Nuclear journalism in the developing world


Difficult subject matter. Classified information. Landmines of controversy. These problems are familiar to any journalist covering nuclear issues, even those who work under the best of circumstances. But journalists in the developing world may also face a shortage of independent experts, dysfunctional media environments, and tight political controls over press freedom. Below, Alexander Golts of Russia, Pramit Pal Chaudhuri of India, and Dalia el-Akkad of Egypt describe the landscape for nuclear journalism in their countries, while addressing the following question: What could be done to ensure that nuclear journalism serves the public better?

Round 1

Challenges outnumber resources

This year, Egypt's government is spending about 1 percent of gross domestic product on scientific research — a big improvement from the 0.23 percent recorded in 2011. But scientists nonetheless earn low salaries, and infrastructure is poor at universities and research centers. This causes scientists to migrate elsewhere in search of better standards of living, greater access to advanced technologies, and more stable political conditions.

Science journalists feel they could play an important role in lifting Egyptian science out of its quagmire. But science journalists themselves face serious challenges. Among the biggest challenges, particularly when it comes to covering nuclear issues, is politics. Before the revolution, I faced the problem of excessive secrecy whenever I wrote on a topic related to the country's nuclear program. The Mubarak regime considered all atomic affairs top secret. A watchdog committee censored the press, allowing very little on these subjects to be published. It only allowed nuclear news to be published if it highlighted the regime's achievements. Even now, Egypt's draft constitution fails to provide clarity on the tension between, on the one hand, national security and, on the other, press freedom and the public's right to be informed. (A public referendum on the draft constitution is to be completed on December 22.)

Little space, little money. In Egypt, a limited number of journalists cover science, mostly because media outlets remain unconvinced that covering science is important. Science writers find it difficult to land on the front page, and some newspapers and magazines devote no space to science news at all. Science coverage doesn't receive much money, either — journalists covering nuclear and other scientific issues earn poor salaries, and the result of this is poor coverage, with reporters submitting stories that are translated from Western sources or that depend too much on press releases. But only a few research centers even produce press releases.

Government spokesmen are usually more concerned with official meetings and their travel schedules than with providing scientific information that makes sense to readers. Journalists are not allowed to step inside the Egyptian Atomic Energy Authority, and cannot talk to any of the scientists there without permission. Then again, many scientists refuse to grant interviews because some journalists do not prepare for their interviews properly, or publish inaccurate information.

Slow train. Another major challenge I have faced is a lack of training courses for people in my field. I began work as a science journalist in 2004, but no course for science journalists was offered locally until 2008. This was funded by the British Council in Egypt, with financial cooperation from the European Union — Egyptian newspapers are generally uninterested in providing training courses to their staff in such specialized areas. Journalists have to be self-reliant, and improve their skills via independent reading and seeking out courses where they exist.

Traveling abroad to scientific conferences represents another major challenge. Most newspapers do not pay journalists to participate in such events, so one must secure outside funding. I have attended six scientific conferences outside Egypt, but each trip has been funded by an international organization in recognition of articles I have written.

This is a shame, because international conferences provide fertile ground for dialogue and networking among people from the developed and developing worlds. In 2011 Egypt was scheduled to host the World Conference of Science Journalists, but the event was moved to Doha because of political unrest. The event, in which I participated, was nonetheless very worthwhile; half the participants came from the developing world and the conference was a truly multicultural experience. Despite the differences among nations, science journalists around the world still face challenges in common — such as how best to communicate with scientists, reach wide audiences, make stories accessible, and bring science into public debate.

Steps forward. Ideally, the media should play a vital role in encouraging public engagement in science and technology. But in a developing country like Egypt, this ideal very often goes unattained. The situation could be improved in several ways. For instance, more workshops and training courses for science journalists should be organized. Press associations should help fund such courses, and should also sponsor competitions and awards for science journalism. University departments of mass communication could contribute by establishing specialized programs in science journalism.

