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Why Are We Following "Loose Nukes" ?

One of my readers who hasn't been following our coverage of the ABC News series, "Loose Nukes on Main Street" from the beginning has asked me for a recap on why we think that it's important.

He's right to ask. More often than not, it's easy to get caught up in the moment on a blog, and to forget about the big picture. What I'll try to do next is pull back a little bit, and help bring the story into better focus for those of you who haven't been with us from the start.

Here goes:

Back at the end of August, one of my colleagues here at NEI pointed me to an exchange of letters between the NRC and Tawfik Raby and Seymour Weiss, co-chairs of the National Organization of Test, Research and Training Reactors:
Members of TRTR have identified to the NRC and law enforcement agencies the suspicious behavior of individuals who were visiting their facilities. NRC informed TRTR that these visits may have been part of a summer intern program that ABC News and other corporations were conducting related to investigative reporting.

TRTR believes that the security measures currently in place have worked and that the public health and safety have not been compromised. The research reactor community picked up on the recurrent visits by these individuals and their unusual interest in security matters very rapidly and acted accordingly.

One of the primary missions of these facilities is to inform and educate members of the public on nuclear technology matters, including school children and others. Public tours are a great asset to the community and the nation and should be continued in a prudent way. We are convinced that the TRTRs are safe and secure; however, we have urged each of our facilities to continue to be diligent and vigilant in admitting visitors and conducting tours.
In other words, the individuals from ABC News (later discovered to be interns) went undercover to gain access to the reactor facilities -- something these facilities do regularly in order to maintain a positive relationship with their neighbors both on and off campus -- something that ABC failed to mention when they first aired the video from the report on Monday night.

In fact, the video left the decided impression that ABC was able to gain access to these buildings without being challenged or detected, something that seems to be contradicted by the letter from Raby and Weiss.

Later in a response, David B. Matthews, Director of the Division of Regulatory Improvement Programs in NRC's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation wrote:
The NRC continues to believe that trying to gain access to reactor facilities under potentially suspicious circumstances, especially in the current threat environment, creates unnecessary concerns, diverts limited resources, and inappropriately distracts from high priority law enforcement activities.
The bottom line here should be pretty clear: ABC seems to be saying that they were able to take their video without being detected, when the exact opposite was the case.

A few weeks later, Inside NRC (subscription required) published an extensive story detailing some of the methods the interns used to conduct their investigation. Here's what I wrote then:
Some of the most illuminating details of the story came from Earl Holland, director of research communications at Ohio State University. Because university officials are regarded as public officials under Ohio law Holland said, the interns violated state law because, "it is illegal for a person to use deception in interacting with a public official." Inside NRC reported that no charges had been filed.
And then there was this choice exchange between Holland and one of the interns when she did a followup interview after her alleged "undercover" visit to Ohio State:
But at one point during the conversation, he said he told her that her question had been answered by the reactor staff during her June 22 visit. "There was a pregnant pause for about 15 or 20 seconds" before she acknowledged that she had been at the site, he said.

Holland said he responded, "You were wearing a denim skirt and a red top and you have dark brown hair, and you said this, and you said that, and here's the license number of your car."
But that isn't all. Here's an account from the ABC News message board that was also mentioned by Inside NRC calling some of the reporting into question:
My favorite was how ABC claimed that they were let into one facility by the "gardner". What they failed to realize was that this "gardner" was the director of the facility, a professor emeritus of chemistry and a licensed senior operator!

Whatever. The public will be scared regardless of the "truth".
The "gardener" is a retired employee of the facility who still holds an SRO license and works part-time hours. He volunteers his time keeping the ornamental flowers and shrubs around the facility looking nice, things he planted on his own time and tends just to help out making the place look nicer for the public and the employees. Then these kids go and claim he's a gardener who has a key for the reactor facility! Trying to smear the university and the reactor facility with those kinds of "facts". What is the old saying about no good deed going unpunished?

I always thought one thing a good journalist does is check their facts. In this case, there was no attempt to do that. ABC News was ready to run with this story of the nuclear "gardner", and had to be proactivity corrected by the university PR contact. They the PR person hadn't done that the story would have been run and come off as nothing more than a third-rate hatchet job of a smear. Is this what they're teaching kids in these "internship" programs and journalism "schools", how to be sloppy and lazy?
Beginning to get the picture? 1)ABC News seems to be giving the impression that they were able to penetrate these facilities on their own, when they actually took tours that any member of the public is eligible to take. 2)Rather than conducting these trips in a covert manner, the ABC News interns were monitored from the beginning across multiple facilities -- hardly a lapse in security at all.

And finally, there are some initial indications that there is some seriously sloppy reporting involved that had to be corrected. All in all, we're not terribly hopeful that the story will be anywhere near credible, something my colleague Lisa Stiles-Shell alluded to recently when she dealt with the issue of a car full of interns being able to tail a truck carrying an unspecified cargo of "nuclear waste":
[T]he containers weigh several tens to over a hundred tons each and can only be removed from a truck or railcar by a humongous dedicated crane.

Heck, the truck carrying a crane big enough to pick up and move a 110+ ton used fuel cask would need an escort in itself!

How following a truck for a while translates into "the material could easily be stolen" is well beyond the realm of logic.
What we've got here seems to be a story that's calculated to cause maximum hysteria with a minimal examination of the facts. And that's why we're worried, and why you should be worried too. I hope this helps. According to The Media Drop, the piece on test reactors will be posted online tomorrow at 5:00 p.m. and aired on Prime Time Live on Thursday. Be sure to watch, and come back to NEI Nuclear Notes for reaction.

UPDATE: The Media Drop has picked up on the story.

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Anonymous said…
Interesting post. But while hysteria may not be the right reaction, do you truly think these facilities are appropriately guarded?
Pamela said…
I just started my first day of work at one of the profiled research reactors. Having previously worked at a large-scale nuclear facility I will say that yes, the security is much more lax. But is a full-scale armed guard force really appropriate considering the level of threat? No. I think that there are improvements that could be made, but ABC appears to be blowing it way out of proportion.
jto said…
The ABC reports are what you might call "selective fiction", i.e. fiction by creative selection of facts, rather than by pure invention. They are crafted to sell advertising, not as a public service to guide policy. If you're interested in policy, you have to be able to parse them, think, and determine if action is necessary.

You're not doing this.

These sites need solid, uniform security. They should be at least as secure as airports. They're not.

Some employee lets a few unidentified, backpack-toting kids into a nuclear plant. This is extremely bad news. Action should be taken.

Pointing out that he still works there part-time, or that he later kicked them off the tour, or that the interns broke the law by deceiving him, or that he's a baseball Hall-of-Famer for all I care, seems like quibbling. Bottom line: If these guys had been terrorists, OSU would be a disaster area right now. Or worse, they would have gotten away with low-enriched uranium.

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