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Nuclear Power for Journalists with a Bias

The Society of Environmental Journalists (or SEJ) is an organization whose members "envision an informed society through excellence in environmental journalism."

In an era where the term "media bias" is thrown about as liberally as flour in an authentic Italian pizzeria, it is good to find that there exists an organization whose vision and mission is to help dispel this image. Part of that effort involves an annual conference, which this year is being held in Roanoke, Virginia, and according to their web site will have a session taking up the controversial issue of nuclear power.

This session, entitled "Nuclear Power - from Ore to Volts" is aimed at demystifying nuclear power for the journalist by looking at the “five stages in the life of nuclear power: mining, processing ore, enrichment of uranium to commercial or weapons grade, fuel fabrication, and utilization in a nuclear power plant.”

It sounds like a great idea, except when you look at the list of speakers for this session. Representation from the “volts” side – that is, a speaker from an actual commercial nuclear power station or utility – is notably absent. Notably present, however, are antinuclear spokesperson Linda Gunter from Beyond Nuclear and David Lochbaum from the Union of Concerned Scientists.

It looked to me like an innocent oversight until I contacted Roger Witherspoon, session moderator and journalist, who claims to be neutral on nuclear. In our phone call, Mr. Witherspoon had a lot to say about nuclear energy, listing one problem after another as if it were straight out of an antinuclear handbook, then ended by stating he wasn’t antinuclear. After reading some of his articles and comments since our phone conversation, I'm not so sure.

In the end, it didn’t seem to make a difference that the deck was stacked against nuclear energy in this Ore to Volts presentation. In fact, after our phone call, it seemed intentional. When I pointed out that there was no one from the nuclear industry or even a nuclear utility on the panel, he responded that they were going to tour the Areva facility in Lynchburg, and since Areva runs nuclear plants in France, that was representation enough.

In Virginia, Areva provides vital engineering support to the station, but they don’t operate the power plant, perform nuclear station environmental monitoring, participate in emergency preparedness exercises, or manage the utility, nor are they professional spokespersons for the nuclear industry who can provide a balanced perspective against the likes of Linda Gunter and David Lochbaum. No offense to the very capable and knowledgeable folks at Areva, but a “tour” of the Areva facility is no substitute for including a spokesperson from the nuclear power production side in the speaker line-up.

In the end, Mr. Witherspoon curtly dismissed my concerns and defended the speakers list as a fair and balanced representation of the topic.

For an organization whose goal it is “to advance public understanding of environmental issues by improving the quality, accuracy, and visibility of environmental reporting,” this session seems to be in direct conflict with that goal.


Anonymous said…
Does NEI invite antinuclear organizations and activists to its press events and media training?
David Bradish said…

Do NIRS, Beyond Nuclear, BREDL, etc. invite pro-nuclear organizations to their events?
Mike Stuart said…
Of course not. But, SEJ is supposed to be an unbiased event for journalists to become informed enough to present both sides of an issue fairly.

NIRS, and admittedly NEI, have obvious bias and should not be faulted for who they invite to their own pep rallies.
Brian Mays said…
Well, to be fair, I see that they have several speakers from the company that wants to mine uranium in Pittsylvania County. Unfortunately, it appears the rest of the speakers will come down on the other side of the issue and dish out the usual garbage. We'll see whether they'll be able to get an NRC commissioner.

This is too bad, since those billing themselves as "environmental journalists" really, really, desperately need some accurate information. A case in point is one of the tour leaders. If the comment that Mike linked to really was from Witherspoon, then the state of environmental journalism is truly sad. That comment had some real howlers -- e.g., "it takes twice as much uranium ore ... used by a 1000 MW plant in one year than the volume of coal used by a plant for one year." Where do they get this stuff?!

This is what we're up against folks. These are the people who are paid to report these issues, which they apparently do not understand, and apparently they do not want to bother to do the investigative work to find out.

