Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Bob Herbert’s hatchet job at the New York Times

Columns printed on the opinion page are just that and not facts

hatchetNew York Times columnist Bob Herbert did more than peddle fear, uncertainty, and doubt about nuclear energy in his column published July 19 on the newspaper’s OP ED page. In a piece which overflows with florid language, Herbert bought into the anti-nuclear program of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) hook, line, and sinker.

It’s too bad he didn’t talk to anyone from the nuclear industry before he hit the keyboard. Maybe if he’d done some independent thinking, or just considered other points of view, the column would have turned over to be different.

The Nuclear Energy Institute posting on its blog Neinuclearnotes July 20 called Herbert’s article a “hatchet job,” and I agree. As for the florid language, consider these examples - “erupting,” “hair stand on end,” “horrific,” and labeling Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) “a certifiable nuke zealot.” This is clearly unbalanced rhetoric more suited to Fox News.

U.S. senators are not zealots

lamar_alexanderSen. Alexander (right) called for construction of 100 new nuclear power plants in a bipartisan statement at the ANS winter meeting last November with Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA). This isn’t the action of a zealot. Certainly, Sen. Webb, a former naval officer and Sec. of the Navy, wouldn’t show up for a press conference with a “zealot.” Herbert is way off the mark with that comment.

A good example of the kind of political rhetoric offered in Herbert’s column, and its purpose, comes from the career of the late Rep. George Smathers. His first defeat in politics in a rural Florida district came at the hands of a handbill that said he had a sister who was a “practicing thespian” in New York. Well, she was an accomplished actress, but that’s not the message the voters took away from the flyer. It was a successful smear campaign and Herbert’s column is no better.

Nuclear waste

Herbert also got his facts wrong which calls into question how much review he gets from the Times editors. He says, “No one knows what to do with nuclear waste.” The reason this statement is wrong is that there are plenty of technical solutions. The Obama administration has allowed the issue to be kicked around like a soccer ball at a World Cup match thanks to the re-election jitters of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)

Davis Besse

nrc sealAs for Davis Besse, the problem was caught and corrected. The system worked. Mr. Herbert never once mentions the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in his column. He seems to think the nation’s 104 nuclear power stations operate freely without government oversight. What else would account for this omission?

For readers with an interest in the facts, the NRC maintains this web page on the Davis Besse reactor head degradation and its responses and orders to the utility.

Davis-Besse’s next planned outage is scheduled for fall of 2011 to install a new reactor head with nozzles made of materials less susceptible to primary stress corrosion cracking. The new head has been manufactured in France by AREVA and is expected to arrive at Davis-Besse in fall of 2010 where it will undergo a series of pre-service inspections.

Leaning on UCS for ideas

Herbert also tars with a wide brush picking up the anti-nuclear community’s line that the BP gulf oil spill is as harbinger of accidents waiting to happen with nuclear power plants.

david_lochbaum UCSHerbert got help with his opinion piece from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). David Lochbaum, (right) head of the group’s nuclear safety project, told Herbert that “since 1979 there have been 47 instances of plants shut down for more than a year for safety reasons.”

Unfortunately, for NYT readers, neither Herbert nor Lochbaum cite the source of that statistic. It is a difficult metric to evaluate because it depends on what interpretation UCS gave to trhe combination of NRC orders and to self-initiated actions by utilities based on their own operational procedures.

To put this statistic in perspective, I can say with certainty that every car my family ever owned since 1979 has been in the shop at least 47 times, and for at least 24 hours, due to maintenance issues or for repair of safety-related equipment. Of course, some of these “issues” include preventative measures such as oil/lube, tune ups, brakes, mufflers, and the occasional headlight. There were also instances where my car lost a master cylinder, dropped a drive shaft, and blew a tire. Get it? Got it? Good!

Oh come off it

In an email to me of May 25, Elliot Negin, Media Director of UCS, denied that his organization is “anti-nuclear.” He objected to that characterization in my blog post titled “Mountains into molehills.”

Mr. Negin wrote, “We are not anti-nuclear. We are agnostic. The best way to characterize us is as a nuclear industry watchdog.”

umpire1 When I asked a group of senior nuclear energy industry experts about this statement, I was greeted with hoots of laughter. Mr. Negin’s statement was dismissed out of hand with comments starting at “disingenuous” and moving to much more caustic characterizations.

