Chasing Atoms, Sifting Facts on Nuclear Energy Beat

June 1, 2016

Reporter’s Toolbox


The author speaks to participants visiting the Callaway nuclear power plant near Fulton, Mo., during a two-day nuclear energy journalism workshop in January 2016, hosted by SEJ member Sara Shipley Hiles at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Photo: courtesy of Sara Shipley Hiles

Entergy had a problem.

Normally somnolent monitoring wells at its Indian Point nuclear plant in New York were suddenly spiking, showing increased radiation that, at one point, was 65,000 percent higher than normal. The incident was unplanned, exceeded allowable limits and the company did not know what was leaking or how much had escaped.

The resulting press release was a low-key affair and, as is customary, the second paragraph said there was “no danger to the public” and the radioactive liquid was “contained” and would not affect the nearby Hudson River or drinking water. Perhaps predictably, the governor went ballistic and demanded an investigation.

And for the most part, that was the story: There was radioactive tritium leaking from somewhere at the plant, the governor was pissed and there was no danger to the public. There was obviously more involved. But how do you find it? How do you know what to look for? Whom do you ask? Whose analysis or assertion can you trust?

I’ve been covering energy issues, including nuclear, since the Arab oil embargo of 1973. Over nearly five decades covering the industry, I’ve learned that press releases merely indicate that something has gone wrong. Journalists must uncover whether the event is a minor violation of regulations or a serious elevation of risk to the surrounding population.

The good news is that in the nuke business, virtually everything is meticulously documented — somewhere. One just has to take the time to find it, since that is where the real story is.

Starting points

A good place to begin is with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, which is charged with overseeing the nation’s civilian nuclear uses. This includes 100 nuclear power plants, as well as university-based research reactors, and the more extensive use of radioactive material for medical and industrial purposes.

All of NRC’s data is publicly available in its voluminous, digitized, Agencywide Documents Access and Management System (ADAMS), which dates back to 1999. Some two million documents from earlier years are available as abstracts, and the NRC can mail you the complete paper documents if necessary.

The NRC doesn’t police what the industry tells the public, even if it’s misleading or a blatant lie. But the regulators will seriously punish a company for misleading the NRC, and there are penalties for delivering information late. Depending on the incident, companies have a specified number of hours to report a problem — in full — to the NRC or else they may have to shut down.

When Entergy noted the jump in radioactivity from three monitoring wells, therefore, it filed a detailed report with the NRC before it sent a reassuring press release to the public.

This is significant for journalists. Unlike the rest of the federal government — and an increasing number of state governments — the NRC’s press operation believes it has a mission to keep the public informed of what it is doing and what is happening at the facilities it regulates.

If the commissioners make a decision, you can get a transcript of their discussion and vote, a copy of the staff’s discussion and recommendation to the board and, if you like, a copy of any staff dissenting views and an interview with the dissenter.

The problem with such a massive data dump as ADAMS is that if you aren’t well versed in the system, it can be impossible to navigate. There are three ways to get around that:

  1. Call the NRC’s regional public affairs representative.
  2. Call the state agency with responsibility for some nuclear plant activities.
  3. Call David Lochbaum (more on him later).

Getting the Grid

When writing about nuclear power, it’s important to understand that electricity is a commodity and, like sugar or cotton, its value is affected by many factors in its market place.

The market for electricity lies in the operation of a competitive regional grid. In much of the country, that electric grid is managed by nonprofit organizations called Independent System Operators (ISOs) or Regional Transmission Organizations (RTOs).

While utility companies generally own and maintain the actual wires and infrastructure on the grid and are paid by customers to deliver electricity, the ISOs and RTOs act as traffic directors for electricity, constantly taking the pulse of the grid and directing the flow of energy in the most efficient manner.

With automated energy dispatch systems, the RTOs and ISOs are constantly accounting for outages, changing demand, weather impacts and other variables.

RTOs and ISOs also can help the shift to a lower carbon and more efficient energy landscape, since they can improve efficiency through their operations and they can integrate distributed renewable energy resources onto the grid and encourage demand response — lowering energy demand at key moments.

RTOs and ISOs also run wholesale electricity markets where energy is bought and sold for varying time frames, from real-time and day-ahead to “capacity sales” where generators are paid to be available to provide a certain amount of energy in the future if demand gets that high. Nuclear plants, along with coal and natural gas plants and other generators, sell their energy into these auctions.

Ten different ISOs and RTOs operate in North America, covering about 60 percent of U.S. power supply. The PJM Interconnection serves Washington D.C. and parts of 13 states, including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia and parts of northern Indiana and northern Illinois. MISO, the Midwest ISO, covers the rest of Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, other U.S. states and Canadian territory.

The Southwest Power Pool serves states including Nebraska, Oklahoma and part of Texas. California, New York and New England have their own ISOs; as do Albert, Ontario and New Brunswick in Canada. In parts of the country not covered by ISOs, utilities or other entities operate the grid.

At the state and national level, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has the final say over siting and operation of electric power lines as well as oil and gas pipelines.

— Contributed by Kari Lydersen
Midwest Energy News

Tracking a case

The NRC divides the nation into four regions, each served by a media staff. On weekends and after business hours, there is always a staffer on call.