Thank goodness they're at least touring the AREVA facilities, which should be an eye-opening experience for most (no green glowing "plutonium rods" like in the Simpsons). It's a shame that the fuel plant doesn't load the pins by hand anymore. It would have been nice for them to see the workers handling the little "radioactive" uranium pellets with their fingers.

By the way, AREVA does not "run nuclear plants in France." That's the job of Électricité de France. Did Witherspoon really say that?
Anonymous said…
why are you only posting comments that support your position?
David Bradish said…
anon, maybe because those are the only comments coming in. The only time we reject comments is when they're insulting. If you have a comment to make in opposition to the post, please make it. I (and am sure others as well) enjoy when some sort of debate happens.
Mike Stuart said…
Brian: Yes. That's his idea of a balanced perspective I guess.

Anonymous: Not sure why you would even ask that question. If you feel your comments are being stifled, then you are welcome to post them on my blog.
David Bradish said…
anon at August 20, 2008 1:03 PM,

Your comment at 2:38 has just been rejected. Your comments will continue to be rejected anytime you bring up "culture of death," "infanticide," "Judah," "idolators," anything religious or anything that insults the blog writers.

You can keep writing those comments, just don't expect them to be seen on this blog.
Brian Mays said…
Well, it appears that the Virginia Uranium guys will have their work cut out for them. I hope, for their sake, that they are well prepared.

I, personally, don't have an opinion one way or another on the uranium mining in Virginia issue; although, I tend to agree with Professor (Emeritus) Kelly's opinion that "it would be ugly to look at, but from the perspective of any hazard I wouldn't mind if they mined across the street from me." Certainly, I would prefer to live next to a uranium mining operation than a massive wind farm that provides the equivalent amount of energy. On this point, I agree with T. Boone Pickens, old-time wildcat driller and recent wind entrepreneur: I think they are ugly and they are the worst example of industrial sprawl.

How any self-proclaimed "environmentalist" can get behind a plan for a massive deployment of these monstrosities just baffles my mind.
David said…
How anyone can get so plainly hostile and agitated about something over which they have no control baffles my mind. The day your opinion actually causes anything to change should be the day you get so worked up about it. I'm not saying you can't justify being all hot and bothered, but what concrete benefit are you gaining from all this ranting and raving?
Mike Stuart said…
What ranting and raving are you referring to David? Are you referring to the original post or the comments on this post? If the comments, then any particular ones?

I only ask this so I can answer your question. If you were referring to my original post, then you may be surprised to realize that I do not rant over something that I do not plan to do something about. It may surprise you to find out that it has already had some effect and I expect that it will continue to have effects. Positive ones. Check back later for an update. You may be surprised.

Here's a true story to put my intent in context:

When I was a young bull and ranting about something I couldn't change one day, a wise person (whose name was ironically also "Roger") interrupted me. He said, "What are you complaining about?"

I replied with a description of whatever initiated my rant.

Then he said, "Are you planning to do anything about it?"

I thought for a second, and replied with a puzzled, "No."

"Then shut up."

I was offended at first, but I eventually realized that he was right.

And I still heed his advice.
Kelly L Taylor said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tim Wheeler said…
I'm sorry Mike Stuart felt compelled to take a swing at the Society of Environmental Journalists for allegedly "stacking the deck" against nuclear power at our annual conference in Virginia. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Our "Ore to Volts" tour will give journalists an in-depth, inside look at Areva's fabrication plant and training facility. It will take them to a farm that is the site of a proposed uranium mine. Our tour leaders, both veteran journalists with extensive knowledge of nuclear power, have lined up a full and balanced set of speakers for a comprehensive daylong reporting field trip. Look for yourself here.

Yes, critics of nuclear power have been invited to speak. We reporters try to listen to all sides of a dispute. But if you're counting bodies, or voices, there will be at least as many representatives of Virginia Uranium and of giant Areva, which though it does not operate any power plants in Virgina has worldwide involvement in virtually every aspect of the industry. The Areva speakers were not listed when Mike checked in because we had not nailed down the names yet, but rest assured if we visit their facilities for half a day, they will not be wallflowers.

