Last night, CNN Presents aired a completely one sided and inaccurate portrayal of the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant. It extensively quoted both Arnie Gundersen and Bernie Sanders and included a staged interview that made the Nuclear Regulatory Commission look both incompetent and unresponsive. That episode is scheduled to be repeated tonight. Here is a video excerpt from the story.
It has been just a little more than a week since the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission issued its first combined license (COL) ever for a new nuclear power station under the “new” one step licensing process that was developed in the late 1980s and issued as 10 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) part 52.
That COL for Southern Company’s Vogtle nuclear power plant units 3 & 4 was also the first time that the NRC has issued a construction permit for a new nuclear power station in the United States since 1978, the year before the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power station experienced a highly publicized partial meltdown.
Since that expensive industrial accident – which only damaged a small portion of the internals of an industrial facility and did not hurt a single person – the effort to discourage the use of nuclear energy made the letters “TMI” one of the most frequently repeated acronyms in the United States. That happened decades before someone decided that they can also mean “too much information.”
Part of the effort to halt the growth of nuclear energy included a well-supported media campaign designed to question the credibility and integrity of nuclear energy professionals and to paint the industry as an uncaring behemoth that was more worried about profits than people. I have long suspected that a major reason there was so much pressure against the use of nuclear energy is that the technology strongly threatens the profitability of selling hydrocarbon fuels like coal, natural gas and oil.
After all, it uses an emission free fuel source that is currently selling for about 65 cents per million BTUs – and that price is for fuel that is fully refined and delivered to a power plant. Even when compared to the incredibly low spot market price for natural gas in the US of $2.65 (February 18, 2012) nuclear fuel is really cheap. When converted to the same units of energy, the current spot market price for Brent dated crude oil is $21 and the current spot market price for refined heating oil is $44 per million BTU.
Sure, people will correctly point out that the cost of constructing nuclear power plants is outrageously higher than the cost of constructing fossil fuel burners, but the fundamental truth is that nuclear plants use virtually the same machinery for converting heat into electricity as fossil fuel plants do. The real reason that nuclear plants cost so much more than fossil plants is that every step in the process takes a lot longer and gets a lot more scrutiny.
The hydrocarbon fuel business is one of the world’s largest and most lucrative enterprises. It is also tightly tied to governments around the world and, despite the fact that no one can really tell one gasoline or natural gas molecule from another, it is an industry that spends heavily on advertising in the popular media.
Aside: In fact, during the commercial break that immediately preceded the story about Vermont Yankee, CNN aired a Chevron commercial touting “clean natural gas”. I am sure that few viewers recognize that the natural gas industry would be the primary beneficiary of a decision to shut down that plant. The appearance of that commercial might have been pure coincidence, but due to the concentration of those commercials on venues like CNN, it was not a low probability accident. End Aside.
One of the aspects of the program that has gotten me fired up is the way that CNN was able to portray the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as an unresponsive industry lapdog that believes that open government means publishing documents on a web site. I happen to know differently – even as a blogger, when I contact the NRC Director of Public Relations, I get an almost immediate response.
I could not help but think that the response to a request from CNN for comment was a purposeful setup. My suspicions were reinforced the third time I watched the above video and paid close attention to the exchange between Amber Lyon and an unnamed NRC spokesman. It was almost inaudible, but the unnamed NRC spokesman stated that all five of the commissioners, including the chairman were, at the very same time that Amber was outside of the NRC’s office with a CNN film crew, testifying in front of a House committee.
That means that the film had to have been shot on December 14, 2011 when all five commissioners were invited to testify in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. That event was well publicized before it happened. There is almost no conceivable way that CNN producers would not have known that the commissioners were unavailable that morning.
It also means that video footage is more than two months old, yet the segment was timed to air just one week after a lot of positive news about the first approval for the construction of a new nuclear power plant since 1978.
A couple of hours ago, I sent my contacts at the NRC an inquiry to find out why the agency was so unresponsive to interview requests from CNN, a major news network working on a story with a strong potential for harming the industry, at such a key time in the deployment of new nuclear power stations.
Here is an excerpt from the response I received. It turned out that my contact was the person who made the decision not to engage CNN on camera.
My decision was based on long experience as a public affairs professional, with substantial news magazine experience, and on a conversation with our general counsel. It would have been wholly inappropriate to accommodate their request for the chairman to discuss the Vermont Yankee case while it was in the federal courts.
By the way, we have something up in For the Record reinforcing the reason for the decision.
I apologize for my earlier, incorrect guess that decision came from the chairman.
PS – There is another set of coincidences that I cannot resist pointing out. At the same time that the operators at TMI made their expensive mistakes, there was a relatively obscure movie running in the theaters that included a line about the way that a reactor accident could contaminate an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania.
That movie, The China Syndrome, suddenly became a box office hit when there was a nuclear reactor accident that just happened to be in the state of Pennsylvania. It starred Jane Fonda, a hereditary member of the Hollywood branch of the media establishment and a famous anti-Vietnam war activist, who combined her starring role in The China Syndrome and her experience as an activist to become one of the harshest critics of the nuclear industry.
More than a decade later, Jane married Ted Turner, the media mogul who built upon his family’s outdoor advertising business to found a superstation called TBS and followed that with founding CNN, the first 24 hour news network. Ted and Jane remained married for ten years until their 2001 divorce. Turner has gradually become a major player in the US natural gas industry. He owns enormous tracts of land in the western United States that are home to tens of thousands of natural gas wells.
Yes Vermont Yankee published an excellent warning about the upcoming CNN segment titled CNN Hatchet Job About Vermont Yankee
NEI Nuclear Notes also recognized the threat and published a series of advanced warning articles:
A Preview of CNN’s Report on Vermont Yankee
Some Facts on Vermont Yankee That Didn’t Make the CNN Report
How Safe is Vermont Yankee? Ask the NRC, Not CNN.
Idaho Samizdat has a post titled Vermont Yankee in the Spottlight.