Whether, as reported in the The Post Nov. 1, upwards of 100,000 persons would die and an excess of $300 billion damage would result from a "worst-case" atomic power plant accident continues to generate controversy. Defended by some as the public's right to know, the disclosure was challenged by others as misleading, "needlessly frightening" and timed to influence voting on nuclear energy referenda the day after publication.
This last allegation is denied. The story, I am told, was in preparation for two weeks and published when completed. "Not to have run it when it was ready," says Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, "is as much a political statement as doing it. Anybody looking for a totally nonpolitical time in Washington won't find it." Still, the Nov. 1 article did get a political assist that was acknowledged in the text by reporter Milton Benjamin.
Mr. Benjamin's story grew out of a study by Sandia National Laboratories, a Department of Energy-owned enterprise, for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The study, according to Sandia and the NRC, was designed to provide technical guidance for rules governing the siting of power reactors. Mr. Benjamin independently obtained a draft of the Sandia report.
Neither it nor the final report submitted to the NRC contained "peak consequences" -- the estimates that are in dispute. A listing of the controversial projections accompanied the story. That data was provided by Rep. Edward Markey, chairman of the House Interior and Insular Affairs subcommittee on oversight and investigations.
Subcommittee research director Richard Udell says, "We received the information Oct. 28 . . . . We were convinced the NRC would withhold it . . . We were appalled. . . . We knew it was not in the final copy of the report. . . . We will probably hold hearings."
Among others upholding release of the "peak" figures is the Union of Concerned Scientists, whose executive director has said, "It's worth remembering that before Three Mile Island, the accident . . . was officially termed 'not a credible event' . . . . It seems to me the NRC is once again feeding selective data to the public. . . ."
The NRC and Sandia, acknowledging that such extrapolations figured in certain raw material, argue the figures have no practical significance, that the combinations required to cause a catastrophe have a probability of "about one in one billion per year of reactor operation."
Mr. Benjamin wrote that a so-called "Group 1" accident would have to "involve severe core damage, melting of uranium fuel, essential failure of all safety systems and a major breach of the reactor's containment resulting in a large release of radioactivity into the atmosphere . . . onto population centers," and that the NRC considered this "improbable."
Reporting NRC's official release of the Sandia report the following day, Mr. Benjamin quoted commission director of risk analysis, Robert Bernero, who compared the speculation to the possibility of "a jumbo jet crashing into a football stadium during the Superbowl." Mr. Berner disputed The Post account, holding that continuing research will show the risks to be "much lower."
G. A. Keyworth, science adviser to the president, joined the criticism in a letter to the paper Nov. 6: "One would have to operate 1,000 nuclear plants for 20,000 years to have a 2 percent chance of such an accident occurring." Such articles, he said, "muddy rather than clarify the issues involved."
Sandia, in a subsequent letter to NRC Chairman Dr. N.J. Palladino, charged that The Post's tabulation of the cost of such an accident -- and apparent identical calculations in news agency stories -- are incorrect, that the figures are drawn from a draft no longer relevant to the current study. Separately, full-page ads proclaiming, "Most of the Stories Were Wrong," have been bought by America's Electric Energy Companies, Edison Electric Institute and the Atomic Industrial Forum.
There's little evidence the general readership took sides on this issue. It fell along predictable professional lines. Mr. Benjamin says he would write the story the same way again. The view here is the story needed better balance, with more than a one-sided congressional view. It was heavy on remote possibilities. Too much accelerator, not enough brake.