Bias and Dishonest Journalism

Media bias is generally a very important topic when it comes to politics. We consumers generally rely on the media to give us the facts, not to dictate our opinions for us. It is important for media outlets to be fair and accurate in their treatment of news events, so that consumers are able to make informed opinions. In addition to media bias, we should discuss nuclear bias. Unusual events at nuclear power plants generally garner plenty of media attention. And, as I will demonstrate, some reports are better than others.

On Friday, October 4th during a routine inspection of the containment liner at Beaver Valley Nuclear Power Station in Shippingport, PA, FirstEnergy Nuclear Operating Company found and reported a hole in a rust-degraded area of the containment liner. The story was not widely reported. (I can’t know if it made the news, as I’ve sworn off cable.) But where it was reported, there exist noticeable differences in how the finding was portrayed.

Unfortunately, the first article I looked up to read about the Beaver Valley story showed clear signs of nuclear bias; and was not very informative to boot. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s John Funk had plenty of negative light to shed on the hole found in the Unit 1 containment liner. The author appears to put words in the mouth of FirstEnergy’s spokesperson, saying the spokesperson attributed the corrosion to a piece of wood “carelessly left behind.” The author also states that the containment building is required to be air-tight, which is just plain wrong. Then the author dedicates a significant portion of the article to quotes from a member of the Union of Concerned Scientists, an organization that generally has nothing but negative things to say about the nuclear industry. Consequently, Mr. Funk’s article is riddled with negative connotation.

This same finding at Beaver Valley was reported in stellar fashion by Anya Litvak of the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. Not only did Ms. Litvak accurately portray the finding, she dug deep to reveal to her readers industry-wide findings related to degradation of containment liners. It was actually fascinating reading. Rachel Morgan at the TimesOnline did a good job reporting* the event as well, describing past degradation findings at the plant and going on to discuss another industrial safety event that occurred during the same refueling outage. One thing both of the aforementioned articles do is avoid the use of subjective descriptors. The writers also took the time to inform their readers about past experiences with containment liners and about related events – each reading like a statement of fact rather than a collection of opinions.

It is important to point out bias such as this. Readers deserve better from journalists. Journalists need to keep their personal opinions to themselves, and let their readers decide what kind of story the facts are telling.

*Article is behind a paywall. But I was able to bypass it on my mobile device.

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Nuclear Plant License Renewals

There are 104 commercial nuclear power plants licensed to operate in the United States. Many of these plants have been operating safely for over 40 years. Nuclear plants are initially licensed to operate for 40 years as long as they are safe. But operating experience has shown that theconservatisms incorporated into their designs combined with the various upgrades that have been implemented over the decades has lent operating reactors a particular ruggedness, which has prompted many plants to apply for 20 year license extensions.

The popularity of license renewal applications has prompted anti-nuclear politicians and activists to assert that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission simply “rubber stamps” these approvals. I recently read a letter from a member of the public that claimed existing nuclear plants are “being granted approval to continue operation with little or no upgrade to their infrastructure.” These assertions are simply false.

On the contrary, nuclear plant operators seeking license extensions are required to comply with the conditions and technical specification of the original license (unless they seek to amend their technical specifications as well); and to demonstrate they have designed a robust aging management program for the facility, which includes replacing aging equipment and implementing enhanced inservice inspection and maintenance programs for plant equipment important to safety.

For instance, before applying for a 20-year license extension from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in January, Tennessee Valley Authority replaced all four steam generators in both Unit 1 and Unit 2 at Sequoyah Nuclear Generating Station. These replacement steam generators feature technologically superior steam generator tubing alloy material with improved corrosion and wear resistance properties. TVA performed this replacement (to the tune of $360 million) in order to ensure the continued safety of the workforce and public.

Other operating plants are performing similar plant upgrades to assure the facility can operate safely for the duration of the operating license extension. The NRC does not simply “rubber stamp” these extensions as some people suggest. The regulators require enhanced inspection and maintenance programs based on the facility’s operating history; and have no qualms about requiring more than what a licensee suggests.

Even after the NRC and the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards has determined that renewing a license will not endanger the environment or public, the extension is not guaranteed. Some license renewal applicants must survive a public evidentiary hearing, during which intervenors – read: anti-nuclear organizations – can attempt to prove extending the plant operating license poses a danger to the public.

You can learn more about nuclear plant licensing and find a list of the current applications for license extension at the NRC website: http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/licensing/renewal/applications.html

A Snowstorm and a Pilgrim

Anti-nuclear websites are absolutely abuzz with the “news” that Pilgrim Nuclear Generating Station is shut down. Pilgrim experienced two unplanned shutdowns in January due to an electrical relay trip and then a leaking safety valve. The plant was operating around 80 percent of full power when the snow storm that hit the north eastern United States this week caused a power outage that forced the plant to shutdown.

The reason for the shutdown is very simple. High winds = downed trees = downed power lines. Or maybe your neighbor hit the pole up the street. (Thanks a lot Ally!) If the electrical distribution grid is damaged such that it cannot carry electricity to customers, there is no use continuing to churn out electricity to it. Therefore, the plant shut down. This operation is by design, and is not initiated due to any malfunction with the plant itself. It’s akin to turning off the water supply to a tub when the tub has sprung a leak. There’s nothing wrong with the water supply.

