My nuclear Armageddon and shame as a journalist

Frank Touby —

Back in the 1980s when I was writing in national magazines and making a lot more in those pre-inflation, pre-recession dollars than I did as a broadcast commentator for Financial Post and as a newspaper editor today, I got an assignment from Maclean’s Magazine to research and write a cover story on Canada’s nuclear power industry.

It was my greatest failure as a journalist and I ached from that experience for many years.

It reminded me of an event I observed surrounding the dissolution of a young reporter at The Palm Beach Post where I was an editorial writer and editor in the late 1960s.

To this day I don’t know what freaked him out, but it was something to watch.

He had been given an assignment that caused him to actually dissolve in blubbery tears when he mentioned it to his editors or even thought about it.

They were hoping to get enough of the story out of him to go ahead with the piece. But it was impossible. He was an emotional wreck and they ended up giving him a paid leave.

I never saw him again. He was a poor, shattered, sensitive young man.

I couldn’t understand what on earth would bring him to such a state and the other editors wouldn’t disclose what sort of event or revelation was involved or what the assignment was about.

I had considered myself a hard-bitten realist. It didn’t quite happen to me in the way that young man in West Palm Beach was shattered by a story. I didn’t melt down as did he, but it made me tongue-tied and ashamed.

For the first time in my journalism career…and so far the only time…I couldn’t deliver copy.

It just wouldn’t fly.

My excellent Maclean’s editor at the time was Ernest Hillen, a sensitive, kind man who wanted to help me out of my conundrum, but I couldn’t even explain it to him. My reality was shattered by what I experienced and what I saw and the words just wouldn’t flow.

Not for an assignment.

Ernest’s career wasn’t exactly on the line, but it didn’t look good for him if he gave such a premier assignment to a writer and said writer failed to deliver at all. I felt horrible about it and yet there was nothing I could do to reverse it.

My words probably would have flowed were I the owner of Maclean’s as I am of The Bulletin, where only my publisher and to a lesser degree my managing editor are able to influence my choices of words.

I knew I couldn’t get away writing in Maclean’s the words that came to me.

What brought me to this journalistic standstill was the result of my visiting nuclear facilities one summer and getting a thorough understanding of what it’s all about. I was treated royally by the industry rep, a nuclear engineer, who put me up overnight in his house on the Ontario nuclear reserve outside Ottawa and his gracious wife made us breakfast.

From there I was driven to the reactor, issued a badge that measures the degree of radiation to which I would have been exposed. At the end of the tour, I would receive a report on how much radiation that was when I turned in the badge.

I as we departed from the car into a motorboat I was discouraged from photographing the acres of dead-looking forest on the way to the reactor, which I was told had nothing to do with the tree-kill and was some other natural event. I took a picture anyway, despite a frown from my host, and explained to him that it wasn’t for the story but just because the sight of the dead trees made such a compelling photo.

I didn’t argue with him. I didn’t quite believe his explanation, but I had—and still have—no reason to think it wasn’t some sort of nuclear-industry related damage to that huge forest.

But I was there to be schmoozed in order to write a thoughtful piece for Maclean’s readers about the industry and its place in our world.

The more I saw, the more I disbelieved. They more they schmoozed, the more I felt like retching.

What occurred to me in short order was that this is undoubtedly the biggest industrial scandal on earth. Possibly the biggest in history. The only exception to that might be if sometime in the distant past a similar event had occurred that destroyed all intelligent life on this planet and we reemerged after all those eons to this condition of similarity and insanity.

That’s what kept running through my brain. The numbers were astronomical:

Eons worth of hazardous waste created by the megaton must be stored for longer than life has existed on this rendition of planet Earth.

The waste is stored in huge “swimming pools” until some safe place can be found to bury it. No such thing yet.

All that to boil water so you can boil water on your electric stove.

These weird images kept slipping into my head as I did the reporter thing and tried to craft the lead to my cover article.

I had come to a conclusion already before the story was even completely told to me by the industry brain washers. And they were good. They were calm.

They could talk smoothly and sensitively about how technology and engineering excellence and precise supervision would cope with any of those near-impossible-to-happen problems that conceivably might arise.

They were surrounded, they maintained, by the highest quality human beings in Canada, all nearly superhuman in their dedication, competence and alacrity.

Nobody mentioned the many nuclear reactors built on earthquake faults, or the fact that huge bodies of water were required to keep them from melting down.  The reactor at Chernobyl in Russia had occurred and shocked the hell out of the world. That’s why I was to investigate and, I presumed, reassure our readers.

Chernobyl, they said, was there and we’re here where our safe little home-grown nukes aren’t hot-water reactors like the reckless Russians and Americans use.

We’re Canadian bland. We use a different strategy to boil water with uranium than those rash other peoples. No boiling allowed.

Fukushima hadn’t happened, of course, but as I look at it from this current view, I finally forgive myself for my psychic meltdown that inhibited me from filing the story to Maclean’s.

My instincts were correct, I believe. Nuclear power is indeed the biggest industrial scandal in the history of mankind. I didn’t dare tell Maclean’s that all those years ago.

And I suffered the ignominy of failing to produce a cover story which is a rare assignment for a freelance writer such as I was in those days.

By the way, they never did report to me from the nuclear facility how much radiation my badge said I received.