But science journalists themselves have to fight for their own vocation. I learned early in my career that it isn't enough to produce good work — it's also necessary to sell it to editors, to persuade them to publish it alongside political news. Meanwhile, the government should leave it to journalists to decide what nuclear information is important to publish, and should realize that censorship does not contribute to national security. In fact, censorship may only make the public more resistant to nuclear projects. For instance, Egypt's proposed nuclear power project at El-Dabaa has faced opposition from local residents who are upset over land seizures, or who fear negative environmental and health effects. But perhaps the government could have reduced these problems if, to begin with, it had communicated more openly with the public.

Someone’s got a secret

India's public debate on nuclear issues — from nonproliferation policy to weapons doctrine to the safety of civilian nuclear power — is generally quite shallow, and the country’s culture of nuclear secrecy is the main reason. The secrecy arises from a number of factors, some of them particular to India and some of them external. One factor is that official structures like the Atomic Energy Act of 1962 restrict nuclear information and policy making to a small circle of people. The act places large segments of both the civilian and military nuclear programs under a cloak of secrecy so thick that even parliamentary supervision is constrained. Thus, nuclear decision making is restricted to a handful of scientists and bureaucrats, sometimes referred to as India's nuclear enclave, who function with little oversight and even less transparency. Strikingly, the military is not part of this circle, even though the military is in charge of the deployment of the nuclear arsenal.

Another factor contributing to excessive secrecy is that the nuclear program through the first two decades of its existence was shot through with ambiguity. Because of divisions within the nuclear fraternity, many of whose members were hostile to weaponization, there was great uncertainty about whether the program should have a military component. The country, therefore, developed a dual-track program without formally declaring a military aspect. Later, fears developed that — amid a sustained Western drive to undermine what was in effect a merged civilian and military nuclear program, which operated outside international safeguards — any nuclear information that India divulged would be used against it by the West. The international sanctions deployed against India’s nuclear efforts were very important in establishing a culture of secrecy and isolation among the country’s nuclear scientists.

A final factor is that, once India’s nuclear program appeared to be under siege from "neo-imperialist" foreigners and became wrapped in the flag, public acceptance of the nuclear program was assured. A nuclear mystique then developed, and this proved remarkably corrosive for genuine debate about nuclear policies. The nuclear program never faced much protest even as it became error-prone and in many respects remarkably inefficient. Debate on the program’s merits was highly stunted, intelligent assessment was almost impossible, and the public focused on symbolic accomplishments like nuclear tests. The program was sacrosanct and beyond debate, and its secrecy was seen as a necessity — even as a positive attribute.

Dogs not barking. Making matters worse in India, the institutions that serve as watchdogs in many societies — independent regulators, parliament, the media, and so on — all suffer from defects that dilute their ability to contribute to debate. The most obvious such problem is that the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board, the primary agency for monitoring the safety and security of India's reactors, is a derivative of the Department of Atomic Energy, the very body it is supposed to monitor. Its lack of autonomy was recently questioned by a government watchdog, the Comptroller Auditor General. And parliament, as noted, has been deliberately cut out of nuclear policy making, and it has even lost control over the nuclear program’s funding.

The media, meanwhile, suffers from severe structural problems. The media market, with over 500 television channels and 70,000 newspapers, is extremely competitive. It is driven by short-term concerns and little room exists for in-depth policy analysis. Stories are short, advertisements plentiful. Few if any newspapers have science correspondents, and none has a specialist devoted to nuclear issues. Most media outlets, like the public, buy into the narrative that past international sanctions required a secretive nuclear program — one that should still be treated as beyond reproach.

The consequence of all this is a nuclear establishment that does not feel the need to communicate with the public, and to a real degree is unable to do so. The public has largely accepted this isolationism. But as the nuclear program has become internationalized following the signing of a nuclear cooperation agreement between India and the United States, the flaws in developing a culture that saw itself as outside the realm of normal public debate have been revealed. Today, as public protests are carried out against civilian power reactors, and as the government avoids taking the initiative on bringing into force a nuclear test ban it once supported, we see the struggles of a nuclear establishment that has never had to explain itself to anyone — other than a prime minister and a dozen other people.