However, some websites’ treatment of this outage is less incendiary than others.

CBS Local
CBS Local gets it right.
Boston.com
Boston.com is not too bad.
AP
AP gives the impression a nuclear plant cannot withstand a snow storm.

But I don’t think anyone tops the whoppers on Energy News – a highly disreputable site to begin with – under this headline:

Energy "News"
Energy “News”

From the comments under this highly misleading headline, you would think the plant is in imminent danger of wiping out the eastern seaboard and sending a fiery exploding nuclear mess dropping straight to China.

Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with Pilgrim’s boiling water reactor. The emergency diesel generators are running and keeping the plant cool. When the grid is back in working condition, the plant will restart and life will go on. And anti-nuclear activists will continue to spread lies about it all.

What is NOT Science

Nuclear power has always had its adversaries. Long before Three Mile Island, anti-nuclear “experts” spewed warnings about two-headed fish and leukemia epidemics. In this post-Fukushima age, there is just so much disinformation about nuclear power floating around, counter-balancing the flow of falsehoods  with accurate information can feel like an overwhelming challenge.

But someone’s has got to do it. So here I go.

Energy News is ‘reporting’*:

“Legal Expert: 3 police died of acute leukemia after being sent to Fukushima within 50 kilometers of plant”

And that article links to another article saying the same, which links to a blog that is deleted. So, we are to believe some unsourced, unknown, non-cited pseudo-person says three people died of leukemia so it must have been from Fukushima. (It couldn’t have been any other carcinogen. No, no…) Behold, the internet says it is so, so it must be true.

Dude, that is not science.

The background radiation dose received by humans from naturally occurring sources is 2.4 mSv per year globally, 3.0 mSv in the United States. (FUN TIP: If you want to find your estimated personal annual radiation dose, you can use the interactive Personal Annual Radiation Dose Calculator on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission‘s website.) In comparison, the annual radiation dose limit for radiation workers in the United States is 50 mSv (5 rem). But the dose radiation workers actually receive is substantially smaller than the legal limit. For example, in 2010 the average radiation dose actually received by U.S. radiation workers was 1.7 mSv (0.17 rem). (NUREG-0173, 2012)

In 2006, the National Research Council’s Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) developed risk models for estimating the relationship between exposure to low levels of low -LET (linear energy transfer) ionizing radiation (such as gamma rays) and harmful health effects (ISBN: 0-309-53040-7 ). The committee defined low dose as doses from zero to about 100 mSv. (That’s 10 rem!)

The BEIR risk model predicted that approximately 1 person in 100 would be expected to develop solid cancer or leukemia from a dose of 100 mSv above background (3 mSv), while approximately 42 individuals per 100 would be expected to develop solid cancer or leukemia from other causes.

Per the BEIR model, lower doses would produce proportionally lower risks. For example, the committee predicted that approximately 1 individual per 1000 would develop cancer from an exposure to 10 mSv. In comparison, approximately 1 individual per 100 would be expected to develop cancer from a lifetime exposure to low-LET, natural background radiation (excluding radon, which is high-LET radiation).

So, while there is a correlation between significant (compared to background radiation dose) exposure to ionizing radiation and leukemia risk, there are many other contributing factors that contribute far more to the risk for developing the disease. Workers exposed to certain carcinogenic chemicals over a long period of time, such as benzene, are at much higher risk. Some genetic conditions, like Down’s Syndrome, can increase risk, as well as electromagnetic fields, cancer drugs, and even smoking.

The claim made in that Energy [non]-News – I can’t even call it an article! – blurb are purely hysterical. Any claim that cancer or leukemia was caused by radiation dose by someone not involved in epidemiological studies of the correlation between radiation exposure and cancer should be taken with a very big boulder of salt.

*I can’t even link there because this site is just that bad. If you really want to read it, google can help you out.

Highly-enriched Uranium Shipments Make Good Nuclear Secrets

The fact is that the details of nuclear shipments are maintained classified for the protection of the public.

Every year, every month, every day, nuclear material is transported on roads in the United States and across the world. Uranium for power reactors, radionuclides for medical and instrumentation purposes, and other nuclear materials are transported safely on our roads everyday for safe utilization in our power industry, schools, hospitals and industry. Regardless of this fact, on occasion the media creates a public uproar with an article on shipment of some “weapons-grade” or “highly-enriched” nuclear material.

Highly-enriched uranium (HEU) has various uses. But for the most part, HEU is utilized in research reactors for creation of radionuclides for medical purposes and for various collegiate research. HEU can also be used to create nuclear weapons. Shipments of HEU are highly secure. And when I say highly, I mean AK-47s, and highly-trained security forces highly. In addition, routes, security details, quantities, schedules and the like will be classified Secret or Top Secret.