In the Indian Point case, I knew from NRC and state documents that the leak was uncontrolled and flowing inexorably into the Hudson River, which provides drinking water to thousands. The leak contained tritium, a radioactive form of water, and a basket of more serious radioactive particles, such as cesium and plutonium. Whether or not there was danger to the public — and how to measure the degree of danger — had yet to be determined.

I asked NRC for the company’s incident report and any related filings about the present leak and the system under scrutiny. Neil Sheehan, the northeastern regional PIO, responded with a list of document numbers. These can be plugged into the search engine on the agency’s ADAMS site and the documents will pop up, ready for reading or downloading.

It’s a good way to delineate what the current problem is and what regulations may have been violated. The documents clearly showed that there was a recurring problem and that the leak was more serious than the company had indicated. ADAMS also had maps showing where the monitoring wells were and what systems in the vicinity contained or carried radioactive liquids.

The high spike in radioactivity indicated that there were dangerous isotopes, perhaps cesium 137 and plutonium, flowing into the groundwater — wherever that went.

But reading reports in ADAMS covers only the problem you know about — in this case, a leak somewhere in the three miles of underground piping, not the related issues that may have led up to it. That’s where Lochbaum comes in.

A uniquely neutral watchdog

Lochbaum is a nuclear safety engineer who worked as a consultant in the industry for 19 years before joining the Union of Concerned Scientists, or UCS. A watchdog on safety issues and inconsistencies in regulatory practices, he is unique among sources in his neutral assessment of safety issues.

His stature is such that in 2008 he left the UCS and worked for the NRC for a year, rewriting its safety manuals and teaching the NRC’s instructors how to improve their teaching of safety procedures to nuclear plant operators. At UCS, he issues annual reports delineating what the agency has done right and what it has done wrong.

Lochbaum also has a 30-year, cross-indexed database of everything that has gone wrong at any nuke plant in the nation. He spots trends and patterns before most, and can readily share that information.

In the case of Indian Point, Lochbaum took a look at the maps provided by the NRC and explained what each of the nearby systems were, how much water they held, what was clean and what was radioactive, and whether a system was always in use or only used for special circumstances, such as refueling. Drawing from his database, Lochbaum also pointed out similar events and their outcomes.

That led me to two additional calls.

First, each state with a nuclear power plant has an arrangement with the NRC to provide state oversight over certain plant operations. For plants along a coast, there is a Bureau of Coastal Zone Management within the individual states’ Department of State.

I contacted New York’s Department of State for details on where the groundwater goes, what towns get water from the river and whether their filtration systems are capable of removing radioactive material. Residents of those towns have a higher risk than casual kayakers.

A key industry source

Second, I called the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade organization. One contacts the NEI to learn if a problem is unique to a particular plant, or if it has appeared throughout the industry.

According to the NEI, underground leaks are common, though they primarily pose a problem only if the leak contaminates a source of drinking water. In the industry’s view, the threat is mitigated by dilution.

NEI has three main functions: public relations, lobbying Congress and state governments on policy, and negotiating with the NRC over the regulations governing the nuclear industry.

Negotiating with the NRC is critical. For example, after the Fukushima Daiichi reactor disaster in Japan, NEI formed a working group to head off an NRC effort to require more seismically hardened facilities and improvements in emergency backup power for reactors. In the end, it was agreed there would be regional plans in which equipment would be pre-positioned and available to be shipped to any facility in distress. One such regional facility is at the Callaway Nuclear Generating Station in Missouri.

NEI’s function in establishing the final form of the regulations governing the industry makes it an important stop when covering industry-wide issues, and the industry group has a roster of experts available for on-the-record discussions. They are accessible, although journalists should keep in mind they are promoting a point of view.

Understanding the business side

A reporter snaps a shot of the cooling tower at the Calloway nuclear power plant.

Photo: courtesy of Sara Shipley Hiles

Aside from incidents, it is important to note the economic framework in which nuclear plants operate — the varying forms of the electricity marketplace and relative robustness of the state or regional electrical grids.

For more than a century, power grids were developed and maintained by monopoly utilities that owned both the transmission lines and the power plants using them. In the 1990s, many states and regions embraced the notion of developing competitive markets where electricity was sold like any other commodity, and forcing the utilities to choose between being transmission and service companies or power providers.

That spawned the development of nuclear merchant fleets, where companies like Exelon, Entergy and Duke bought plants from utilities or municipalities.

Efforts to create a seamless national grid died with the administration of President George W. Bush, but the northeast power blackout of 2003 showed that there is a need for a national entity with enforcement authority to set standards for the various grids (see sidebar).

Understanding the business framework provides a way for journalists to evaluate utility demands.

For example, FirstEnergy asked the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio for a rate increase to guarantee an 11.5 percent profit on its nuclear plant, which was losing money because of competition from wind farms and gas generators in the 13-state region served by the PJM Interconnect.

Journalists could ask: Should legislators take advantage of regional competition and lower prices, even if it means losing a local power plant and its economic impact?

Reporters need to get away from the long-held assumption that all electricity generation is local and the only nuclear plant you need to care about is the one in your state. These days, reporters need to be concerned about the safety and operation of any reactor within 50 miles and the economic impact of any plant within the increasingly competitive free market.

Wm. Roger Witherspoon has spent five decades working in all forms of the media as a journalist, author, educator and public relations specialist. He is an SEJ board member.


* From the quarterly news magazine SEJournal, Summer 2016. Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here or learn how to join SEJ. Past issues are archived for the public here.

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