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.