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.