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A meltdown of horror, on live TV

POSTED: March 20, 2011 1:00 a.m.

My teacher dropped the names of every U.S. president into a hat and asked us to choose one. In fifth grade, this was a big moment. We were choosing the subject of our first real research paper.

I wished for George Washington, Abe Lincoln or one of the Roosevelts. These were presidents we already knew a thing or two about, presidents teachers spoke about as though they were special. They were groundbreakers, courageous and strong. These were the presidents a fifth-grader covets.

So imagine my disappointment when I dipped my hand inside the hat and plucked the piece of paper that said "Harry S. Truman."

"Who?"

"He's the guy after one of the Roosevelts," the girl sitting next to me answered.

Well, within two months I knew more about Truman than anyone in the class. My lessons started with a World Book encyclopedia, which were still in bound format at the time.

That's the very first moment I pictured the word "nuclear." It was indeed a giant "mushroom cloud."

This entire memory burst into focus last week.

As a mom coping with how to raise a young child, these reflections seem to happen a lot more than they used to.

This last one came nearly a week ago as I sat down with a cup of coffee and grabbed the television remote. I toggled between the potential nuclear meltdown in Japan and "Thomas and Friends," a program about hard-working trains on the imaginary island of Sodor, where manufacturing is a really, really big deal.

To avoid an infant tantrum at home, my 20-month-old's smile won out.

Because, sadly, Japan's own possible meltdown is now in the cross hairs of 24-hour news cycle. And I'm glued to it.

Dozens of images, video and stills are flowing out of the battered country, hit on all sides it seems with various levels of disaster.

We as media and a news-consuming public have never witnessed a nuclear situation unfold when there's an endless supply of live television and Internet feed.

It's a sickening but true notion.

This manic obsession with real-time events started with the invasion of Kuwait in 1991. Reporters broadcast news over sirens, strapped on gas masks and pointed to the skies over Bagdad, where bombs illuminated the nightscape like fireworks.

We've watched wars, been placed in the eye of the hurricane and witnessed its devastating fallout in New Orleans. Terrorists took out New York right in front of us, the Twin Towers collapsing in slow motion. We've watched oil gush from the earth into the Gulf of Mexico, seen earthquakes destroy countries and big tidal waves level towns.

But nuclear fallout is fresh material.

Until now, such images were kept safely in the World Book vault, more or less. Still images in history, such as the mushroom cloud from Truman's era, helped establish a comfortable distance from a very uncomfortable subject.

Even the worst nuclear plant meltdown in history, Russia's Chernobyl, was shrouded in secrecy.

Not so in Japan.

It doesn't matter how the story plays out, the damage is done in terms of the imagery that provides us with a fresh look at the impact of nuclear disaster on a place and its people.

One NPR report this week tried, weakly, to remind folks to keep perspective on the situation.

"Experts say workers at the Fukushima plant probably won't be so lucky, but the Japanese public should be OK. It's important, though, to keep the problem of radiation in context," one report surmised.

As a mom, there is no such thing.

Before Japan's crisis, I wondered to myself how I'd explain Thomas & Friends not using "clean coal" technology.

In today's world, however, I have realized a something different.

My son will grow up and ask me what "noo-clee-uuurr" means and looks like. And there's just no telling what that picture will be.

Erin Rossiter is a reporter for The Times. Her column appears in the Sunday Life section and on gainesvilletimes.com.



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