Nukes as 'the Living Dead' of Journalism

I was The Enquirer’s environment reporter who handled stories about the partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island (1979) and the nuke that never was, Cincinnati Gas & Electric’s Zimmer Nuclear Power Station (d. 1980s) in Clermont County. Repor

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To everyone telling me about Japanese nuclear troubles: Thanks for a bad case of deja vu.

I was The Enquirer’s environment reporter who handled stories about the partial meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island (1979) and the nuke that never was, Cincinnati Gas & Electric’s Zimmer Nuclear Power Station (d. 1980s) in Clermont County.

Reporting Three Mile Island and Zimmer was hellish but perfect practice for the mess we encountered at the federal government’s Fernald uranium processing plant in northwest Hamilton County. Sorting that out won our team a Pulitzer nomination.

I thought that was all behind me. I’ve been content to be a NIMBY (“Not In My Backyard”), even knowing that Duke, eventual successor to CG&E, has nukes. At least they’re not in Clermont County.

Now, I’m writing about the ways the news media handle a new nuclear disaster. Nukes are a story that won’t die. It’s the living dead of journalism.

I’m generally pleased, especially by indications that  American reporters will take a new, more informed and less pro-and-con look at nuclear power in this nation, along with the national and global implications of any reduced reliance on “Our Friend, The Atom.”

On the other hand, American news media are being asked to do this with savagely reduced staffs and resources. Among the first groups to be fired in the name of cost savings were science and environment reporters. I belong to the Society of Environmental Journalists and the only reason that firings have leveled off is that so few remain to be sacked. It’s not good.

But to paraphrase one of the Wise White Men of Washington, “You go to disasters with the reporters you have.”

So far, Japan’s nuclear crisis appears to be more Three Mile Island than Chernobyl where burning fuel spewed radiation over much of downwind Europe.

That’s good. Few people in Japan have been injured. No one outside of Japan claims to have been affected unless they decide to sue for fear of radiation contamination. Reporters have done a pretty good job of explaining that “Dilution is the solution to pollution.” It can be. Oceans and winds traveling thousands of miles to North America will dilute radiation.

This kind of reporting is an important antidote to an additional hazard not seen before in a nuclear accident: The Internet with its unmoderated fear-mongering, political savagery and, often, proud ignorance or deceptions.

Most of the damage has been done to the nukes themselves and public confidence in them, their operators and government assurances that all was supposed to be well.

Japan may yet experience a devastating meltdown. Radiation release from a damaged reactor or spent-fuel storage pool may be worse than Three Mile Island, which was America’s worst civilian nuclear accident. Chance are it will be less than the 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl in Ukraine, the world’s worst civilian radiation disaster in terms of illnesses and deaths.

We don’t know.

That’s why it belongs on Page 1, along with new attention to American reactors and spent fuel storage pools where hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes raise the risks.

Today, the stumbling block for the news media is separating general quake/tsunami devastation from the still-limited nuclear crisis. If we’re all lucky, dangerous levels of radiation will be contained, heroic responders won’t die from radiation illnesses, and everyone will learn new lessons about the necessary redundancy of backup safety systems and emergency response.

That’s why I’m not joining the chorus of critics who complain that The Enquirer and other news media are making too much of Japan’s evolving nuclear problem and its global spinoffs.

Slowly, reporters are finding that Japanese nuclear regulators weren’t as efficient as assumed and oversights might have contributed to the onset or severity of the radiation threats.

I’m not even upset by reporters who posit worst case scenarios to shoot them down. Their fears may be closer to the outcome than they know and reassuring information on which they’re relying may be less reliable than they believe. This kind of reporting departs from traditionally deferential Japanese news media coverage of business.

It may be one of the few positive outcomes of the mess.

Curmudgeon notes:

• American-designed GE reactors like those in Japan typically run for decades without hurting anyone but when a nuke goes bad, for any reason, it can be very, very bad.

That contrast of experience versus threat drives the quarrel over nuclear power. This tension has given new energy to stories about the future of and alternatives to nuclear power.

Yes, the willingness of investors will be a key to whether any new American nukes are built; overseas, nuclear power largely is government projects. And yes, decisions will be made by politicians who are not deaf to lobbyists and demonstrators. If bad decisions are made, it won’t be the first time emotion and selective science affect public policy. So I’m not the only American asking the news media to tell me:

1.) What do we do with the 104 aging nukes that provide about 20 percent of our nation’s electricity? Many are operating with license extensions. Smart money has avoided nuclear power since Three Mile Island shattered investor confidence; the newest American nuclear power station is about 25 years old. Plans or proposals for a couple dozen new plants probably will be shelved.

