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 email@example.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?]