The West Wing has a meltdown

The West Wing. Season 7 Episode 12: Duck and Cover. 2006. Directed by Christopher Misiano, written by Aaron Sorkin and Eli Attie.

Seven years ago Aaron Sorkin dared to put a nuclear accident into his television series The West Wing. Duck and Cover (Season 7, Episode 12) portrays the fictional President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) dealing with a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in “San Andreo” – a fictional city located “near San Diego.” Viewed from the perspective of 2013, we can see that Sorkin had a keen premonition of which of America’s 100 or so commercial nuclear reactors would soon be in trouble. The fictional “San Andreo” was an obvious stand-in for the San Onofre plant near San Diego that has been shut down since 2012 with numerous problems that are likely to be the end of it.
Kudos to Sorkin for wanting to remind the nation about the hazards of nuclear energy almost thirty years after Three Mile Island, and during the nuclear renaissance that was happening in the years before Fukushima. In the time just before and after Fukushima, no major media companies have been eager to air anything critical of nuclear energy. They are either beholden to corporate sponsors with interests in nuclear, or they are owned by conglomerates with interests in nuclear. Even the wide-ranging satirical jabs of Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert have studiously avoided giving anything but passing reference to the crisis in Fukushima.
In spite of the noble effort to bring nuclear energy back to public awareness, the episode might have done a disservice to the cause by giving audiences an overly simplistic and positive view of how their government would handle an actual crisis. Throughout the series, President Bartlet is the wise, idealistic and effective leader that viewers should know is a complete fantasy. However, many progressives actually seem to believe that the Democratic Party is always led by a Camelot on a white horse.
For example, in Duck and Cover, we see a presidential debate in which one candidate is pro-nuclear and the other anti-nuclear, and they actually discuss nuclear energy in the debate. In reality, during the last election nuclear energy was never mentioned during the debates, and both parties were solidly pro-nuclear.
When the crisis begins at the fictional power plant, it is managed in a way that is totally unbelievable; that is, competently. The president is informed immediately, and he demands that the heads of FEMA and the NRC be in his office within fifteen minutes. He is surrounded by competent advisers who understand nuclear energy and the full implications of a broken cooling system. Credibility is pushed further when the president expresses his wish to make full public disclosure of the situation, including the data on radiation levels, and begin evacuations – even if it turns out later that they were not necessary.
As conditions worsen at the power plant, they have to contemplate the lesser evil of releasing radioactive steam deliberately in order to avoid an explosion that would lead to a catastrophe. The president decides that he will order two NRC engineers into the plant to manually open and close the necessary valves in order to avoid the worst outcome. One gets radiation sickness and the other dies. It’s nice to think that a civilian engineer would make this sacrifice to save children from getting thyroid cancer, a bit like Bruce Willis staying behind on the meteor in Armageddon. But, in reality, nuclear plant managers in Fukushima didn’t send anyone on potential suicide missions. It’s pure speculation to say now that a dangerous mission to open stuck valves manually might have averted the explosions, but it is notable that no one tried. One might be tempted to think it was culture; that is, they were, in Japanese fashion, waiting for a consensus to form before rushing to a decision. If you think Americans would be more heroic, just research the grand FUBAR situation that was the response to Three Mile Island.
Another thing that the story gets wrong is the portrayal of the evacuation. Within hours people as far away as Colorado are jamming the highways in desperate attempts to go eastward. The reality of a real evacuation is that because the threat is intangible, most people have to be prodded into feeling some sense of urgency. People with young children might get out quickly, but everyone else hesitates to believe the threat is real.
Finally, the most laughably implausible line of the story comes at the end when President Bartlet declares that the government will "help with the relocation of those who may not wish to return to San Andreo." Governments tend to leave even the mandatory evacuees with much less than they deserve, so it is a stretch to believe a government would ever offer compensation to voluntary evacuees. As I wrote above, though, The West Wing was wish fulfillment fantasy for American progressives. Such deluding entertainment must have had some effect on a public that fell for “hope and change” right after this show ended its seven year run. They ended up with a president who has little of the idealism, toughness and wisdom portrayed by the fictional president of The West Wing.

In other parts of the story, President Bartlet has some good comeback lines to the Republican presidential candidate (Alan Alda) who had been lobbied years earlier to support the construction of “San Andreo.” The Republican says risk is everywhere, “people die in car accidents,” but the president’s retorts, “Yes, but when they do, they don’t tell you to stop eating produce three states away.” One can conclude from the episode that Sorkin made a noble attempt to portray an anti-nuclear stance.* The Democratic candidate comes out at the end firmly convinced that we have to rethink energy policy and move away from nuclear. The trouble is that in the real world, neither of the two major parties is remotely interested in abandoning nuclear. Only massive pressure from citizens can change policy, and it would probably take a major accident on American soil to make this happen.

*Sorkin took up the nuclear issue again in 2012 by putting the Fukushima meltdowns into a storyline of The Newsroom (Season 1, Episode 6), but the issue was only a sideline in a story about journalistic ethics. It came off a little like an excuse to portray the novelty of a beautiful American actress (Olivia Munn) speaking Japanese.

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