A Frustrating AP Series on Nuclear Safety

The industry's blunder-buss response doesn't help; public left confused

Editor’s note: This is an installment of our Audit Arbiter series, which looks into complaints about business news stories. If there’s something we should take a look at, write dean@deanstarkman.com.

The Associated Press didn’t pick a soft target when it decided to examine potential safety risks associated with the aging of America’s nuclear power plants.

Because of longstanding public anxiety about nuclear accident coupled with limited public knowledge of the science and technology underpinning safety, the nuclear power industry maintains a robust public relations operation, headquartered at the Nuclear Energy Institute, in Washington, DC. The mainstays are community meetings, mailings, lobbying and press interviews. But the PR team is equally adept at pouncing on critical stories with the potential to stoke private unease into public outcry.

The AP got a dose of both—reassuring interviews over the course of the investigation and outraged denunciations of critical findings via press and teleconferences, even a YouTube smackdown by the industry’s chief safety officer.

The NEI’s heavy-handed response was overkill. I suppose, in a way, we’re part of that since the NEI asked us to look into it, and we agreed. Such is the life of the Arbiter.

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.

The series—four parts plus sidebars and graphics (not readily searchable online but a version is available via these MSNBC.com links)—ran in late June. It generated calls for investigations by three Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer of California, Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and has been part of a spate of recent probes into U.S. nuclear-industry safety by other news organizations, particularly after the tsunami-related disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in March.

Reading it was, for me, a hugely frustrating experience.

Yes, the series provides lots of examples of worrisome wear and tear at nuclear power plants, many of which have passed the forty-year lifespan for which they originally were designed. Reporter Jeff Donn, whose byline appears over the series, and the AP National Investigative team (which is referred to throughout the series) culled these examples from “tens of thousands of pages of government and industry studies….along with test results, inspection reports and regulatory policy statements filed over four decades,” according to Part 1, “Safety Rules Loosened for Aging Nuclear Reactors.”

This is laudable thoroughness. Yet, time and again, the cited leaks of radioactive material and instances of “failed cables, busted seals, broken nozzles, clogged screens, cracked concrete,” etc. (from Part 1) lead nowhere conclusive.

As a citizen reader with no particular background in nuclear power generation but residing less than 50 miles (the preferred safety margin, according to the AP report) from one of these old clunkers, I felt throughout like I was clinging to a pendulum, swinging wildly between “Uh oh” and “Phew, false alarm.”

For example, Part 2, “Radioactive Tritium Leaks Found at 48 US Nuke Sites,” provides plenty of detail about specific leaks at some of the nation’s 104 reactors, but little expository context by which to judge their significance. Meanwhile, the facts aren’t always logically arrayed. The point is made in paragraph five, for instance, that no leaks from any nuclear plant were found to have reached public water supplies, but it isn’t until paragraph sixteen that the reader learns that tritium’s main risk is, in fact, through drinking water. Another paragraph seems to debunk tritium concerns entirely: “Tritium is relatively short-lived and penetrates the body weakly through the air compared to other radioactive contaminants. Each of the known releases has been less radioactive than a single x-ray.”

The context I craved throughout this series would, in the above example, have played out this way: “Tritium is relatively short-lived [meaning what?] and penetrates the body weakly through the air [Does that mean the skin is an effective barrier? Or is the concern inhaling it?] compared to other radioactive contaminants [Such as? Do nuclear power plants emit them? How long do they last in the environment?] Each of the known releases has been less radioactive than a single x-ray. [So no harm, right?]

In exchange for the sort of reporting detail that logically addresses readers’ likely questions, I’d happily forgo some of the speculative commentary from the series’ many talking heads. Too often, for my comfort, their sometimes-alarming statements are left to stand alone without supportive evidence or response from top officials. Here’s an example, from Paul Blanch, an industry engineer-turned whistleblower:

“You’ve got pipes that have been buried underground for 30 or 40 years, and they’ve never been inspected, and the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal oversight group) is looking the other way. They could have corrosion all over the place.”

These are powerful—and scary—assertions, but where’s the evidence of the NRC “looking away” or of “corrosion all over the place?” The AP series bristles with quotes like this, leaving the reader to sort through them and, somehow, judge the credibility of the speaker. The problem with this approach is that important statements from knowledgeable sources can get lost in the shuffle, such as this one from a former member of the NRC’s Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards explaining why tritium leaks matter:

Any leak is a problem because you have the leak itself - but it also says something about the piping.

Clearly, the series involved a massive effort on the part of the AP: visiting power plants, interviewing local residents, and loading up on inspection and other reports. The team used the Freedom of Information Act to liberate some government documents.

But the project needed better conceptual editing. The story that seems to have been in hand was one about the failure of policymakers to confront a lack of viable alternatives for energy generation in the United States as many of our nuclear plants pass their 40-year designed life. Since reactors account for nearly 20 percent of domestic energy generation, the NRC is in a tight spot. It must balance safety risks against economic considerations. Over time, it has acceded to lower safety standards in order to keep the reactors humming despite what some experts see as mounting risks of nuclear accident.

