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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