The Indian culture of nuclear secrecy, born of a nuclear mystique in the 1950s and several decades of international sanctions, is not merely obsolete. It is also becoming a liability for the expansion of India's nuclear power program. Though the lifting of a more than 30-year moratorium on nuclear trade with India was supposed to have opened the door to a large expansion of its nuclear power program, growth has been hindered by legal liability issues, political protests against nuclear power, and land acquisition problems — difficulties that are partly a consequence of, or have been greatly exacerbated by, the Department of Atomic Energy’s lack of transparency and weak public outreach. Now, the department and its affiliate bodies have begun to master the art of public diplomacy and mass communication. What is needed is for this new and growing openness to become institutionalized, thus ensuring that India’s culture of nuclear secrecy can come to a permanent end.

Covering nuclear weapons where weapons are the state’s main asset

The following anecdote illustrates the way in which Russian authorities respond to criticism of their nuclear policy.

In January of 2012, Vladimir Putin — then Russia's prime minister and now its president — became very angry during a meeting with the editors-in-chief of many of the country's top media outlets. Complaining to Alexei Venediktov of the radio station Ekho Moskvy about the "utter nonsense" that he had recently heard on the station from two defense analysts — Alexander Konovalov, president of the Institute for Strategic Assessments, and me — Putin claimed that the analysts were promoting the interests of a foreign power, implying the United States.

Putin was particularly angry over Konovalov's suggestion that the location of US missile defense installations should not concern Russia's political and military leadership because the installations pose little, if any, threat to the country's nuclear deterrence capabilities. In fact, Putin said that if the United States deployed radar installations for a missile defense system in Georgia, Russia might aim some of its missiles at Tbilisi. But Washington has no plans to deploy radar facilities in Georgia. True, four Republican senators in the United States proposed this idea last year, but it was little more than a propaganda stunt, and few in Washington took the proposal seriously. Putin sincerely believes that he is an expert in the field of nuclear weapons, but his stance on missile defense indicates otherwise.

Hysterics and bogeymen. Because nuclear weapons are so fundamental to Russian's foreign policy, journalists who cover and question nuclear weapon policy can face accusations that their work is unpatriotic. Since Putin first came to power, a concerted effort has been made in Russian diplomacy to bring issues of nuclear strategy to the forefront. From the Kremlin's viewpoint, Russia can only demonstrate that it should be considered a superpower by emphasizing its nuclear potential. Therefore, in every way possible, it has tried to leverage the huge nuclear arsenal that it inherited from the Soviet Union for greater influence in international affairs. In fact, in discussions with Western and above all American counterparts, Moscow seems to want to discuss little besides nuclear issues. Putin has labored doggedly to raise nuclear warhead counts to the top of the international agenda in order to obscure other issues where Russia is weak — such as the country's level of economic development, which doesn't align with Putin's superpower ambitions. He believes that the United States is the root cause of all his problems, and he uses every opportunity to remind Washington that one country in the world remains capable of destroying the United States.

In recent years, Moscow has often expressed its dissatisfaction with Western policies by resorting to the clichés of the Cold War. For instance, the Kremlin is unhappy with Georgia's desire to join NATO, and with the possibility that Ukraine might join as well. Therefore, it claims that the West will inevitably build military bases in those countries if they join NATO, and that these bases will be equipped with missiles aimed at Russia. Moscow dislikes it when the United States and countries in Western Europe express their displeasure with Russia's suppression of civil liberties — and responds by going into hysterics about NATO building up a military superiority.

Much of this was demonstrated in a speech Putin gave in Munich in 2007, in which he said that peace based on fear of mutual destruction "was reliable enough," but that "today it seems that the peace is not so reliable." He put Cold War issues like the balance of conventional arms and missile defense in Europe back on the negotiating table, while repeatedly accusing the United States, as well as other NATO countries, of attempting to achieve military superiority over Russia.

The idea that ​​nuclear weapons are the state's main asset precludes discussion of serious issues such as whether Russia needs to maintain nuclear parity with the United States. Nor is there much legitimate debate in Russia on the most pressing nuclear issue of the moment — the US missile defense system. Russia insists that the United States through missile defense is undermining strategic stability and threatening Moscow's nuclear deterrent. But nobody in Russia is interested in having a serious discussion on the subject, and missile defense has become a perfect bogeyman that the Kremlin can use for political purposes in the same way that it has used NATO expansion.

