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Look for a move toward nuclear power plants in the U.S.

ASK THIS | November 23, 2005

Duke Power of North Carolina is in the process of applying for licenses to construct new nuclear power plants. Even before the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, power companies had ceased applying for nuclear power plant licenses because of public opposition. What's different now, if anything?

By Sam Kean



There is no guarantee that nuclear power will revive and thrive in the U.S. as it does in many European countries. But news organizations should begin reporting now and not be caught off guard, as logic suggests the Duke Power application (for plants in North and South Carolina) would be only the first of many to come.


[Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this item incorrectly stated that Duke Power had already applied for a license.]


No doubt, there will be a renewed battle between proponents of nuclear power and environmentalists, especially over the unresolved problem of where to store spent fuel, which remains toxic for centuries.


In telephone interviews, I talked to two experts on nuclear power. One was Peter Stoett, the Political Science Department Chair at Concordia University in Montreal, who has written on the intersection of nuclear power, globalization and international security. From our conversation, these questions emerged:


Q. If there is a serious move toward nuclear power plants, then who will make the decisions about them? Will there be any representatives of environmental groups, for instance?


Q. How will projects be insured? The Price-Anderson Act, in place since 1957 and recently renewed, limits the indemnity of nuclear power plants in case of accidents. So what type of public liability is there in the event of nuclear accidents or catastrophes?


Q. How much of the funding for construction/maintenance is public, and from which levels of government?


Q. Nuclear power is often touted as an alternative to a carbon-based energy economy. But what are the total carbon emission costs for nuclear plants, “cradle to grave,” including mining, delivery and disposal?


Q. Who will pay for the enforcement of security provisions? Will this be rolled into the cost of electricity paid by local consumers, or will it be subsidized via federal taxes, etc.? (Post 9-11, the security costs will be tremendous for a nuclear plant.)


Q. Which firms are involved in the construction? Are they companies that already export nuclear technology?


Stoett added the following points:


Companies with heavy investments in oil and coal are eager to expand into nuclear power. They will likely spend a good deal of money toward convincing the public of its legitimacy.


The public-relations battle may be somewhat smoother in light of concerns over global warming and, in the post 9/11 era, increased state security. Presumably, nuclear power can offer a detour from the usual heavy reliance on oil imports, suggesting an improvement in national energy independence can be gained in spite of increased electricity consumption.


Global warming offers creative debating points for proponents. For example, British Nuclear Fuels—which runs England’s nuclear power plants—has argued that Britain should pay nuclear power generators extra because they don’t produce greenhouse gases, and to make it economic to build new plants. But, while nuclear power plants run on very low emissions, when the entire nuclear fuel cycle is factored in, from uranium mining to delivery to fuel disposal, the situation is much more complicated and the benefits much less obvious.


Nuclear power cannot present itself as a neutral power source free of massive capital consolidation and state assistance. Wherever one finds nuclear power, from India to Romania, it is heavily invested with state support. And while exports of nuclear technology were once considered potential destabilizers of world peace, the Canadian government now boasts of its sales to China and Turkey.


Other countries, notably Japan and France, have increased their reliance on nuclear power. France relies on it for 70 percent of its total power. Canada and some smaller nations have pursued aggressively subsidized export policies. Still, large American and British nuclear engineering firms remain the most important players. Other nations that rely on nuclear power include Germany, Sweden and India. Nations with rich deposits of nuclear material that might suddenly increase in international importance include Australia, Russia, South Africa, Uzbekistan, Namibia, Niger, China, and the Czech Republic.


Reliance on uranium may, in the long run, prove as complex and costly as reliance on oil. But there is no doubt that the major public relations trump card—the relatively low level of greenhouse gas emissions—remains on the side of nuclear-power advocates.


The second expert I spoke to was Ernest Moniz, professor of Physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-chair of the report The Future of Nuclear Power. Moniz offered these questions:


Q. How do the companies plan to pursue and utilize tax incentives for first-time plants?


Q. In the past, separate companies were licensed to build and operate plants. Recently, and unusually, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has granted licenses to the same firm to both build and operate a plant. What effects will this have on the cost and the final product?


Q. Are the companies concerned about the lack of resolution about spent nuclear fuel? How have they evaluated the risk of not having the fuel moved?


Q. There are different options for nuclear fuel cycles: an open, once-through fuel cycle, and a closed-fuel cycle that involves reprocessing spent fuel and recycling fissionable materials. Advanced closed-fuel cycles are said by some to improve spent fuel management, and by others to increase proliferation risks.  What is the company’s preference?  Why?