An NRC rep also is invited, though the individual name has yet to be confirmed and listed. The online agenda is a work in progress, where details are added as they are pinned down.

Finally, NEI has been a regular participant and exhibitor at our conferences for several years now, and we're glad to say they're signed up to be in Roanoke as well. That's not apparent from glancing at our agenda, either, but Mike could have learned that by asking at SEJ HQ -- or at NEI, for that matter.

Many environmental issues are controversial, and nuclear power has its share of issues. We attempt to help our members report on them accurately and comprehensively. The first task of any good reporter is to gather all the relevant facts before speaking or writing - I wish Mike had done the same.

Tim Wheeler
Reporter, The Baltimore Sun
President, Society of Environmental Journalists
410-332-6564 (office)
Kelly L Taylor said…
Mr. Wheeler,
So glad to hear SEJ's side of the story! Thanks for joining the comment thread here. I'm pleased to hear the story is not quite as lopsided as it first appeared.

Since Mike Stuart did contact SEJ and apparently spoke with the session moderator in order to gather the relevant facts, perhaps you might consider helping Mr. Witherspoon better represent the mission and agenda of your organization when inquiries come to him.

Mike wasn't misleading his readers - he did provide the same link in his post that you did, as well as other links to your organization and event... and gave you some free exposure, as well. He stated there would be a tour of AREVA facilities. And, with all due respect to you and those wonderful AREVA folks, AREVA's website says they provide reactor services, which is not the same as operating a reactor to provide electricity (you did say, 'volts'). I'm sure you would not wish to confuse AREVA with Electricite de France, the utility that is also owned in large part by the French government.

Good luck with your educational tour. I hope and expect it will be a rousing success!
Mike Stuart said…
Mr. Wheeler,

I can appreciate your defense of SEJ, but please understand that I have an issue with this *session* - NOT SEJ as a whole. You will note in my original post that I said, "it is good to find that there exists an organization whose vision and mission is to help dispel [the image of media bias]" and ended my post with "this session seems to be in direct conflict with [SEJ's goal]."

I am aware that NEI will have a booth at the conference, but as for this particular session there doesn't appear to be any representation from the nuclear power generation side. If I have researched and gathered my facts correctly, AREVA does not operate any nuclear power stations – not even in France.

Therefore, it seems to me that no one who is directly involved with the operation of a nuclear power plant, performance of nuclear station environmental monitoring, participation in emergency preparedness exercises, or management of the utility will be on the tour. So, if I am counting bodies or voices, then I still count zero for “Volts.”

Compounding this oversight, the critics of nuclear power that were chosen are some of the highest profile anti-nuclear voices in the country who will be riding the bus with the tour group, and judging from past experience with them, they will not ignore the "Volts" side in their criticism.

Mr. Witherspoon seemed very dismissive of my concerns, and judging from his comments to me seemed very hostile towards the nuclear industry as a whole. I could be wrong, but the facts that I have observed and cited above, combined with my discussion with Mr. Witherspoon lead me to believe that the deck really is stacked against nuclear power in this session. If this session is truly designed to enable your members “report on [nuclear power] accurately and comprehensively” then you might consider the “relevant facts” that I have mentioned.

Thank you for your post. It is nice to see that as the president of SEJ that you are willing to take your time to address possible misconceptions personally.
Anonymous said…
This is just petty complaining. The panel has three experts in uranium mining versus two antis with a broad range of knowledge in all fields of nuclear energy. Not only that, NEI has a booth at the event and everyone’s being toured around a nuclear facility by pro-spokespeople. I would say the deck is stacked against the antis so quit complaining.
Anonymous said…
You tell 'em Anonymous.

I'm having a session on paper production and inviting two prominent tree huggers and three lumberjacks. No reps from the paper mill though. We'll just tour a facility that provides machine support the paper mill and call it even.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-paper or anything. We just shouldn't use it.

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