That would have been a very solid story. Instead, though, we get a more fevered but less-well supported story: that the NRC rubber-stamps license renewals at the risk of major disaster with severe loss of life so that its friends in the power industry can continue reaping profits from leaky, radiation-spewing generators. This take rests on excerpts of documents that, curiously, readers are not given access to via link or even citation, and on quotes from a wide array of people who disagree on the implications of plant age and safety. There’s an empty-the-notebook aspect to this approach that ends up more confusing than informative. Indeed, the fourth and final installment, “How Long Can Nuclear Reactors Last? US, Industry, Extend Spans,” concludes a contentious back and forth on the utility of retrofitting and modern safety technology with the sentence: “What’s the truth?” This, after readers have ingested tens of thousands of words! No fair.

Despite these limitations, the series indeed raises important questions. It offers a window onto the closed intellectual loop of regulator and regulated and the need for improved public dialogue. Part Three, ”US Nuclear Evacuation Plans Haven’t Kept up with Population,” was particularly strong on this point. With solid reporting on population growth in the vicinity of nuclear plants and a lack of corresponding improvements in roadway capacity, the AP showed the risk of chaos and gridlock in the event of a radiation accident, especially in crowded metro areas such as New York. Also noted was a “mixed message” from authorities —-and virtually no public education on a newer safety concept called ”sheltering,”in which people near a damaged nuclear reactor might be instructed to remain inside their homes, businesses or schools rather than risk radiation exposure on jammed evacuation routes.

These are powerful findings. Still, I wish the AP had done more to press some relevant authority—NRC? Federal Emergency Management Agency? Nuclear Energy Institute?—for a response to this woeful lack of public education and preparedness.

In sum, the series was the weaker for its tendency to make points by implication and quotes than by solid evidence and the follow-up interviews necessary to move the debate forward.

It’s ironic, therefore, that the nuclear power industry’s response ended up supporting the AP series’ most troubling theme: that among some industry leaders and regulators an attitude persists that the public is better off soothed than informed.

The NEI came out swinging before the series even concluded, holding a 20-minute teleconference for interested reporters after the first two installments ran in several newspapers and on line publications. The teleconference featured the industry’s chief public safety officer, the emergency preparedness chief and a government relations executive. They cited the safety record of US nuclear facilities, especially over the last decade, the safety checks that nuclear plant operators must routinely perform, and the many regulations governing and coordinating the training of emergency personnel at nuclear plants as well as at local, state and federal agencies.

It was vintage crisis public-relations strategy, not to be confused with straightforward public communication. The response largely sidestepped the AP’s legitimate point about risks associated with reactor age. Only two reporters called in with questions. One, from the National Journal, tossed one about whether the AP series had tarnished the NRC’s image. But the other, a reporter at The Tennessean, hit the bullseye, asking about the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (NPO), established by the industry in 1979 after the Three Mile Island reactor leak in Pennsylvania:

“I noticed that NEI took exception to the story saying that there was no single official body in government or industry that studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of breakdowns in recent years,” said Tennessean environmental reporter Ann Paine, according to a recording of the teleconference provided by NEI to The Audit. “And NEI was saying NPO actually does this. And I have tried to get information from NPO and would love to know what their studies say but I haven’t been able to. Is that information going to be publicly available so we can find out what these studies say?”

The answer, from the industry’s chief safety officer, Tony Pietrangelo, was, flatly, no. Only industry insiders and the NRC are privy to the contents of NPO reports, although some findings might be referenced in NRC reports to Congress and posted on government websites. His explanation suggested that reactor operators would be less forthcoming about safety problems if the public were in the loop.

The reason their data is private and their evaluations are private is they want to be totally candid when they do the evaluations, and get reports back from each licensee or each operating company, and that candidness is essential to their role which is to push the licensees to excellence.

This answer represents a dangerously outdated notion of how complex industries insure quality. It reminds me of a conference I attended on medical-error reduction in which a hospital safety officer reported on the reluctance of surgeons to include patients in simple safety measures like, say, putting an “X” on the knee slated for surgery. Over time, such defensive attitudes in medicine have eased. Like the nuclear power industry, the health-care industry is accountable for public safety and works closely with government regulators on meeting those obligations. But the once secretive health-care industry today publicly reports death rates by hospital, as well as incidents of system failure such as hospital-acquired infections or medication errors in recognition that transparency aids the pursuit of quality.

The argument advanced by surgeons at that long-ago conference (an argument that happily fell of its own ludicrous weight) was that the mere suggestion that patients collaborate in error prevention would cause needless anxiety and undermine their confidence in the health care system.

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.

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Irene M. Wielawski , a former staff writer and investigative reporter for the Los Angeles Times, is now an independent writer and editor. She's a founder and current board member of the Association of Health Care Journalists. Her work can be found at irenewielawski.com. Tags: ,