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.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

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