Columns printed on the opinion page are just that and not facts
New 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
Sen. 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.
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.)
As 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.
Herbert 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.”
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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