Reporters need to investigate how the plants would be constructed and the security and environmental concerns surrounding them, as well as whether public opposition has waned to the point that political leaders and financial backers will support nuclear plants.


Some context about nuclear power in the United States:


According the Department of Energy, no construction projects have been initiated in the United States since 1978 (a long-standing project at Watts Bar in Tennessee was started in the 1970s and completed in 1996).


According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the United States’s 104 reactors (at 67 sites) provide 20 percent of its total power. Many European and Asian countries rely much more heavily on nuclear power.


These reactors are concentrated along the East Coast and in Illinois. Nevada, prospective home of the much-debated Yucca Mountain waste facility, has no nuclear power reactors.


The Energy Information Administration (a segment of the Department of Energy) provides an overview of the nuclear power industry, including a link to charts on New Nuclear Construction and Why Is No One Building New Nuclear?


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has more detailed and technical information available; click here


And for a map and list of currently active nuclear reactors, click here


Murtha and The Washington Post
Posted by Adam Behar -
01/19/2006, 07:14 PM

Please help me evaluate the newsworthiness of the effort to discredit Murtha as covered by the Washington Post. I know newsworthiness is in the eye of the editor, but surely there are criteria that need to be met. Howard Kurtz (per below) seems to think that the mere allegation is newsworthy--is that a widely held view? Is that really all it takes?
Howard Kurtz: “So when conservatives make charges of this sort, you think we should just ignore it? Should the media never have carried a word about the Swift Boat Veterans trying to torpedo Kerry (which began with some paid TV ads)? In my view, the mere fact of this effort against Murtha was newsworthy, as has been made clear by all the commentary it's sparked, and people can make up their own minds whether the effort is fair or outrageous.”
I am not a journalist, so my analysis—which follows—may be sophomoric, but I appreciate whatever feedback more seasoned journalists and academics can provide.
If Murtha were running for president, and we were in the middle of the campaign, then the Post's readers might have an interest in knowing that Murtha's Purple Hearts were being called into question. The notion would be that this issue somehow shed light on Murtha's character, and supposedly Americans like to elect presidents of "high moral character." Presumably this was the rationale for the media's considerable coverage of the Swiftboaters’ attacks against John Kerry. In that case they were supported by an extensive ad campaign, a dimension which may have contributed to its apparent newsworthiness. Certainly the ad campaign would make it more of an “effort,” per Kurtz, as opposed to a mere allegation.
But the current situation is very different. There is no ad campaign. And there is no political campaign. There is, however, a debate about our policy in Iraq. It’s a debate of ideas, so shouldn’t those ideas be the lens through which editors determine if something is newsworthy or not? Against this backdrop, the issue of Vietnam—and specifically whether or not Murtha earned his Purple Hearts—would clearly not be relevant. After all, John Kerry made his service in Vietnam a key part of his campaign strategy, so—as much as I hate to admit it—his Purple Heart was fair game. But in the case of Murtha—absent any relevant context—why in the world would a fringe website's murky allegations be newsworthy? Do they enlighten the Iraq dialogue? As a consumer of news, how have my interests been served and, now that I know about the allegations, what am I to do with them? Am I to view Murtha’s claims about Iraq with some suspicion? Have I gained some insight that enables me to view unfolding events with greater sophistication? Of course not. After all, Murtha’s ability to influence Iraq policy has nothing to do with his service in Vietnam; the necessary link or relationship or context is missing. He is credible on the issue for another reason entirely: the Pentagon and Army brass and his peers afford him respect because of his knowledge about military matters. Show me that he’s a loose cannon, that he lacks caution and thoughtfulness, and that history shows he usually ends up on the wrong side of most issues. Then you’ve undermined Murtha in way that is relevant to the larger dialogue. That, it seems to me, has to be the standard.
Is a mere allegation (or “effort”) enough to achieve newsworthiness or must there be a greater threshold? I'm interested in knowing what standards editors applied or should have applied, what considerations they weighed or should have weighed, in determining newsworthiness and relevance. My hunch is they were drawn to the controversy and conflict after seeing what the Swift Boaters did to Kerry, and just like the moguls in Hollywood, the Washington Post newsroom loves a sequel. Am I being needlessly cynical? And if my hunch is right, well then, that is rather sad, isn't it. Please also note that there are other grounds for questioning the editors' judgment in running this story (e.g., transparent motives and dubious credibility of Bailey and Bozell, but I will let others sort that one out.) Please tell me why my understanding of the situation is wrong, and I will be sure to share it with my colleagues and friends. I am not a journalist as you can probably tell, and I thank you in advance for helping me sort through these issues.
Adam Behar

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