In reality, Putin is deathly afraid of threats from the West. But it isn't nuclear war that he fears, but rather an Orange Revolution in Russia. The Kremlin is paranoid about such a "color revolution." Concerns over US missile defense plans are phony — Russian leaders understand that these plans pose no threat to Russia's deterrence capabilities — but they are prepared to battle the "orange plague" wherever it appears in the world. The United States executed regime change in Iraq, and helped do so in Libya. Now it wants the same in Syria — and, according to the Kremlin, the United States is planning a regime change for Russia.

Hints, allusions, and treason. Under such circumstances, casting doubt on the government's nuclear policy calls into question the country's entire foreign policy. This affects journalists, and also nongovernmental organizations. Several Russian research organizations employ highly qualified experts on nuclear issues. These include the Center for International Security, which is headed by international-relations scholar Alexei Arbatov; the Institute for US and Canadian Studies, headed by Sergei Rogov; and the Carnegie Moscow Center. Outstanding experts such as retired Generals Vladimir Dvorkin and Viktor Esin are affiliated with these organizations, but the expert community prefers not to engage in direct discussions with the Kremlin on nuclear issues. It prefers instead to speak in allusions, and to make hints so thin that the government can safely ignore them. Analysts may suggest ways to continue the process of disarmament — but government officials say that Moscow is not interested in any disarmament.

Now authorities have at their disposal a new, highly effective tool to stop any discussion about nuclear weapons. Russia recently enacted a treason law that could criminalize anyone who associates with organizations whose activities are perceived as threatening Russia's security. Security is a concept that can be interpreted very widely, of course, and the new law provides an excellent opportunity to silence anyone — including journalists — disagreeing with official views.

Round 2

Public versus private

Egypt's nuclear power program has faced a number of challenges lately. First, the voices of environmental groups, who prefer to pursue renewable energy sources like solar and wind instead of nuclear, have been growing in prominence. Second, the proposed nuclear power facility at El-Dabaa has sparked demonstrations from area residents. And in January it was reported that the El-Dabaa project would be delayed until a newly elected legislature could convene to address the matter.

Independent newspapers and magazines have been dealing with all of this professionally. For the first time, because of the increased freedom of speech that has followed from Egypt's revolution, media outlets have been able to devote attention to groups that oppose the nuclear program — the revolution has opened the door for new segments of society to express their opinions and viewpoints. Before the revolution, the regime did not allow any article to be published that criticized the nuclear program. This was especially true once Gamal Mubarak, son of former President Hosni Mubarak, announced at a party conference in 2006 that the program would be restarted.

Government-owned media outlets, however, continue to function much as they did before the revolution. Last August, President Mohammed Morsi announced that Cairo was considering a renewal of the on-again, off-again nuclear program, which he characterized as a purely civilian effort that would provide clean energy to Egypt's citizens. Government-owned newspapers highlighted Morsi's statement on their front pages. Around the same time, newspapers devoted considerable space to a report by the Ministry of Electricity and Energy stating that the nuclear program would create jobs and provide an economic boost to the El-Dabaa area. Independent newspapers, meanwhile, were free to focus on criticisms by groups that oppose renewing the program.

Same and different. My colleague Pramit Pal Chaudhuri has described the media landscape in his nation of India. The media market there is very large and competitive, and Chaudhuri discusses the negative aspects of that competition — the market "is driven by short-term concerns and little room exists for in-depth policy analysis." But in Egypt, with its smaller media market, competition is a positive thing, especially now that independent newspapers are beginning to flourish. Competition here has actually made the media more interested in presenting in-depth coverage and analysis of events. But the Egyptian media do share some problems with their counterparts in India. In both places, science journalists and especially nuclear journalists are rare.

One thing that this Roundtable has confirmed is that nuclear secrecy is a challenge common to a number of countries. In his first essay, Chaudhuri discussed a fear in India that "any nuclear information that India divulged would be used against it by the West." The same sort of attitude exists today in Egypt — government officials sometimes justify their refusal to provide details about nuclear issues by arguing that "the West will use it against us." Scientists working at sensitive research institutions sometimes do this too.