2.) Because onsite pools, like those in Japan, are inherently vulnerable and dangerous, where do we store spent fuel? It’s deadly for millennia. Reprocessing has not found a receptive audience in this country. Plans to bury such highly radioactive waste at Nevada’s Yucca Mountain flopped. We have no alternative to leaving spent fuel where it is created, at scores of locations around the nation.

3.) If we abandon or reduce our reliance on nukes, how do we substitute demand-sensitive fossil fuels when economists blame rising gas and oil costs for increased food prices? This linkage is impoverishing additional millions who cannot afford adequate diets. World population — especially in poor nations — is set to rise by about 25 percent in the next few decades.

4.) How do we square any of this with the scientific consensus that reducing fossil fuel emissions is the best way to limit undesirable global warming?

Skeptical news media — new and traditional — will have a central role in our ability to respond intelligently and with decency to these questions. Thorough, persistent reporting is our best hope for cutting through partisan crap and holding elected and appointed officials accountable.

• When the nuclear power station at Three Mile Island malfunctioned and began to melt down in 1979, my Enquirer editor urged me to get down there to cover an obviously big national story.

In a sense it also was local, because Zimmer nuclear power station was rising in Moscow, Ohio, as were concerns about potential radiation releases and emerging emergency responses. It was the rare trip I declined.

Leaking radiation is invisible to the unaided eye. You can’t taste or smell it. I didn’t want to get nuked for a story and no one knew where to draw the line beyond which no reporters could approach the troubled reactor.

There also was the risk of being stuck in whatever school gym that Pennsylvania public and utility officials called the “press center.” I’d be waiting like a White House reporter for some designated liar to treat us like mushrooms: Keep us in the dark and toss bullshit at us.

If I didn’t report what they said, I’d catch hell from editors in Cincinnati reading the AP wire. If I stayed and did my stenographic duty, Enquirer readers would gain no additional benefit from my presence near Three Mile Island. I didn’t go.

Instead, we let AP report from Pennsylvania and I produced fuller, more nuanced stories by working phones from our Vine Street office. Remember, 1979 was pre-Internet, pre-Google, pre-laptop and pre-cell phone for all practical purposes. Staying in Cincinnati gave our readers access to expertise anywhere in the world.

• I spent years covering the Zimmer fiasco. The reactor was built and nuclear fuel delivered but it never went online. By the time CG&E understood that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was unlikely to grant an operating license, construction was 97 percent complete and cost had gone up about 800 percent over 15 years.

NRC assumed no nuke was properly built unless monumental documentation proved it was; my impression then and now was that quality assurance mismanagement doomed Zimmer. I’d become convinced that CG&E’s top people lacked management skills required by a nuke. That notion — and not the technology — was what frightened me. I was relieved when the $2 billion fuckup was dismantled, the fuel removed, lawsuits were settled and Zimmer became the first nuclear plant converted to coal . . . for another $2 billion.

• A pervasive problem was NRC reliance on the self-interest of owners: CG&E, American Electric Power and Dayton Power & Light. Federal regulators assumed the companies would protect their investment by following rules and procedures required to obtain an operating license. Only after a decade did NRC belatedly assign a construction inspector to Zimmer. Until then, NRC relied solely on paperwork in keeping with its standard operating procedures.

• Zimmer was the first nuclear power station for too many corporate key players and a top NRC representative agreed that it was a “dance of the virgins.”

• An early Zimmer story involved dismissal of Vic Griffin, a quality assurance engineer who mistakenly thought he should examine arriving materials to see if they matched the paperwork. No, he was told, just make sure the paperwork is OK. That’s all NRC required.

• Over the years, ironworkers, welders and other distressed construction workers supplied endless tips and supporting documents by the box. I’m relying on memory, but even journeyman welders had to prove they could work with nuclear grade materials. They went into test booths, did the required welds, and watched as a machine measured how much force was required to break their welds. After years, someone realized that the machine was uncalibrated and no one really knew how well the test welds were done.

• There were problems at Zimmer with inexperienced welding inspectors and the failure to maintain required documentation on every weld on myriad pipes. The GE boiling water reactor at Zimmer — like those in Japan — produces steam that runs turbines that produce electricity. Pipes of all sizes run in and out of the reactor vessel and containment building around it.

• My favorite Zimmer moment involved the state boiler inspector. Had he inspected the tall, thick steel reactor vessel meant to contain any accidental radioactive release? I called Columbus and asked. The answer was “no.” He didn’t know it existed but it clearly fell under his authority as a pressure vessel. He came down and slapped what was called a stop-work “red tag” on the reactor vessel — 180 feet high and thick steel — because it had gone up without his oversight.

• In its superb coverage of Japan’s nuclear troubles and its impact on other countries plans to build more nukes, London’s Financial Times wrote, “What makes God laugh? Answer – people who say they have plans.”