Such details are classified for good reason. Public involvement in transportation of HEU (and other nuclear materials, for that matter) would eliminate the very elements that render such transport secure. Details such as transport mode, route, security and schedules would be available to anyone participating in the public comment process – including terrorists and would-be criminals. Additionally, public involvement in nuclear transportation matters would allow interlopers to halt the vetting process by bogging down the public involvement process (by asking literally thousands of often already answered, or baseless questions) in paperwork. Slowing such shipments could have dire consequences to the health of people depending on medical treatments or diagnosis involving radioactive isotopes.

The media tends to muddle nuclear matters in eye-catching headlines laced with trigger words such as “weapons-grade”, “nuclear crisis”, “secret”, and “bomb.” As an example, a recent article in the Canadian Globe and Mail attempts to grab readers’ attention saying “Weapons-grade uranium shipments quietly heading south”. The headline infers that the Canadian government is covertly shipping dangerous bomb material underneath the nose of the public. In fact, the article incorrectly labels the material being shipped as “weapons-grade.” Used (spent), highly-enriched uranium is typically still categorized as highly-enriched; but is certainly not “weapons-grade” or “bomb-grade” for that matter. The Hill published a much more balanced article about the same shipments described in the Globe and Mail article, with citations by actual scientists.

If such shipment details were open to the public, interlopers could also pose a threat to transportation safety. Organizations such as Greenpeace regularly threaten the safety of transportation routes for crude oil carriers and other shipments they oppose. Such interference could cause traffic accidents that could threaten the security of shipments as well as the health and safety of the public. Too many people are injured and killed in traffic accidents every year. Combative resistance against nuclear shipments could add to this already too high number.

The fact is that the details of nuclear shipments are maintained classified for the protection of the public. Shipments of HEU do not pose a threat to public safety as long as their details remain classified. There are much easier ways for terrorists to obtain nuclear materials for dirty bombs than attempts at intercepting HEU shipments. I’ll save that blog for…um…never.

Nuclear Disinformation vs. Public Education

My concern amidst all of the positive memories of 2011 ComFest was that participants in the event heard “environmental activists” on Bozo stage promulgate nuclear misinformation.

As a nuclear engineer, I consider it my unique duty to inform the public and communicate openly about the benefits and risks of nuclear power.  Each year, I anxiously anticipate The Columbus Community Festival because it gives me the opportunity to visit home to see and hear the sights and sounds of the town that raised me from a babe.  This year was especially memorable to me, as I was fortunate enough to reunite with many of my friends old and new (some I had not seen since my high school graduation).
 
My concern amidst all of the positive memories of 2011 ComFest was that participants in the event heard “environmental activists” on Bozo stage promulgate nuclear misinformation. This concerned me because I know one of the core principles of ComFest is working “for the collective good of all people.” I cannot justify how presenting false information as fact works for collective good.  These activists stated, “two plants in Nebraska are underwater”; regulators and corporations collude to “fatten their pockets”; and “without nuclear power… we would have all renewables like wind and solar” (as well as other claims). 
 
These statements are sensationalized anti-nuclear rhetoric!
 
To address some of the specifics, the following is some factual information that refutes the messages that were prominently presented as fact at ComFest: Nebraska Public Power District’s Cooper Nuclear Station and OmahaPublic Power District’s Fort Calhoun Station are not “underwater”.  Fort Calhoun has experienced flooding on their property; but, the reactor remains dry inside its watertight containment building.  This is due, in part, to recognition of deficiencies in Fort Calhoun’s flood response plan by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) resident inspector, and the subsequent implementation of improvements overseen by the NRC (reference letter LIC-10-0098 in ADAMS).  When the vessel head problems occurred at First Energy Nuclear Operating Company’s Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station, the NRC fined the owners $5.5 million and kept the reactor shut down for years.  The NRC routinely inspects emergency readiness plans; and mandates owners design and operate their plants in accordance with strict safety standards.
 
The fact is nuclear power was developed for the collective good.  Nuclear power contributes to U.S. energy independence, and provides reliable, good-paying jobs across many trades and education levels. In 2010, nuclear power accounted for almost 20 percent of electricity generation and more than 68 percent of emission free electricity production in the United States.  The same year, electricity generation from nuclear avoided 1.6 million tons of Sulfur dioxide and 707 million tons of CO2 emissions.  Both Sulfur dioxide and CO2 are greenhouse gases and are detrimental to public health.
 
On the notion that nuclear can be replaced with renewable energy: with an average wind turbine of 1.5 megawatts – 830 wind turbines would be needed to replace the capacity of Perry Nuclear Power Plant (1,245 megawatts). I challenge these “activists” to explain, where in Ohio would we put 830 wind turbines?  Or in the case of small, residential wind turbines, what middle-class family can contribute roughly $40,000 in capital costs?
 
For me, ComFest used to symbolize friends and community.  This weekend left me wondering, when did ComFest come to symbolize deceptive activism?  I inquire of the ComFest organizers, whether they are aware that misinformation was spread and if they took any or plan to take any action to ensure that this kind of misleading information is not being spread at ComFest. If they are not planning an action, I respectfully request that they do. ComFest’s organizers, when addressing political issues affecting our community, should strive to present the facts and the opportunity to represent both sides of those issues.  Because isn’t promoting an informed public the best thing, in the end, for all of us?