By Gary Alan Fine
This has been a prime year for weather catastrophes. If only one could easily invest in disaster. From Joplin to Minot to Memphis weather has demanded our attention. Natural disasters are always with us, of course, but this year, thanks to the disastrous hurricane and tsunami north of Tokyo, it is the talk of the town. Seeing those nuclear plants flooded by a wave of water is not something that can be easily forgotten. The pictures reverberate still. They provoke hot memories.
Rumor scholars understand that when an image is burned into our collective imagination it takes a long time to dissipate. Everything becomes filtered through that possibility. If a tragedy happened once, it could happen again and again and again. If catastrophe could strike at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear plant, why not in rural Nebraska?
For those who have not been following the meteorological news carefully, such a fear of disaster in Omaha seems frankly zany. But this June much of the Midwest and Mid-South has been covered in flood waters. And with the recent events north of Tokyo any nuclear power plant that gets damp appears to be at risk.
Rumors have lately been spreading in the center of the American heartland (and as far as South Asia) about the dangers of flooding at the Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant, near Blair, Nebraska. A fire in the switchgear room of the plant disrupted cooling systems for an hour and a half, although the plant was in "cold shutdown" since April, because of flooding danger. The pictures are graphic; the nuclear generators are surrounded by water. The Cooper nuclear plant near Brownville, Nebraska had also been threatened by the rising Missouri river. Had the river risen another eighteen inches the plant would have been shut down. Both plants declared that an "unusual event" had occurred, which, while worrisome, is the lowest level of emergency among nuclear regulators.
When a contemporary disturbance can be linked to a well-known disaster, the public mind churns into overdrive. Seeing these images of flooding and aware of the fire, the analogy was powerful. Flood and fire equal disaster.
One Pakistani English-language online newspaper, citing Russian sources, described the accident at Fort Calhoun as "one of the worst" in U.S. history. The report suggested that President Obama tried to clamp down on news reports and ordered a no-fly zone over Fort Calhoun because of the danger of radiation plumes. Conspiracy claims blossomed, charging that, because of government inaction, residents were in danger of a nuclear catastrophe. Reading from the incident in Fukushima and the lack of timely response from the Japanese power company, the possibility that the administration might underplay the real danger seemed all too real to many. The rumors kept spreading, a spark away from panic.
But at this point this panic has not occurred. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission assured us that there was little danger, insisting that radiation has not been released. Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the agency, recognized that "the rumors have been as difficult to combat as the rising floodwaters," condemning false information on blogs and social media. The Omaha Public Power District wisely placed a page on their website that served as "Flood Rumor Control." The water is slowly receding and so are the rumors.
Not being a nuclear engineer, I have no independent knowledge as to the denials; however, I have read no credible evidence that suggests that the good people of the heartland are in danger. Warren Buffet can breathe a sigh of relief.
Still, the episode reminds us of how rumors are generated. People judge potential dangers in light of what has happened previously. Images speak volumes in organizing how we think and what we believe. People routinely engage in evaluation through what social psychologists speak of as "comparative contexts." A dramatic visual impression primes us to judge images that appear similar through that cognitive prism. Thanks to Japan we know what a nuclear disaster looks like, even if it doesn't. And so as of today the residents of Omaha seem safe and secure. The fire and the flood have spared them - this time.
Gary Alan Fine is a John Simon Guggenheim Fellow and the author of Authors of the Storm: Meteorologists and the Culture of Prediction.