CBC rediscovers existence of Dalhousie University nuclear reactor. Everybody hide.
I published this article on my former blog, in late July 2010. I think it is still a good read today, just as a reminder of how the media can play up irrelevant aspects of a story in such a way to unnecessarily scare people. Unfortunately, the link to the original chronicle Herald article is no longer active.
I followed with some concern the Halifax news outlets as they have been reporting a fire on the 8th floor of the Life Sciences Centre at Dalhousie University. The fire occurred Saturday night, and while there were no injuries, it has forced the temporary closure of four buildings including the Chemistry Building, my home away from home for over 5 years.
The Chronicle-Herald’s coverage, which I linked to in the first paragraph, was a straightforward account. The CBC, on the other hand, seems to believe that it struck investigative gold. Notice the subheading of its story:
“One building contains a small nuclear reactor, but officials say it was untouched”.
Yes, the basement of the LSC contains a small nuclear reactor, named SLOWPOKE, located six metres below the concrete floor and therefore, nine stories below the fire. The reactor is presently being decommissioned after over three decades of service, during which it was used in research using neutron activation analysis, research which has led to dozens and dozens of publications. Oh, and with no examples of contamination, detonation, glowing students, or any other concerns. I had a chance to visit the reactor, and I worked in close proximity to the research group that made most use of the reactor, and I can assure everybody that safety was certainly the primary concern to them.
The CBC article gives the impression that the existence of the nuclear reactor is as much of a story as the fire itself. After all, it dedicates a full paragraph to describing the nuclear reactor, with all of its information coming from… the Dalhousie University school newspaper. If you looked at the original Dal Gazette article, you’d find that some of the quotes are taken pretty much verbatim. (Compare its 3rd paragraph to the 3rd-to-last paragraph of the CBC article.) I am not denigrating the integrity of the Gazette, which I read faithfully during my time at Dal, but lifting a story from the school newspaper as your sole source on this is rather sketchy journalism, especially when other information on SLOWPOKE can be found on Dalhousie’s News site, on the chemistry department website, and even general information in Wikipedia. In fact, the CBC itself reported on the decommissioning in December 2009.
This kind of journalism is not only sloppy, but can contribute to public hysteria. The fact that CBC only used information from a student newspaper, even when they had previously covered the reactor, can also give the impression that the nuclear reactor is an installation that is only supposed to be known by a select few people on campus. (After all, why would Dal not be more upfront about this? Why would it take a student newspaper to “break” this story?) People who are reading about the fire may also be learning about the nuclear reactor for the first time. They will immediately connect “fire” and “nuclear reactor” together, and some may now be unnecessarily concerned about the possibility of a nuclear meltdown in South End Halifax.
Yes, there is a nuclear reactor in the LSC. No, there was no reason to mention it in this article, since it was never in danger of being struck. Now imagine if the CBC had discovered all the sea life that live in the LSC…