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NPR's Richard Harris: On the Frontlines of Gulf Oil Spill, Japan's Nuclear Crisis

July 14, 2011

Of the many news scenes where NPR science correspondent Richard Harris has reported from around the world for three decades, few were as prominent as the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in April 2010 and Japan's nuclear crisis this year.

Harris, a VLS summer media fellow, compared how the two disasters were handled by the U.S. and Japanese governments, respectively, and the news media in a Hot Topics lecture July 14 at Vermont Law School.

Image of oil spillHe described the uncertainty in the early days of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, where Coast Guard Admiral Thad Allen, the national incident commander, minimized the severity of the accident -- so much so that Harris worked on other stories for a few days until the extent of the disaster became more clear.

Harris said Allen wasn't qualified to be the government's point person because he wasn't knowledgeable about deepwater oil drilling technology. "None of us were," Harris said, adding that the media and public didn't understand the risks of drilling at such depths.

Harris described how he broke the news that the blown-out well was spewing far more oil than asserted in official estimates. He tracked down independent scientists who analyzed the oil's flow rate from satellite images and videotape of the leaking well. The scientists estimated 50,000 to 100,000 of barrels of oil a day were spewing out rather than the 5,000 barrels estimated by BP and the government. The White House didn't like the story but soon acknowledged the severity of the accident and brought in more oil containment vessels and equipment.

Image of waveJust before the Gulf oil spill's one-year anniversary, Harris received a phone call from his managing editor at 2:15 a.m. on March 11, saying an earthquake had struck off the coast of Japan and generated a tsunami that caused widespread death and destruction on the nation's northeast coast.

Harris flew to Japan the next day and found a situation similar to the Gulf oil spill -- government and company officials who were unable or unwilling to provide accurate information as the disaster unfolded. He said the Japanese government, nuclear plant officials, utility regulators and local media provided scant information about the disaster. Officials gave out precise technical information but no context, so the radiation threat wasn't immediately clear and the Japanese public soon became frustrated and distrustful of the government, he said.





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