The Columbia Journalism Review has published an article titled A Frustrating AP Series on Nuclear Safety that analyses the four part series of “investigative” reports published during June of 2011. Here is an example quote from the article:
But the AP series, while it tackles a critically important public policy issue, suffers from lapses in organization, narrative exposition, and basic material selection, what to leave in and what to leave out. Too much is left to rest on inconclusive he-said-she-said exchanges that end up more confusing than illuminating for readers. Great investigative reporting requires great investigative writing. The challenge in this case was to get past the rhetorical skirmishing between old antagonists—industry, government, watchdog and citizen groups— and provide readers with the context necessary to understand what’s at stake for all of us as nuclear plants reach their shelf life. In this, the AP did not wholly succeed.
However, the review was also quite critical of the way that the NEI responded as the voice of the industry.
Closed-loop environments breed this sort of self-justifying reasoning and, more importantly, cut insiders off from valuable public feedback. In requesting this Arbiter , NEI’s media relations chief, Steven Kerekes, wrote that the industry is ”well accustomed to tough media scrutiny and coverage that we feel tilts negative.”
Perhaps fuller disclosure of issues in the public interest would be more effective at turning around any image problems than slamming the messenger.
The article is posted on a site that accepts comments, so I added the following in hopes of generating some thoughtful discussion.
There is nothing that is “closed-loop” about nuclear energy. You do not have to be born into any kind of particular family in order to go to school to learn about the technology. There are a large number of paths to entering the field from joining the Navy to attending a technical community college to going through a technically based undergraduate program with follow on education at the masters or even PhD level.
Nukes are welcoming people – as long as you are hard working, remain drug free, and display a high degree of personal integrity. We have to trust the people we work with to tell the unvarnished truth, even if that truth means admitting an error. We operate large, complex, very expensive equipment. Trying to cover a mistake with a lie is the quickest way to be drummed out of the field.
Interestingly enough, at least one of the “experts” quoted by the AP story and this review of it is a disgruntled ex nuke who was pushed out of the industry when his employer discovered that he was padding his expense account and purposely arranging “meetings” in locations that happen to be located close to exceptional golf courses.
Understanding how carefully nuclear power plants are maintained requires more than a cursory look at some of the countless pages of documents that the industry produces every year. It is not news to any engineer that pipes made of steel occasionally rust or develop thinning walls, that electrical cable insulation becomes brittle in certain situations, or that valves develop leaking seals. We have inspection routines and planned maintenance systems that are designed to identify these situations and correct them before they cause major risks.
A tour through a nuclear plant followed immediately by a tour through a coal or gas plant will highlight the vast differences in the standards applied, even though all energy production facilities share similar risks of handling high energy fluids and potentially harmful chemicals.
As Mike H pointed out, the whole tritium issue can be better understood by simple math – amount released times the concentration in the released fluid – and then a comparison against a reasonable standard, like the amount of tritium inside an illuminated exit sign.
With regard to making INPO reports public, it must be remembered that the nuclear industry has some very rich and powerful enemies that have displayed their intention to do everything they can to destroy their competitor. Every day that a large nuclear plant operates, it represents a lost opportunity for the hydrocarbon industry to sell more of its product. Replacing the output of one large plant requires burning about $1 million per day worth of natural gas, so the fleet of 104 reactors represents a lost sales opportunity of about $100 million per day or nearly $40 billion per year.
Just think what those numbers would look like if we had simply kept building new nuclear plants with the infrastructure that was fully developed by the end of 1980. The whole coal industry would have been out of business by 2000 and there would be plenty of gas for vehicles and home heating because we would not be burning any of it in power plants.
If you want to ask why “the media” as represented by the AP would run a multi-article hit job on the nuclear industry and not even start a similar investigation about our nation’s aging natural gas pipelines, whose failures have already killed people in their homes and destroyed entire neighborhoods (San Bruno, for example), just remember how many times you see ads for Shell, ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Citgo and how rarely you see ads from GE about nuclear energy or from Dominion, Exelon, or Entergy.
Ads provide the bread and butter for commercial media. Journalists might be willing to bite the hands that feed them, but publishers and editors rarely support attacking major contributors to their bottom lines.
Just in case you think it is not fair of me to point out the media’s money motive, think about how nuclear professionals feel every time they are accused of being shills just because they happen to have a good job in an industry that produces a product that Americans value so much that it makes the headlines if the supply is interrupted for a few hours.
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Hat tip to NEI Nuclear Notes who mentioned the CJR article in a post titled CJR Critiques AP Series on Nuclear Plant Safety.
If you are looking for other interesting nuclear material to read, I highly recommend Dan Yurman’s analysis of why Saudi Arabia is interested in building as many as 16 large nuclear plants with the first one going on line by 2020. This post was published in mid August, but I must have missed it. It is a good thing that news and information on the web never really disappears.