By now I'm sure most of you have seen the AP story that ran earlier this week that quoted Arnie Gundersen saying that soil samples he took in Tokyo would be classified as low level radioactive waste in the U.S. Yesterday, I published a short blog post on the subject after speaking with NEI's Chief Health Physicist, Ralph Andersen.
After discussing the situation further with our media relations staff, we decided to take our case directly to the AP. The following note was sent to AP Editors Karen Testa and Evan Berland in Philadelphia this afternoon. We'll provide updates once we hear back from them.
Dear Ms. Testa:Please recall that this is not the first time that we've taken issue with the AP's reporting -- and that others have noticed. More later.
I am writing to you in reference to an unbylined Associated Press story that appeared in a number of newspapers earlier this week with the headline, "Vt. consultant Gundersen: Tokyo soil is N-waste." The claim made in this article by Arnie Gundersen of Fairewinds Associates that soil collected in Japan could be classified as radioactive waste does not seem to have been independently verified, and hence should not have been published by the AP in violation of long established journalism standards. I believe a correction is in order.
In order to classify an object or a substance as radioactive waste, it takes more than simply triggering a Geiger counter. In the United States, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has explicit guidelines. U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensees who need to dispose of items that have become irradiated -- in the case of nuclear power plants this often means water purification filters and resins, tools, protective clothing and other plant hardware -- have two options. In the first case, you can ship the waste to a certified disposal site. However, there are cases where the levels of radioactivity are so low that you can actually petition the NRC to dispose of it in an alternate manner.
However, if someone who is not a regulated licensee finds materials that have been irradiated, different regulations come into play. In the case of Japan, the levels of radiation found beyond Fukushima Prefecture -- and that includes the Tokyo metropolitan area -- are so low that our resident health physicist says that there are no regulations that would require the soil there to be disposed of. Furthermore, without seeing the report from the lab that Gundersen used, it would be impossible for any radiation protection professional to completely evaluate his claims. If a radiation protection professional with 40 years of experience in our industry wasn’t able to verify Mr. Gundersen’s claims, then how was your reporter able to do that?
In none of the articles that I have seen in various newspapers is there any specificity provided to readers on radiation levels—simply broad claims attributed to Mr. Gundersen. Furthermore, there isn’t any evidence in the articles that your reporter attempted to verify Mr. Gundersen’s claims with any independent third parties. According to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, reporters should, "Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error." In this case, it seems clear to us that the reporter failed to do either, which makes us wonder why it was ever published.
We would also dispute your characterization of Mr. Gundersen as merely a "consultant on nuclear issues." Mr. Gundersen has a long history of working as an anti-nuclear activist, and has a direct financial interest in seeing plants shut down, something he is already working actively to accomplish while in the employ of the state of Vermont as it seeks to close the Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant. According to an article that appeared in the Burlington Free Press in February 2010 and is featured prominently on Mr. Gundersen's own Web site, he and his wife Margaret have been paid up to $47,000 by the state to provide just these sorts of consulting services.
Failing to fully disclose this financial relationship is a failure of reporting, and reinforces the need to vet any statement by Mr. Gundersen with a credible third party before publication.
During a conversation earlier this week with one of your Philadelphia-based editors, I learned that this article was written by AP's Dave Gram. Steve Kerekes, NEI's Senior Director of Media Relations, contacted Mr. Gram directly by e-mail about the story earlier this week. Mr. Gram has yet to respond -- a reaction that is in direct contravention of the AP's own Statement of News Values and Principles. They read, "Any time a question is raised about any aspect of our work, it should be taken seriously."
If the AP truly stands by that statement, one that was first committed to paper by your organization in 1914, you should immediately review Mr. Gram’s reporting and issue a correction to every AP member newspaper that ran the story.Sincerely,
Senior Manager, Web Communications
Nuclear Energy Institute
UPDATE: At 5:42 p.m. I received an email from Cara Rubinsky, the AP's New England News Editor, saying that they were looking into our questions. If and when they provide any answers, I'll share them with you here.