Nuclear Safety Paranoia

By Jack Spencer
From the Heritage Foundation
Thursday, January 31, 2008; 12:00 AM

On January 4, The Washington Post ran a front-page story about guards found asleep at a nuclear power plant. The article also contained accusations that a whistle-blower had been ignored. Scary stuff, eh? Until you realize it's the same old story New York's WCBS-TV broke four months earlier.

Even when new, the story wasn't exactly front-page material. The plant was never in jeopardy, nor was anyone endangered.

The media's continued fixation on this story suggests alarmism, at best, and bias against nuclear power at worst. At the very least, such reporting misleads the public about the safety of nuclear power.

Let's be clear. Some guards were sleeping on the job. They should not have been sleeping. When the company that runs the plant found out, it promptly fired the contractors in charge of security. In short: A problem arose; it was identified, and it was solved. That should have been the end of the story. But it wasn't.

In the months since the sleeping-guards story first aired, numerous articles have been printed -- and not just by The Post. USA Today ran the story in September, editorialized on it in October, and revisited it again in December. Each article included independent, third-party analysis giving credibility and legitimacy to alarmist views. The problem is that the analysis always comes from the same anti-nuke crowd that's been "crying wolf" about nuclear power since the 1960s.

So why have they been more vocal lately? Well, with rising energy prices and growing concerns over carbon dioxide emissions, nuclear power is enjoying a comeback.

Awkwardly, for the people who railed against nuclear energy in the past under the auspices of environmentalism, the best way to reduce CO2 is to produce more emissions-free nuclear energy. The obvious contradiction has forced even ardent activists to make some accommodation for nuclear power in their anti-CO2 rhetoric.

One of the least expensive forms of energy production, nuclear power has proven extraordinarily safe over the past four decades. The worst commercial nuclear accident in U.S. history, the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, caused no fatalities or casualties.

Although nuclear power's safety record means that activists can no longer play on "China Syndrome" fears, three decades of anti-nuclear propaganda have left their mark. Many Americans remain concerned about nuclear safety, and the anti-nuclear movement's updated message is calculated to play upon that anxiety.

Increasingly, the anti-nukers preach acceptance -- but with a catch. Their conditions generally hinge on safety concerns. What seems reasonable, however, quickly becomes ridiculous. Their formula includes overstating the safety concerns, misstating the information used to support their positions, and then demanding an unattainable set of stipulations to meet their conditions. This allows them to avoid being overtly anti-nuclear while advancing an anti-nuclear agenda.

Their arguments are then fed to major media outlets that use them to frame nuclear-related articles. The result: stories that often portray nuclear power as inherently unsafe. Some recent examples include incidents at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio and the Vermont Yankee plant in Vermont.

At the Davis-Besse plant, safety inspections revealed a hole forming in a vessel-head. An inch of steel cladding prevented the hole from opening. Although the problem was fixed and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that the plant could have operated another 13 months without incident, and that the steel clad¬ding could have withstood pressures 125 percent above normal operations, the incident was portrayed as a safety failure.

A partial cooling tower collapse at the Vermont Yankee plant was far less serious than the Davis-Besse incident. Non-radioactive water was spilled in the collapse, but no radiation was released. Nonetheless, activ¬ists cite it as example of the risks posed by power reactors.

Safety should remain a priority at nuclear power plants, but exploiting fears about safety to advance an anti-nuclear agenda helps no one.

The unfortunate thing is that there are great, newsworthy stories to be written about nuclear power: No one has ever died as a result of commercial nuclear power in the U.S.; terrorists have never attacked a nuclear power plant; nuclear power is clean, affordable and emits nothing into the atmosphere. The list goes on.

A handful of guards taking a 15-minute nap on company time does not fairly reflect the industry's level of safety. For a news story, it's pretty thin gruel. Yet that's what leading media are feeding the public. Repeatedly.

Jack Spencer is a research fellow in nuclear energy at The Heritage Foundation.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company