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.

Comments

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:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/21/nuclear-regulatory-standards-jeff-donn-live-chat_n_881095.html
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

How Nanomaterials Can Make Nuclear Reactors Safer and More Efficient

The following is a guest post from Matt Wald, senior communications advisor at NEI. Follow Matt on Twitter at @MattLWald.

From the batteries in our cell phones to the clothes on our backs, "nanomaterials" that are designed molecule by molecule are working their way into our economy and our lives. Now there’s some promising work on new materials for nuclear reactors.

Reactors are a tough environment. The sub atomic particles that sustain the chain reaction, neutrons, are great for splitting additional uranium atoms, but not all of them hit a uranium atom; some of them end up in various metal components of the reactor. The metal is usually a crystalline structure, meaning it is as orderly as a ladder or a sheet of graph paper, but the neutrons rearrange the atoms, leaving some infinitesimal voids in the structure and some areas of extra density. The components literally grow, getting longer and thicker. The phenomenon is well understood and designers compensate for it with a …

Missing the Point about Pennsylvania’s Nuclear Plants

A group that includes oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania released a study on Monday that argues that twenty years ago, planners underestimated the value of nuclear plants in the electricity market. According to the group, that means the state should now let the plants close.

Huh?

The question confronting the state now isn’t what the companies that owned the reactors at the time of de-regulation got or didn’t get. It’s not a question of whether they were profitable in the '80s, '90s and '00s. It’s about now. Business works by looking at the present and making projections about the future.

Is losing the nuclear plants what’s best for the state going forward?

Pennsylvania needs clean air. It needs jobs. And it needs protection against over-reliance on a single fuel source.


What the reactors need is recognition of all the value they provide. The electricity market is depressed, and if electricity is treated as a simple commodity, with no regard for its benefit to clean air o…

Why Nuclear Plant Closures Are a Crisis for Small Town USA

Nuclear plants occupy an unusual spot in the towns where they operate: integral but so much in the background that they may seem almost invisible. But when they close, it can be like the earth shifting underfoot.

Lohud.com, the Gannett newspaper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley in New York, took a look around at the experience of towns where reactors have closed, because the Indian Point reactors in Buchanan are scheduled to be shut down under an agreement with Gov. Mario Cuomo.


From sea to shining sea, it was dismal. It wasn’t just the plant employees who were hurt. The losses of hundreds of jobs, tens of millions of dollars in payrolls and millions in property taxes depressed whole towns and surrounding areas. For example:

Vernon, Vermont, home to Vermont Yankee for more than 40 years, had to cut its municipal budget in half. The town closed its police department and let the county take over; the youth sports teams lost their volunteer coaches, and Vernon Elementary School lost th…