Alexander Golts noted in his first essay that, because he had questioned Russia's nuclear policies, he had been accused of promoting the interests of the United States. Something similar happens in Egypt: Some scientists affiliated with the government accuse groups that oppose the nuclear program of serving Israel's interests. From their point of view, the only beneficiary of stopping the program would be the state of Israel.

Egypt's revolution has led to greater press freedom, but a lack of transparency continues to characterize the country's nuclear program. With information so restricted, and amid the country's still-unsettled political situation, it is very difficult to ascertain the government's true stance regarding resumption of the nuclear program.

Toward the mainstream

As my colleague Alexander Golts has noted, secrecy has emerged as a central theme in this Roundtable. What always strikes me as most surprising about secrecy in the nuclear realm — more surprising than the secrecy itself, as officials would keep statistics on diapers classified if they could — is public acceptance of secrecy. (I'm speaking of India, but based on this Roundtable, similar conditions seem to pertain in some other emerging or non-Western states.)

At the heart of all this, in India at least, is the nuclear mystique that I discussed in my first essay; mystique, more than statutory regulations, allows India's nuclear program to operate with little public scrutiny. In a democracy, public mobilization is supposed to generate political pressure, which leads to legal or administrative reforms, which consolidate democracy. But if this feedback loop is never even started, chances for openness and lively debate are negligible.

Why does the mystique exist? I discussed some of the reasons in my first essay, but other factors are involved as well. One is the sense of awe that a well-publicized, high-end technology can engender in a developing nation — especially a technology with incredible destructive power. Another is the exclusivity with which nuclear technology was and is treated by the original nuclear nations, making this technology seem the most forbidden of fruits. (Many Indians incorrectly believe that possessing nuclear weapons was one of the criteria by which the five permanent members of the UN Security Council were selected.) As a result of all this, India's nuclear establishment is treated like a priesthood — one that should not be forced to reveal its sacred creed.

This mystique makes it difficult to normalize the nuclear debate. But if one were to bring the atomic narrative into the mainstream, how would one go about it? The first step would be to demystify civilian nuclear power by beginning to treat it as a normal sector of the economy. (Military applications would come later.) This change in context would make the nuclear power industry answerable to a larger public, force it to become more transparent, and subject it to the discipline of the market and the scrutiny of accountants.

India has begun taking some steps in this direction, thanks in part to three developments: a nuclear cooperation agreement with the United States; a decision by the Nuclear Suppliers Group, following heavy US lobbying, to exempt India from the technology-denial regime that was imposed due to its never signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; and an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency to subject India's civilian nuclear power sector to safeguards. This combination of agreements has resulted in a separation of the country's military and civilian nuclear programs and opened up the possibility that the nuclear power sector will internationalize in terms of technology, operations, and investment.

Also working to normalize nuclear energy is the government's turn toward envisioning the nuclear power sector as part of a global supply chain, one in which corporate India will be a supplier and customer. And the proliferation and safety issues that surround nuclear power plants are coming to be seen as technical and administrative, rather than as excuses for even more secrecy. This trend has been accelerated by the accident at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station and by a number of Indian anti-nuclear protests.

All in all, India is on the brink of a breakthrough whereby nuclear energy could stop being a subset of the country's overall nuclear arsenal and instead become a subset of the electricity industry. One sign that the breakthrough may be imminent: Coverage of nuclear issues is increasingly the beat of business reporters, rather than political or security correspondents.

Rising liability costs or a drop in fossil fuel prices could kill off, on simple economic grounds, any vigorous expansion of India's nuclear power program. But the mainstreaming of civilian nuclear power is unlikely to be reversed. Still, as is highlighted in Golts's essays on Russia, nuclear weapons tend to produce a different sort of official narrative, and India's nuclear weapons look unlikely to be mainstreamed any time soon.