That perfectly fits what was jokingly called emergency “planning” around Zimmer. It was a hoot. At best, local responders might have coped with fire, flood or tornado. Nuclear disaster appeared to be something beyond their comprehension.

One volunteer fire chief told an NRC hearing officer that anyone involved in emergency planning around Zimmer should have a “pocket full of round tuits.” The Washington lawyer took the bait. He looked over his glasses, and asked, “Tuits?” Yessir, the witness said, because planning would be done when he got “around to it.”

Another village fire chief conceded that he and his colleagues probably would evacuate their families before helping anyone else. Firefighters aren't cowards. They were being honest about a plan that didn’t exist and a risk they feared more than they understood. I don’t remember whether Ohio or NRC made rural counties responsible for nuclear emergency response — especially evacuation plans — but it was a bad idea.

Some Clermont County evacuation maps directed residents in the same direction as the wind might carry the radioactive plume. That, we were told, was because the county couldn’t direct people east or west on U.S. 52 into Brown and Hamilton counties; they were supposed to do their own evacuation plans.

• If the Japanese crisis means we have to choose between fossil fuels and more nukes, nuclear might be more ethical: A nuclear accident threatens mainly beneficiaries of its electrical production but emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants can harm distant billions who gained no benefit from the electricity generated.

• It doesn’t take a quote from A Tale of Two Cities to appreciate what kind of month its been for editors. There can be too much of a good thing, especially with online demands for constant updates. What comes first? The NCAA playoffs, Liz Taylor's death, Libyan unrest, Japan quake, Japan tsunami, Japan nukes, or Sarah Palin visits Israel?

• Until last Tuesday, I’d never seen a photo of a tsunami that gave me sense of scale and dread. Go to The New York Times science section. Almost the entire top of the cover page is a Japanese photographer’s eerily intimate photo of the tsunami rolling in.

• Retired Cincinnati Police Chief Tom Streicher owns his memories but The Enquirer should have measured some of his assertions against facts it had published (or hadn’t). For a critique of the paper’s worshipful profile, see Kevin Osborne’s Porkopolis column here in CityBeat. It’s a lot closer to my memory of the past 12 years than The Enquirer’s walks-on-water eulogy.

• Two midday ads on WLW (700 AM) had me laughing so hard I almost pulled over to the curb. One sold “three-step” lawn care and blamed “four-step” lawn care for creating weak lawns. Then came an ad for “four-step” lawn care.

• This from The Enquirer’s Web site:


Geraldine Ferraro, first female VP candidate, dies at 75

• Jason Haap and his collaborators on cover stories that others miss or ignore and give voice to strong opinions on public concerns. We part company, however, on a recent post: He is canceling his Enquirer subscription over acts of omission and commission by the daily’s news staff.

Unless he’s sneaking preschool reads of neighbors’ copies on their front lawns, Jason’s cutting himself off from what remains of our best local news source. Even if Enquirer reporting and news judgment piss him off, they enrich his target acquisition and we all benefit.

• Channel 9’s Clyde Gray is going into the advertising business as partner in a new local agency. He’s one of Cincinnati’s best TV journalists and news anchors. Clyde says “transparency” will resolve any conflicts that arise between the roles of ad man and newsman. That’s not good enough.

Who decides what and when to tell viewers? Advertisers pay his WCPO salary. They also pay his agency for its services . . . in creating and placing ads on TV and in other media. Telling us that a client is advertising on his newscasts or elsewhere on the station doesn’t resolve that conflict.

Nor can the promise of “transparency” avoid suspicions that some news stories might be favored or spiked at the viewers’ expense.

• Overt advertiser influence on news judgment rarely becomes public in the way it exploded at The Detroit News. There, editors took much of the sting out of a negative review of the new Chrysler 200 convertible.

The paper published the full column by veteran motoring writer Scott Burgess but softened it online after an advertiser complained. Burgess resigned.

Had readers not been able to compare two versions and see the deletions, the paper’s craven surrender might have gone unnoticed. Caught, publisher Jonathan Wolman apologized, saying in part, “Once the review was published, we should have maintained the wording in all our formats and avoided any sense that we were acting at the influence of any interest aside from our readers’ interest. Why is that so important? The credibility of our journalism is our calling card to your doorstep and your digital screen. We simply cannot act at any behest but yours and we must avoid any appearance to the contrary.”

• Associated Press says USA Today, “the nation's second-largest newspaper is expanding its coverage of advertising-friendly topics . . . For readers, it means lots of travel tips, gadget reviews, sports features, financial advice and lifestyle recommendations.”

• Do reporters or editors — those prize-winning foreign journalists and analysts — remember what happened after we bombed Libya in 1986? Reagan ordered in the U.S. Air Force when Gaddafi was blamed for the lethal bombing of a Berlin night club popular with U.S. servicemen. Gaddafi’s adopted daughter was among those killed by the American assault. As the BBC put it, Gaddafi’s response was the 1988 bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270.