To say that UCS can credibly maintain it is not “anti-nuclear” is to suggest Mr. Herbert plans to sell his readers shares in the Brooklyn Bridge.

Herbert also borrowed from the UCS the idea that terrorists plan to attack a nuclear power plant. This argument was raised in the relicensing of the Oyster Creek plant. The NRC and the Federal District Court in New Jersey rejected it as not credible. The plant’s license was renewed for another 20 years in April 2009.

So it comes as no surprise that Herbert’s acceptance of the UCS line on nuclear energy is just so much hot air. What is a surprise is that the New York Times editors seem to have given Mr. Herbert a pass on this column. I do not.


  • Senator Webb served as a officer in the U.S. Marine Corps in Vietnam. See his Senate bio for details.

  • The story about Sen. Smathers is in dispute. It makes a good point, but may not be grounded in actual history. I reported it here the way I heard him tell it in person in Washington, DC, in the early 1980s.

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Brian Mays said...

Actually, Webb was a marine, not a naval officer.

If you think about it, the UCS's claim that it is not "anti-nuclear" is no more ridiculous than its claim that it is an organization of "scientists."

The best way to characterize them is as a bunch of liars, hypocrites, and propagandists.

Bill Rodgers said...

Well done on the rebuttal.

Mr. Herbert needs to stop drinking the UCS and anti-Indian Point koolaid.

If UCS is truly agnostic towards nuclear power then they really need to rein in Mr. Lyman. He is spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about nuclear power every opportunity he can. Mr. Lyman has occasional points about reactor safety that can and should be discussed in a rationale adult manner if they have not already been resolved. But then he goes off the rails when he rants about those concerns as reasons we should not use nuclear power.

However Mr. Lyman is one who uses the non-proliferation issues as a reason to stop nuclear power despite the fact that the two are not directly tied to each other. A fact Mr. Lyman is very well aware of but still uses in his attempts to push his anti-nuclear agenda.

So again, how is the UCS agnostic on nuclear power?

DocForesight said...

First, it should come as no surprise that the NYT allows Mr. Herbert to freely post his biased and unverified opinions and still attempt to portray themselves as a serious news organization. Their readership decline would seem to indicate otherwise.

Second, would you care to comment about the pronouncements from Keith Olbermann or Ed Schultz on MSNBC? A they also "zealots" or merely reasoned commentators of current events?

I can't think of a prominent "conservative" host on CNN or MSNBC, while Fox News has Shepard Smith and Geraldo Rivera, arguably liberal in their political leanings, hosting fairly prominent programming.

Thanks, Dan, for an otherwise informative blog. I stop by daily.

djysrv said...

Doc, I don't follow the commentators at MSNBC any more than I follow the ones at FOX. The formal definition of a zealot goes back to the Roman invasion of Israel in the 1st century. That's why Herbert's use of the term is wrong.

crf said...

I think, reading the Wikipedia page you linked, you may have the Smathers case a little backwards.

It was Smathers who was falsely reported (ie, the reporter probably made the whole thing up) to have given a speech attacking his opponent for the Democartic party US Senate nomination, Claude Pepper, as having a sister who was a "thespian". Pepper did lose the nomination to Smathers.

djysrv said...

When I heard the story directly from Smathers in the early 1980s, he told it the other way!

Bryan Kelly said...

He may have missed with "zealot," but Bob does however, not only define, but indeed exemplify the correct definition of "Herbert".

Let's give Bob and the New York Times credit where credit is due.


Both UCS and Lochbaum have a low standard for veracity. Lochbaum has recently published a completely erronious antinuke propaganda piece, and gotten caught at it.


Charles Barton said...

Dan, the original story was that Smathers had a set speech in which he accused Claud Pepper's family of dll sorts of terrible things, such as practicing monogamy and chastity in addition to the his sister is a thespian in New York City line. The story appears to be a myth, at any rate there is no evidence thar Smathers or anyone else ever gave the speech. It is a good story however, and no doubt Smathers enjoyed telling it with himself rather than Claud Pepper as the victim.