Secrecy, the last refuge

To speak frankly, when the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists invited me to participate along with colleagues from developing countries in a roundtable discussion on nuclear journalism, I had some reservations. After all, Russia is the primary successor to the Soviet Union, a country that during the cold war was equal to the United States in the nuclear realm. Russia today, due to its giant arsenal of weapons and its advanced nuclear power industry (which constructs plants both domestically and in other countries, notably China and India), occupies the number two position in the nuclear arena. So I had some doubts about whether Russia truly belonged in a discussion of nuclear issues in the developing world.

The surprise is that my fellow Roundtable participants, judging from their initial essays, face many of the same problems as nuclear journalists that I have faced. Primary among these is the swamp of secrecy that confronts anyone who writes on nuclear issues in Russia, and evidently in India and Egypt as well.

I would argue that in the nuclear field there are not as many real secrets as there were 30 or 50 years ago. Designs for atomic bombs can easily be found in textbooks for university physics courses. Because of treaties between Russia and the United States, the locations of these countries' nuclear weapons and the organization of their nuclear forces are not a big secret, and the same largely holds true for France and the United Kingdom because of their transparent democratic institutions. The most important nuclear secrets of other nations are not secret either because of what is delicately referred to as "national means" (space reconnaissance, espionage, and the like). Today, the truly secret information amounts to very specific technical details about weapons or weapons production — and these topics hold no great public interest.

But a veil of secrecy nonetheless surrounds nuclear issues, and this allows officials to hide their own mistakes and incompetence when it comes to decision making on security issues. The Russian government recently announced that it intends to develop and deploy heavy liquid-fuel missiles to replace its retiring SS-18 missiles. The decision was made in complete secrecy, without discussion, without consultation with experts. But one must wonder how the missiles will be produced. Under the Soviet Union, "heavy" missiles were designed and manufactured in Ukraine. Russia has never produced land-based "heavy" liquid propellant missiles. So Russia must design these new missiles and might also have to build plants to produce them. All this would cost billions of dollars. The leaders of Russia's defense industry are keen on producing the new weapons, and so are top generals from the Strategic Rocket Forces. But no one asks whether the missiles are necessary to the country's security.

President Vladimir Putin insists that Russia's national security can be assured through maintaining quantitative equality with the United States in nuclear warheads. That's why he badly wants these "heavy" delivery vehicles, which can carry a dozen nuclear warheads. In Putin's eyes, only quantitative parity, with its promise of mutual assured destruction, can provide stability. But how do Russian strategists calculate the damage that might be inflicted in a nuclear war? This too is a great secret. Do they follow the sort of formula that US Defense Secretary Robert McNamara established in the 1960s, in which an "unacceptable degree of damage" was calculated as the destruction of 50 percent of a nation's industrial capacity and 20 to 25 percent of its population? In my view, exploding a single warhead represents unacceptable damage, and one warhead is enough to deter any aggressive US proclivities. But if this is the case, Russia is spending enormous resources on nothing.

A culture of secrecy turns national leaders into the hostages of those who provide them information. For example, Putin still believes that the United States wants to use ground-based interceptors to destroy Russian ballistic missiles in the boost phase. The US Congress stopped funding this project in 2009, but Putin ignores publically available information and trusts his secret reports instead.

Secrecy is the last refuge of the bureaucrat. It is where one hides incompetence and conceals self-interest — meanwhile doing all that can be done to avoid discussing one's decisions.

Round 3

Criticism is not enough

In the wake of the 2011 revolution, the Egyptian public is extremely interested in politics — nothing can compete when it comes to winning people's attention. Newspapers and magazines are filled with political news and analysis, leaving little space for coverage of scientific and nuclear issues. This situation is exacerbated among new, independent newspapers because independent firms that print newspapers are not available: Independent papers must print their editions through state newspapers such as Al-Ahram, Al-Gomhuria, and Al-Akhbarelyom, which control when an independent paper is printed, how it is distributed, how many pages it contains, and even how many pages appear in color. Independent editors-in-chief, facing constraints of this kind, must make choices about what topics to cover, and they usually favor politics over science. At the moment, interest in nuclear issues is especially low because Egypt's on-again, off-again nuclear energy program is once again delayed.

