Beyond San Onofre’s closure

The LA Times and U-T San Diego thoroughly covered the local nuclear power plant's closing, but the wider energy story is still waiting to be told

SANTA BARBARA, CA — Nuclear power plants are complex, interdependent systems of systems, and the state and federal bureaucracies that regulate them are labyrinthine. Because anything to do with radiation is politically charged, the regulators and owners of nuclear plants speak a dry language of numbered rules, lettered sub-rules, acronyms, and jargon. Except for the relatively rare outage or accident, news reporting on nuclear power plants tends to revolve around electric rate cases, proceedings so full of qualified quantification as to frustrate most attempts at simplification. Covering this complex of complexity—further complicated by the continuous war between supporters and opponents of nuclear power—is an exercise in explaining the arcane under duress.

Given this reality, reporters at the Los Angeles Times and U-T San Diego did yeoman’s work when Southern California Edison announced in June that it would close the remaining two reactors at the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, an iconic beachside facility between Los Angeles and San Diego that had served electricity to some 1.4 million homes. Immediately and in the weeks after the announcement, the Los Angeles Times responded with major stories on the reasons for the decision, the effect the closure will have on the region’s energy supply and electricity consumers, and on the as-yet-uncertain process for decommissioning the plant, which could take decades. U-T San Diego published a similar flurry of well-reported stories that covered the basics of the reasons for the closure, as well as the impact on consumers, workers, and the electricity supply. At both papers, coverage included infographics that effectively explained the problem that forced the plant to close—vibration that caused wear in tubes for the plant’s steam generators. (The Times’s tick-tock takeout on the history of the steam generator snafu, published in July, is especially comprehensive.) The specifics of the San Onofre closing were covered well and thoroughly.

The context within which those basics reside, however, was far less well-examined, and the two major newspapers closest to the San Onofre plant both therefore missed a real opportunity to inform readers about the major energy choices California and the country will need to make in the coming decade.

The decision to shut San Onofre was at base economic; its majority owner decided that the probable costs and regulatory uncertainly were too great to risk going forward with the repair or replacement of the plant’s steam generators. Although Southern California Edison claimed that the problem at San Onofre was unique and not a reflection on the viability of the national nuclear industry, nuclear power experts have repeatedly remarked on a trend: Under competition from cheaper energy sources, some utilities are shuttering nuclear plants licensed to run for years hence. Earlier this year, Virginia-based Dominion decided to close the Kewaunee nuclear plant in Wisconsin “based purely on economics.” In February, Duke Energy announced it would close its Crystal River nuclear plant in Florida and look to replace its output with other sources.

These moves do not appear to be anomalies. As former Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Peter Bradford wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists earlier this year (disclosure: I am deputy editor of the Bulletin and edited this story), “In late 2012, both the Exelon Corporation and Xcel Energy Inc. canceled plans to expand existing nuclear units, citing declining forecasts of demand for electricity and long-term forecasts of low natural gas prices. In January 2013, industry analysts speculated that several other units might also close in the near future for economic reasons.” The article has a telling headline: “How to close the US nuclear industry: Do nothing.” In Bradford’s view, in the absence of enormous (and unlikely) new subsidies from the federal government, economics will dictate the end of the US nuclear power industry by the 2050s. (Note: This story is behind a paywall, but journalists can obtain a complimentary subscription here.)

Bradford’s assessment is, of course, not universal. Other experts have less negative takes. It is, however, fair to say that outside the nuclear industry and its trade and lobbying groups, there is widespread acknowledgement that nuclear power faces a difficult economic landscape in the United States, and that its growth and long-term survival are anything but certain.

The Times and U-T San Diego coverage mentioned the closures of the Kewaunee and Crystal River plants, but low in their main stories and, in passing, as part of he-said, she-said arguments between supporters and opponents of nuclear power. (The U-T San Diego website also contains an Associated Press story on other nuclear plant closures.) Times reporter Abby Sewell said she agrees that the larger financial context for nuclear power is a subject worthy of coverage. But she said that she’s a metro reporter and that she feels such overarching coverage would be in the province of other sections of the paper. “I didn’t necessarily see that as within my jurisdiction,” she said.

U-T San Diego reporter Morgan Lee said he was very careful not to exaggerate the implications of the closing of San Onofre, which was caused by problems with steam generators designed specifically for that plant—problems that he summarized as “just a plain, simple screw up not seen elsewhere.” Even so, Lee acknowledged that he was “perhaps too cautious” in exploring the nuclear industry’s wider economic problems.

Of course, media organizations have their own economic problems to worry about, and many metro daily newspapers have focused their reportorial resources ever more closely on local coverage. But some stories that begin locally cannot be fully explained without examining their national or even international ramifications. This is especially true in regard to the nuclear power industry, which would likely not have come to exist but for the efforts and financial support of the federal government.

As illustrated by the recent film, Pandora’s Promise, in which former environmentalists advocate for an expansion of nuclear power because of its low carbon footprint, the nuclear power debate involves climate change. As the continuing disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan shows, the debate involves safety. And as Germany’s decision to embark on its Energiewende (energy transition) shows, the debate involves politics. Germany is in the process of shuttering its considerable nuclear power industry by 2022, shifting its energy mix overwhelmingly in the direction of renewables and making it no longer politically unthinkable that a country with nuclear power would forgo it.

The United States is also changing its energy mix—but in a less direct and urgent way. As the Environmental Protection Agency implements new carbon dioxide emissions limits for electrical generating facilities, coal-fired power plants appear to be headed the way of the dodo. An explosion in hydraulic fracturing has expanded the supply and lowered the cost of natural gas, making gas-fired power plants a cheap electricity source. Wind and solar power have greatly increased their contribution to the national energy budget. The uncertain economic outlook for US nuclear power is an important part of the debate over the country’s future energy mix.

The closure of San Onofre could have been the news hook that anchored an important discussion of these larger trends. For the most part, however, in the Southern California papers, this larger context was given short shrift (even as The New York Times reported on it.)

I know well the frantic terror of covering a competitive beat during a major newsbreak, and I dislike Monday morning media quarterbacking that ignores the practical challenges involved in assembling major news packages about large events on relatively little warning. Both Sewell and Lee say they had no early tips on the announcement of the San Onofre shutdown, the specifics of which they reported well, comprehensively, and with obvious energy on a tight timeline. But even as I commend them, I feel compelled to say that they and their papers could have done—and could still do—a better job of connecting the San Onofre specifics to the more general national and international aspects of the story, helping readers understand that when it comes nuclear power, not all politics—or economics—is local.

To that end, here are a handful of resources for reporters working the nuclear power story:

In reporting on nuclear power, the battle between industry spokesmen and anti-nuclear activists can often loom large, drowning facts in rhetoric. But largely non-ideological resources that can provide national and international context to stories about nuclear power are readily available. Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs has a long list of experts who deal authoritatively with nuclear power and the environment. The same can be said of Princeton’s Program in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy, the University of Chicago’s EPIC (Energy Policy Institute at Chicago), and the MIT Energy Initiative.

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John Mecklin is the California and Nevada correspondent for the United States Project, CJR's politics and policy desk. He is the deputy editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Follow him on Twitter @meckdevil. Tags: , , , , ,