court judgement of May 2013 that okayed the commissioning of Kudankulum said, “We have to balance ‘economic scientific benefits’ with that of ‘minor radiological detriments’.” What they perhaps meant was that safety is not absolute and we are already exposed to a certain amount of radiation in the atmosphere. On radiation, Dr Krishnan had this to say: “…the idea is to limit the release of radioactive substances to a certain low level because it is not possible to make it zero….” The SC bench also declared, “While setting up a project of this nature, we have to have an overall view of larger public interest rather than smaller violation of right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the constitution.” This sort of alarming, circumspect language that offers no clarification or qualification – the Indian executive’s weapon of choice, and now apparently also the judiciary’s – does absolutely nothing by way of positive assurances.

In the sixth season of TWW, then Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman, after having accidentally and publicly damaged a Prius with a fuel inefficient car, has to hurriedly hold an ‘alternative energy summit’ to deal with the bad press. There are representatives from the ‘Solar Cell Project’, ‘Ethanol Works’, ‘Wind Now’ and ‘Hydrogen Caucus’. What do we learn at the end of this meeting? – every attractive renewable energy source has an attendant set of costs and risks involved. As Vinick astutely observes, nothing is in fact ‘completely safe’ – indeed; history is replete with useful but dangerous discoveries that have required studied analyses and responsible use.

Public opinion claims that the dangers associated with nuclear power are so unmanageable that despite its merits, its generation must be stifled. The government thinks otherwise, and has ambitious plans for nuclear power in India’s energy make-up. What then is a better strategy to bridge this gap – pay lip service to public opinion or genuinely seek to inform it?

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Image: David Rose-NBCU Photo Bank, Getty

Posted in , Culture, Energy, India, Nuclear, Nuclear Safety, Politics

Ruhee Neog

Ruhee Neog

Ruhee Neog is the Assistant Director of the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (IPCS), New Delhi, and the coordinator of its Nuclear Security Program. Her research focuses on the nuclear weapons politics of India, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea. Prior to IPCS, Ruhee worked as a political and parliamentary monitor at the House of Commons and the House of Lords, UK, and with the Labour party, UK. She holds an MA in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics, and a BA in Literature in English from St. Stephen's College, New Delhi.

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2 thoughts on “Learning from The West Wing: Lessons in Nuclear Power and Public Opinion

  1. I am just about to finish watching season 2. The Underwoods are a very interesting pair.

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