Lack of space in the newspaper is one of several major problems facing Egypt's science reporters. Another is that the government is insufficiently transparent and officials are often unwilling to provide information. But independent newspapers themselves are not free from blame: Their general editorial practice is to criticize the government without proposing solutions to the problems they identify. A good example is the country's shortage of gasoline, diesel, and butane. Independent newspapers have mainly limited their coverage of this story to reports from crowded gas stations and have not interviewed scientists or other experts to learn how the situation might be remedied.

Journalists play a very significant role in national decisions such as whether to pursue nuclear energy. Raising public awareness of the issues involved, from future electricity demand to nuclear safety, is an indispensable journalistic service. And here again, Egyptian journalists could do better. Newspapers have questioned a July 2012 report by the Ministry of Electricity and Energy stating that the country should pursue nuclear power to help meet future demand for an extra 300 megawatts of electricity annually, but haven't suggested how Egypt's electricity needs can be met if not through nuclear power. And regarding the proposed nuclear power facility at El-Dabaa, the public deserves dedicated reporting on whether El-Dabaa is an appropriate site for such a facility, rather than just coverage of protests against the plant. (Attention should also be paid to El-Nagila, a town that has been mentioned as the possible site of future reactors.)

At the same time, people who live near El-Dabaa deserve more from the government. It is residents who will suffer if a nuclear facility suffers an accident. Therefore, the government should embark on a transparent process regarding the siting of nuclear power facilities, bringing in scientists, environmental groups, local residents, and journalists. In this way, both the government and the media could fulfill their responsibilities to the public.

Why transparency matters

Do a country's nuclear policies, whether civilian or military, benefit from media scrutiny and public debate? How one answers this fundamental question determines one's attitude toward giving journalists more access to nuclear decision-making processes. A related question, and one that seems to be emerging from this Roundtable, is how to accustom a country's nuclear establishment to the idea that scrutiny and debate are indeed positive forces.

The best reason for subjecting nuclear policy to public examination is that debate allows policy to be vetted before it goes into effect. In the absence of this, crises can cause decisions to be made in environments of high emotion and political stress. India's recent history provides several examples of timely communication allowing policies to be instituted smoothly — or of failure to communicate having the opposite effect.

An often overlooked aspect of the 2008 US-India nuclear cooperation agreement is that it was viewed with deep suspicion by many of India's nuclear scientists, by people on the extremes of the country's political spectrum, and, according to what I was told by an Indian negotiator, by “70 percent of the Indian diplomatic community.” Yet Parliament approved the deal, and it did so with strong public support. What accounted for this support, especially considering that, judging from polling, the public had only the barest understanding of the deal? The answer is that the agreement resulted from a transparent negotiation process: Each step of the negotiation was publicized, and each finalized document was made public.

An example of insufficient transparency is provided by India's flawed 2010 civil nuclear liability law, which is out of keeping with international liability norms and makes importing reactors much more expensive than it should be. The law was drafted by populist parliamentarians. The governing coalition made little effort to explain the principles of nuclear liability to the opposition. As the bill neared a vote, my phone started ringing with calls from Indian manufacturers of nuclear components, who were realizing too late that the bill posed problems for them. My hypothesis as to why things happened as they did is that the country's nuclear establishment, so used to getting its own way, and never having interacted with Parliament in any formal manner, simply assumed the executive would intervene at some point and set things right.

Similar issues emerged following the accident at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station. New nuclear power facilities in India have long faced protests from farmers whose land is acquired for plant construction; after Fukushima, public demonstrations went into overdrive, affecting even facilities whose construction was already far advanced. While the protests revealed how little the public understood about nuclear safety, they also showed how little effort the nuclear establishment had made to communicate. I remember a lengthy press briefing by the then-head of the Atomic Energy Commission of India that was so technical and laden with jargon that most of the assembled journalists stopped taking notes. Nor was a press release or background paper issued.

