A busload of journalists at SEJ's 2008 annual conference in Roanoke had been looking forward to an October 16 tour of the Lynchburg, Va., facilities of AREVA, said to be the world's largest maker of nuclear reactors.
But French-owned AREVA turned the event into a public relations meltdown that may have contaminated trust between the news media and the nuclear industry. AREVA had seemed, during months leading up to the conference, to agree with SEJ's standard policy that such tours be "on the record," conference and tour organizers said.
But communications were less than ideal. AREVA public affairs officials said they thought they had communicated clearly to tour organizers that a number of severe access restrictions would apply. SEJ organizers remembered events very differently — saying AREVA seemed wide open and welcoming, and had not communicated restrictions in the early months of planning.
In the two months before the tour, a lot changed. Some nuclear industry representatives started jockeying to get more pro-industry — and fewer anti-nuclear — speakers on the tour agenda. And about 10 days before the tour, AREVA finally sent tour organizers written word that they would sharply restrict audio recording, video and filming, still photography, and even note-taking during various parts of the tour taking place on the company's property.
The audio recording restrictions were so total that it seemed to tour organizers that journalists would not be able to record the remarks by Luis Reyes, Regional Administrator for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Atlanta office, which had been scheduled into the on-site visit.
Tour leaders were facing the unpleasant choice of either canceling the tour or giving in to the restrictions. After some negotiations, AREVA decided to allow photography only of subjects it chose from angles it chose. After an intervention by NRC Public Affairs Director Eliot B. Brenner, AREVA relaxed audio recording requirements enough to allow radio reporters to record Reyes' remarks.
AREVA public affairs officials pointed proudly to this concession. But some reporters were left wondering whether AREVA had almost censored the agency — NRC — which is supposed to be regulating it to prevent public health from being harmed by a nuclear disaster.
Such conflicts over access rules have occurred several times on SEJ conference tours. At a 2000 tour of the Dow Midland plant in Michigan, for example, reporters were asked to sign non-disclosure agreements. At the Portland conference in 2001 (barely a month after 9/11), access to a Columbia River dam was cut off. At the Baltimore conference in 2002, no local nuclear plant would grant access.
SEJ's general policy regarding conference tours is to insist adamantly that they be open and on the record. In the case of the 2002 Baltimore conference, nuclear utility access restrictions led to cancellation of the tour. SEJ's policy is also to maintain control of tour speaker agendas rather than cede control to groups who have a stake in the issues discussed.
Roanoke nuclear tour participants said the purpose of the AREVA restrictions seemed to have less to do with security, trade secrets, or clean-room fastidiousness than with simple message control.
Participants could not imagine, for example, what trade secrets might be compromised by audio recording of company officials' own remarks. Nor could they see why pencils and pens presented a contamination concern, when participants were not asked to wipe or cover their shoes.
AREVA officials called the nuclear fuel rod fabrication facility a "foreign material exclusion" (FME) zone, which is different than a clean room. They said the purpose of the restrictions was to keep foreign objects such as rings and jewelry from dropping accidentally into fuel assemblies. Pens, they said, had caps that could go astray. It was not as clear how pencils could do so. Notebooks were allowed — but were useless without writing instruments. No actual fabrication of fuel rods or assemblies was going on in the facility at the time the SEJ tour visited it — even though SEJ organizers had re-arranged the schedule to ensure they could see actual fabrication work.
AREVA officials worked aggressively to control and set the agenda of speakers for the entire tour — including the part on the tour bus before it reached their own fenceline. They tried to dictate time limits for bus speakers, claiming more time for their own speakers even though they already monopolized all the speaking time during the 4-1/2 hours the tour group was within the fenceline.
Had tour organizers not objected, this would have crowded out the only speakers in any way critical of the nuclear industry: Linda Gunter of Beyond Nuclear and David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists.
The Nuclear Energy Institute had earlier launched a campaign to change the tour's speaker agenda. Mike Stuart, blogging on "NEI Nuclear Notes," had objected to the fact that Gunter and Lochbaum were on the agenda at all, writing that "the deck was stacked against nuclear energy." Stuart falsely stated on the blog that there was "no one from the nuclear industry" on the panel of speakers — whereas in fact there were at least seven.
Stuart is employed as an instructor by Dominion Power, which runs the nearby North Anna nuclear plant. Listed as a regular contributor to the NEI blog, he has also, according to his online bio, served previously as Public Information Officer at North American Young Generation in Nuclear. NA-YGN is a group of science and technology professionals aged 35 and under who "share a personal conviction that nuclear science and technology make important and valuable contributions to our society and will continue to do so in the future." It holds meetings in conjunction with meetings of the American Nuclear Society and the Nuclear Energy Institute.
Sara Peach, who is in the Masters program at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Journalism School, was a tour participant.
"As a person who's just getting started in my journalism career," Peach said afterwards, "the most interesting thing about the tour was to see how public relations officials are trying to manage the perceptions of journalists."
"And yet by restricting our access and ability to use recording equipment and even pens," Peach said, "I felt that they had missed an opportunity to get their side of the story in for 50-some journalists. I was left more skeptical than ever about the nuclear industry because they seemed so paranoid."
People at both SEJ and AREVA ended up feeling the tour taught them at least one valuable lesson: communicate rules, plans, and expectations clearly in writing far ahead of time to avoid misunderstandings.
- AREVA Visit Policy transmitted to SEJ tour organizers October 7, 2008.