Skip to main content

The AP Trawls for Nuclear Wickedness

It’s reasonable for aplogojournalists to beaver around the nuclear energy industry to find evidence that the industry is a nest of vipers plotting disaster and misery. That’s what journalists do. And I guess one can always find something that can be ratcheted into a breathless story. But the nuclear energy industry in context is not very, um, viperous and thus such stories tend to point at wicked seeming details that are pretty benign – in context.

The Al-Jazeera story below doesn’t really qualify here because the story has a suspicion of American motivation underlying it that makes it vulnerable to conspiracy theories and bluntly unproveable – one might even say false - assertions.

But the Associated Press, in a long story published yesterday, tries a different approach, trawling through Nuclear Regulatory Commission records to try to show a coziness between the industry and its regulators that make the party animals at the Mine Safety and Health Administration look like shrinking violets. Well, no parties in this case, but thinly veiled collusion.

For example:

CRACKED TUBING: The industry has long known of cracking in steel alloy tubing originally used in the steam generators of pressurized water reactors. Ruptures were rampant in these tubes containing radioactive coolant; in 1993 alone, there were seven. Even today, as many as 18 reactors are still running on old generators.

This is a simple point. but let’s add in two additional data points:

1. Of the 69 nuclear facilities that have steam generators (not all do), 55 have replaced their generators, with two more in the process of doing so.What the AP ignores here and throughout the article is that older equipment can be, and is, replaced.

2. The number of plants reporting (to the NRC, mind you – the AP didn’t find this out by itself) degraded steam generator tubes has fallen considerably as the tubes are replaced. Fifteen plants reported degraded tubes in the 1980s, seven plants in the 1990s, and five plants reported degraded tubes between 2000 and 2004; And since 2004? No plant has reported degraded tubing. None at all.

That’s context and it puts a decidedly different cast on the reporting. There are also errors large and small in the article:

Yet despite the many problems linked to aging, not a single official body in government or industry has studied the overall frequency and potential impact on safety of such breakdowns in recent years, even as the NRC has extended the licenses of dozens of reactors.

This one is small, meant to bolster the notion of collusion. But that single “government or industry body” would be INPO, The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations. It maintains a database of operational issues and it tracks them over time. Every utility that operates a nuclear power plant has access to this information for review and corrective action as needed.

But beyond lapses in providing context and simple errors, the story raises issues that are noted and solved over time. The success of such efforts is a credit to the industry, but the AP turns it into a debit:

Two years later, cracking was allowed to grow so bad in nozzles on the reactor vessel at the Davis-Besse plant near Toledo, Ohio, that it came within two months of a possible breach, the NRC acknowledged in a report. A hole in the vessel could release radiation into the environment, yet inspections failed to catch the same problem on the replacement vessel head until more nozzles were found to be cracked last year.

But the article fails to note – or the authors didn’t know – that the industry had in place a program to monitor boric acid corrosion, which is a well-known phenomenon. And immediately after Davis-Besse happened, the industry implemented a materials management initiative to strengthen the focus of research efforts and predictive maintenance in the area of materials degradation. As the story acknowledges, the cracks were detected two months before any (potential) harm could occur. In other words, the industry fixed the problem.

Obviously, the AP wants to imply that we missed disaster by that much, but if disaster is always missed by that much, then it’s logical to assume that the industry and its regulators are actually keeping a good eye on things.

Could the industry and its regulators do a better job? Sure, but a safety culture in any field is a process, not a recipe. You don’t get a soufflé at the end. You get an industry always working through issues and learning how to further enhance safety.

This has paid off: The industry’s average capacity factor—a measure of efficiency—has been within a percentage point or two of 90 percent every year for the past decade. To do this does not suggest short cuts and sloppiness; just the opposite: it demonstrates that the facilities are being well managed and maintained.

Oh, and PS: The AP built this story out of public data – you could write the same story (though a better, fairer one, I hope) if you wanted. How much more transparent could an industry be? Hard to hide in the shadows with thousand watt bulbs pointed at you.

Update 6/22, 7 am:

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a response to the AP articles here (pdf).

Here's NEI's formal response as well.

Update 6/23, 9:30 am:

Rod Adams continues to batter AP's nuclear hit job. As well, here's Dan Yurman and Dr. John Bickel's critique of AP's first rubbish.


Anonymous said…
You might be interested in another analysis by John Bickel, a PhD nuclear engineer who stepped through the AP story and called out some of its shortcomings.

See his views online at Idaho Samizdat
jimwg said…
It's vital that such biased and agenda-colored misinformation be nipped in the bud by aggressive media monitoring and quick and inciteful public rebuttal than let it fester and poison public opinion as they've long gotten away with. Unfortunately as far as I'm aware there's no such immediate response nuclear news and fact correction unit out there. Valient nuclear blogs are not enough. We must go toe-to-toe with news agencies themselves.

James Greenidge
Atomikrabbit said…
It’s propaganda payday for the Huffers over at the Post, and their hookahs are stuffed to overflowing with nuclear nightmares:
Anonymous said…
Clever wording, but I don't see the 'propaganda' in the HuffPo piece? It's an online chat with the AP reporter answering questions from readers.

Popular posts from this blog

Making Clouds for a Living

Donell Banks works at Southern Nuclear’s Plant Vogtle units 3 and 4 as a shift supervisor in Operations, but is in the process of transitioning to his newly appointed role as the daily work controls manager. He has been in the nuclear energy industry for about 11 years.

I love what I do because I have the unique opportunity to help shape the direction and influence the culture for the future of nuclear power in the United States. Every single day presents a new challenge, but I wouldn't have it any other way. As a shift supervisor, I was primarily responsible for managing the development of procedures and programs to support operation of the first new nuclear units in the United States in more than 30 years. As the daily work controls manager, I will be responsible for oversight of the execution and scheduling of daily work to ensure organizational readiness to operate the new units.

I envision a nuclear energy industry that leverages the technology of today to improve efficiency…

Nuclear: Energy for All Political Seasons

The electoral college will soon confirm a surprise election result, Donald Trump. However, in the electricity world, there are fewer surprises – physics and economics will continue to apply, and Republicans and Democrats are going to find a lot to like about nuclear energy over the next four years.

In a Trump administration, the carbon conversation is going to be less prominent. But the nuclear value proposition is still there. We bring steady jobs to rural areas, including in the Rust Belt, which put Donald Trump in office. Nuclear plants keep the surrounding communities vibrant.

We hold down electricity costs for the whole economy. We provide energy diversity, reducing the risk of disruption. We are a critical part of America’s industrial infrastructure, and the importance of infrastructure is something that President-Elect Trump has stressed.

One of our infrastructure challenges is natural gas pipelines, which have gotten more congested as extremely low gas prices have pulled m…

Innovation Fuels the Nuclear Legacy: Southern Nuclear Employees Share Their Stories

Blake Bolt and Sharimar Colon are excited about nuclear energy. Each works at Southern Nuclear Co. and sees firsthand how their ingenuity powers the nation’s largest supply of clean energy. For Powered by Our People, they shared their stories of advocacy, innovation in the workplace and efforts to promote efficiency. Their passion for nuclear energy casts a bright future for the industry.

Blake Bolt has worked in the nuclear industry for six years and is currently the work week manager at Hatch Nuclear Plant in Georgia. He takes pride in an industry he might one day pass on to his children.

What is your job and why do you enjoy doing it?
As a Work Week Manager at Plant Hatch, my primary responsibility is to ensure nuclear safety and manage the risk associated with work by planning, scheduling, preparing and executing work to maximize the availability and reliability of station equipment and systems. I love my job because it enables me to work directly with every department on the plant…