The big worry. My real concern about poor communication and lack of transparency is that India's most important public nuclear debate — a debate on the nation's nuclear arsenal and doctrine — has yet to take place. When it does, the public might easily be influenced by a campaign of fear, for instance centering on the idea of a missile gap. India's nuclear arsenal has always been treated as a sanctum sanctorum, a realm to which the public is forbidden entry; doctrine, to the limited extent it has been publicized, has been treated as holy writ that cannot be questioned. Meanwhile, Pakistan is accumulating weapons-capable fissile material, Iran appears to be seeking a nuclear deterrent, and several major Asian nations are flirting with missile defense. From a doctrinal point of view, this is hardly a stable environment.

Amid all this, an effort to stoke public emotion on nuclear issues could produce an intensified arms race. The Indian public is not more vulnerable to emotional appeals than are people in other countries, but the government has made little attempt to publicize a clear nuclear doctrine, and room thus exists for cynical manipulation. The public has never questioned nuclear doctrine in the past. It is a dangerous assumption of the nation's nuclear establishment that people will not begin doing so now.

Nuclear weapons, national pride

This Roundtable has highlighted very clearly the biggest problem faced by many journalists who cover nuclear issues. Journalists, who want only to fulfill their duty to inform the public, often find themselves in a battle with officials who believe that important national objectives can be advanced by hiding or distorting information. In these situations it is usually easy for bureaucrats to prevail — especially in developing nations, and especially if the public is under the influence of government propaganda.

In a number of countries, nuclear technology is used as a symbol of national achievement. In Russia, this attitude has become a kind of fetish. Fans of Joseph Stalin (such people still exist) often repeat a statement they attribute to Winston Churchill: that Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plow and left it with a nuclear bomb. These self-appointed patriots like to discuss nuclear weapons, but they do not like to acknowledge the large number of Soviet citizens who died in the gulag, laboring at weapons factories or in uranium mines. All these deaths enabled the country's communist leaders to get their nuclear weapons, which in turn guaranteed their ability to conduct crazy political experiments upon their own people, and upon a significant segment of humanity in other countries.

Even today, nuclear weapons have functions that go far beyond military deterrence. They are also a marker of great power status. But nuclear weapons are the only such marker that Russia can claim; the Soviet Union bequeathed it no other superpower attribute. Russians cannot be proud of a high standard of living, fair distribution of wealth, or modern medical and educational systems. Therefore, Russian authorities want the public to be proud of the state's nuclear might.

And in some countries, nuclear weapons can be a tool that enables a dictatorship's survival. In North Korea, nuclear weapons provide a medieval tyranny with a guarantee against external interference. In my view, the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States provided every dictator on the planet with a clear incentive to acquire nuclear weapons.

Where hope lies. Russia's leaders seem to believe that the main goal of any opponent they might face is to deny Russia nuclear weapons. In 2004, terrorists took hostages at a school in the town of Beslan; this incident culminated in the deaths of more than 300 people, a majority of them children. Afterwards, Vladimir Putin had this to say: "Russia, as one of the biggest nuclear powers, still represents a threat to someone. Therefore this threat has to be eliminated. And terrorism is, of course, only a tool for achieving these goals." Such a political environment, in which security threats like those posed by a group of terrorists can be portrayed as a threat to the existence of Russia's nuclear arsenal, makes it quite easy to accuse objective journalists of acting as agents for a foreign state — or, as I explained in my first essay, to charge them with treason. And in these situations, the public will generally support the government over journalists.

All this will change only if the nation's attitude toward nuclear weapons changes. Unfortunately, it is difficult to see such a shift happening soon, even if Russia experiences “regime change." No head of the Russian state is likely to surrender a tool for international bargaining that is as effective as nuclear weapons. Therefore, the main hope for change in Russia's attitude toward nuclear weapons is overall improvement in the country. That is, if Russia changes for the better, and new national achievements emerge as focuses of pride, nuclear weapons will no longer be such a powerful symbol.

None of this will happen right away. But the press itself can help speed the process. Journalists must fulfill their obligation not only to inform the public of events, but also to educate citizens, to warn them of the risks associated with nuclear programs. This requires that journalists persist in offering honest, unbiased assessments of the issues they cover. Yes, this can be very difficult, and sometimes dangerous. But journalism has no point unless it is animated by such a mission.


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