Nuclear professionals share facts about safety and aging

June 23, 2011, 11:41AMANS Nuclear CafeRod Adams

Some of us are old enough to remember when, in the 1970s, the US News and World Reports annual survey of careers with room for growth placed nuclear energy at or near the top of the list for several years in a row. I was in high school at the time, and had already decided that I was interested in energy production, nuclear in particular. The annual list publication reinforced my decision. My high school career lasted from 1973 to 1977, a period that coincided not only with the apogee of the first Nuclear Age, but that also was sandwiched between two significant oil-price-related recessions.

That era of optimism had come to a near standstill by 1986, the first time I could consider entering the civilian work force. Though there were many contributing factors, one influence that deflated the optimism was the repetitive media portrayal of the industry as risky, inept, and expensive. From the point of view available to most Americans (and we had little access to international news sources at the time), nuclear energy looked like an industry collapsing after an extended bubble.

That was a time in our history when information sources were far more limited and much more controlled. There was only a limited capability for people who knew more about technical reality than professional journalists to engage, respond, and debate. Even though there is still a mismatch between the reach of money-amplified speech and knowledge-based speech, the situation is slowly improving, but there are still major challenges.

Unless you have been too busy working this week to visit your favorite online news aggregation site, pick up a newspaper, or watch television, you will know that the Associated Press has released the first two installments of a planned four-part series about the nuclear industry.

The wire service invested more than a year's worth of research into the effort, which must have involved a considerable expense. As a former businessman who understands a little bit about how the news business makes money, I am confident that the wire service's goal from making such an investment included releasing sensational stories that attract a wide audience-that is the best way to obtain a substantial financial return on investment (ROI).

Surprise, surprise. When the first report was released, it weaved an impressionistic tapestry of the industry out of raw Nuclear Regulatory Commission event reports, input from disgruntled former nuclear industry employees, and quotes from professional antinuclear celebrities in an attempt to show that the big bad nuclear industry had developed an excessively cozy relationship with a compliant regulator.

According to the portrayal by the AP reporter, that alliance had conspired to reduce safety standards in order to allow nuclear plants to continue operating past their initial 40-year license period. That was not even the most inaccurate part of the picture-according to the AP reporter and the people he chose to quote as experts, the initial designers, builders, and regulators expected that the plants would have been replaced by the end of their "designed" 40-year lifetimes.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was no established way for nuclear professionals to respond to such a slanted story. There is now, however, a growing network of writers that happens to also have nuclear training and its own established voice. Some members of that network frequently communicate with other nuclear professionals with a broad range of technical expertise on a mailing list hosted by the American Nuclear Society (ANS). That established "social media" network of people who know and trust each other swung into action.

One of the members of the group, Dr. John Bickel, has deep experience in the issues associated with aging nuclear plants. He shared a letter that he had written to the AP, calling them out for a misinformed report that ignored a number of key facts.

Within minutes of sharing his lengthy letter, Dr. Bickel received several offers from experienced bloggers to work together to produce a response article. As the bloggers realized, there was little chance of a long letter to the editor actually appearing in the press. Even if a shortened version did make it through the screening process, there would also be enough of a time delay to allow the story to experience the amplification of positive feedback to become a deafening screech.

Dan Yurman, who produces the well-respected Idaho Samizdat, got together with Dr. Bickel for a detailed interview. The product of that effort, titled Associated Press Nukes the NRC on Reactor Safety, was published on June 20, 2011, the same day that the AP report was released in the advertiser-supported media. Of course, coming from a wire service that has a world-wide reach, the AP report had a significant head start, but by day two, it no longer stood alone.

In addition to Dan's response, the Nuclear Energy Institute produced a formal press release, a communication to its members, and a post on the NEI Nuclear Notes blog titled The AP Trawls for Nuclear Wickedness.

Now comes the hard part. These technically accurate, well-written responses need some amplification to give them a chance at competing with the reach of a wire service. We need the help of that often silent majority of people that support nuclear energy development to get involved and to use available tools (Facebook, Twitter, their own blogs, other social networks) to share better information. It would help the effort to add links back to Dan Yurman's piece.

The second installment of the AP report pulled together incidents that have occurred over several decades to try to paint a picture of an industry that is plagued by leaking pipes, most of which carry water that contains incredibly tiny quantities of tritium. I took on that article with an Atomic Insights piece titled Buried pipes versus buried pipelines - hype versus hazard that quoted the findings of a year-long U.S. Government Accountability Office report titled NUCLEAR REGULATORY COMMISSION: Oversight of Underground Piping Systems Commensurate with Risk, but Proactive Measures Could Help Address Future Leaks.

What GAO Found

While experts in our public health discussion group generally agreed that radioactive leaks at the three nuclear power plants in our case studies of actual events had no discernible impact on the public's health, these experts noted that additional information could enhance the identification of the leaks and the characterization of their impacts. The experts in our environmental impact discussion group concluded that environmental resources beyond the plant site have not been impacted discernibly... (emphasis added)

There are two more planned AP releases. There is no reason to expect that the AP will praise the industry's exceptional record of 10 years in a row of capacity factors that have hovered at 90 percent, its incredibly cost effective power that has a marginal cost of about 2 cents per kilowatt hour, or the fact that the operating plants produce virtually zero pollution of any kind. As ANS members gather in sunny South Florida, I hope they talk about real efforts to take advantage of our technical skills to spread the truth and work to overcome the well-marketed hype.


Rod Adams is a pro-nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., and host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.