• Elizabeth Taylor died last week. She was filming Cleopatra at Cinecitta outside Rome when I was at the Rome Daily American. A friend doing public relations at Cinecitta for producer Dino DeLaurentis said that whatever people might have thought about Taylor’s marital arrangements, she was admired on the set for more than her beauty: She was talented, prompt, hardworking.

That, however, didn’t save her from unintentional defamation. One day, she was rushed to a private hospital for what someone reported was life-threatening intoxication, as in wildly drunk. Wrong. It was intossicato: Food poisoning.

Taylor was married to Eddie Fisher and I passionately, insanely hoped to get a compromising photo of Taylor and married costar/lover (and later, twice her husband) Richard Burton. It would have been the $1 million picture when that was real money. No dice. Hanging around their villas didn’t help. I never saw her.

My grander ambition to be a paparazzo died with my inability to drive a Vespa and capture saucy images with a Rolleiflex at the same time.

• If your paper or local TV station missed it, the McGraw Hill Research Foundation added its voice to a growing sense of why American K-12 academic performance trails those in Finland, Korea and Singapore.

It’s not the role of teacher unions or pay.

“The major difference . . . had to do with how teachers are valued, trained and compensated. All three systems pay very careful attention to raising and maintaining the standards of the teaching profession, only accepting the very best candidates and expending substantial amounts of time and money to nurture and develop the talents and leadership abilities of teachers and principals.”

• A month out of the nation and we return to arguments about the proposed Cincinnati streetcar, Ohio’s Republican governor is still beating on public employee unions, the NFL owners and players still are at each other’s throats, and the Widmer murder case remains the living dead.

• There is no way to win the battle against pious ignorance. The Lexington Herald-Leader says the next Kentucky biblical theme park will have “a life-size replica of Noah's Ark, which will include dinosaurs on board.” How can any reporter or editor say there will be a “replica” of something that probably exists only in biblical imagination?

Given that a replica is a work of art by the original artist or an exact copy, we’re being offered nonsense as news. As Noah asks God in a famous Bill Cosby routine about building the ark, “What’s a cubit?” And “dinosaurs on board”? Where will they get the dinosaurs? Jurassic Park?

Maybe the Lexington paper has missed the real story: Dinosaurs exist!

• The daily Cape Argus co-sponsors an annual 109 km Sunday bicycle race through the countryside around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, Cape Town and its fabled Table Mountain. This year, at least 35,000 competed, including our hosts, who, like most, considered it a victory when they completed the route.

Cyclists from all over the world fly into Cape Town for “the Argus.” Decals on the terminal floor welcome them and direct them to hosts. Given the perennial success of the organization of Cincinnati’s Flying Pig marathon, maybe it’s time for The Enquirer to sponsor a similar cycling event.

• This help wanted ad — it’s real, from a Florida paper rebuilding from recession bloodletting — went viral to the amazement of the editor who posted it on a journalism site:

“We want to add some talent to The Sarasota Herald-Tribune investigative team. Every serious candidate should have a proven track record of conceiving, reporting and writing stellar investigative pieces that provoke change. However, our ideal candidate has also cursed out an editor, had spokespeople hang up on them in anger and threatened to resign at least once because some fool wanted to screw around with their perfect lede.

“We do a mix of quick hit investigative work when events call for it and mini-projects that might run for a few days. But every year we like to put together a project way too ambitious for a paper our size because we dream that one day Walt Bogdanich will have to say: 'I can’t believe the Sarasota Whatever-Tribune cost me my 20th Pulitzer.'

“As many of you already know, those kinds of projects can be hellish, soul-sucking, doubt-inducing affairs. But if you’re the type of sicko who likes holing up in a tiny, closed office with reporters of questionable hygiene to build databases from scratch by hand-entering thousands of pages of documents to take on powerful people and institutions that wish you were dead, all for the glorious reward of having readers pick up the paper and glance at your potential prize-winning epic as they flip their way to the Jumble… well, if that sounds like journalism Heaven, then you’re our kind of sicko.

“For those unaware of Florida’s reputation, it’s arguably the best news state in the country and not just because of the great public records laws. We have all kinds of corruption, violence and scumbaggery. The 9/11 terrorists trained here. Bush read My Pet Goat here. Our elections are colossal clusterfucks. Our new governor once ran a health-care company that got hit with a record fine because of rampant Medicare fraud. We have hurricanes, wildfires, tar balls, bedbugs, diseased citrus trees and an entire town overrun by giant roaches (only one of those things is made up).

“And we have Disney World and beaches, so bring the whole family.

“Send questions, or a resume/cover letter/links to clips to my e-mail address below. If you already have your dream job, please pass this along to someone whose skills you covet.


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