Some analysts say its price tag may eventually rival the savings and loan industry bailout. Others compare it with Social Security because it will burden future generations. But unless you're a regular reader of one of a handful of daily newspapers, you wouldn't have any idea about what it is: closing the nation's rapidly aging commercial nuclear power plants.
Why isn't this topic covered more widely? It's not sexy, a number of journalists say. Others maintain it's too early to write about it. Still others say it's a local issue, too parochial for the national press.
Such views may be shortsighted. There is mounting evidence that there is a substantial problem, one that will affect ratepayers in at least 33 states and ultimately cost tens of billions of dollars. Industry analysts, antinuclear activists and journalists who follow the issue argue that ratepayers should be informed, especially since there's a good chance they'll get stuck with the bill.
Nuclear plants are licensed to generate electricity for 40 years, but rapid deterioration, economic inefficiency, safety problems and the high cost of replacing key components are forcing them to shut down early. Six have been retired prematurely in the last six years and some analysts predict that nearly 25 percent of the 109 plants still generating electricity may be forced to shut down by the end of the decade.
Prematurely closed plants present several major problems beyond the obvious impact on the country's electric supply, of which nuclear power today generates about 22 percent. Put simply, utilities don't know how to safely dismantle – or decommission, in the industry vernacular – these plants; they don't know where to put the radioactive refuse; and estimates of decommissioning costs have been rapidly escalating in the last few years.
In 1988 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimated the cost of the procedure at $105 million to $135 million for large plants, depending on their type. Late last October the managers of the relatively small 185-megawatt Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant in Massachusetts, the nation's longest operating commercial reactor, estimated it will cost $369 million to dismantle. That's 50 percent more than Yankee Atomic Electric Co. projected when it shut the plant in 1992 and nearly 10 times what it cost to build in 1960. Meanwhile, Portland General Electric Co., which shut down its Trojan plant in Oregon in 1993, says it will cost at least $415 million to decommission the 1,140-megawatt reactor.
Utilities, which are required to put away money annually over a 40-year period to pay for retiring and dismantling their plants, are woefully short of funds. Over the 17 years it ran Trojan, for example, Portland General accumulated only $45 million, or 11 percent of what it says it needs. Despite 32 years of operation, Yankee Atomic accumulated only $103 million, or 28 percent, of the necessary funds. The 10 utilities that own Yankee Rowe plan to raise electric rates in New England to cover the cost. A Yankee Atomic spokesman downplays the expense, however, estimating it will only amount to "pennies per month" for individual ratepayers over several years.
Susan Q. Stranahan, a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer who wrote hundreds of articles and editorials on nuclear power from the late 1970s through the early 1990s, says she's amazed decommissioning is not covered better. "We wrote about nuc|ear power safety issues in the 1970s and 1980s," she says, "but now we're probably facing more serious safety and economic questions and nobody's paying attention."
Not quite, but close. Between January 1991 and last summer, neither ABC, CBS, CNN nor NBC broached the subject of decommissioning beyond a few sentences. Nor did Business Week, Newsweek, Time or U.S. News & World Report. Seven of the 17 metropolitan dailies surveyed for this article ignored the issue; six others occasionally printed brief wire reports on closing plants. Only four papers – the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times and Wall Street Journal – devoted periodic coverage.
Industry critics and journalists who follow the issue argue that the national media are failing to warn the public about a potential financial mess. They say the lack of public awareness allows the federal government to continue its lax oversight of the industry at a time when it has given utilities the option to extend plant licenses to 60 years and is pouring millions of taxpayer dollars into the development of a new generation of nuclear reactors.
Journalists who cover the nuclear industry acknowledge that it's a difficult subject. In 1993, Jim Morris, the Houston Chronicle's special projects reporter, wrote more than 50 articles on nuclear power, mostly on problems at the South Texas nuclear plant. He finds that "there's a lack of coverage of the nuclear power industry in general" because "it's a complicated, very dry story and it takes a lot of effort to understand the terminology."
Some trade reporters blame the lack of coverage on ignorance rather than the level of complexity. "It's a lack of awareness," says Steve Daniels, a contributing writer for Engineering News Record, a weekly magazine published by McGraw-Hill. "I was startled by the magnitude of the costs and surprised that decommissioning will occur in such a short time frame."
Decommissioning is even tougher for television to cover, says Jim Morris (no relation to the Chronicle reporter), a researcher and associate producer for CNN's environmental unit, which produces half-hour segments for TBS' "Network Earth" and CNN's "Earth Matters."
"Decommissioning is a major story and we will be covering it," he says. But, unlike the other networks, "we have the luxury of time to explain a complicated story. You need to explain the details or the public will think it's another nuclear scare story."
Richard Richter, now an independent TV producer, was senior producer for "The Fire Unleashed," a comprehensive, three-hour ABC "Close Up" documentary on the nuclear industry that aired in 1985. There has been nothing like it since, he says. He's right. None of the current newsmagazines have tackled the issue even in a cursory way.
The push for ratings has driven out documentaries like "The Fire Unleashed," says Ken Auletta, who writes about the media for The New Yorker and is the author of "Three Blind Mice: How the TV Networks Lost Their Way." "Now you have to lie in front of the railroad tracks to get serious, complicated stories on the air."
While news organizations have little trouble freeing up reporters to cover sensational stories, which are relatively easy to do and garner wide audiences, nuclear power tends to be shoved aside even in newsrooms that don't chase tabloid-type stories.
The Washington Post, for example, did not run a comprehensive overview of the decommissioning problem during the period surveyed. "Decommissioning was a big project on my agenda when I went off the energy beat," says the Post's Thomas W. Lippman, who started covering the State Department in the spring of 1993. "It's a looming problem that we haven't addressed."
Doug Feaver, the Post business editor, says the energy beat is not popular at his paper. "I don't take an intense personal interest in energy coverage," he concedes, and he says reporters and news desks are not clamoring for such stories.
Some journalists say the lack of coverage also is due to limited resources. Daniel Glick, a Newsweek general assignment reporter from June 1989 through last December whose job description included covering nuclear power, says he wrote on subjects ranging from "museums to bungee jumping to high-tech restrictions on trade to Eastern Europe."
NBC correspondent Robert Hager has the same problem. "The story just doesn't make the cut-off on the priority list," he says. "Certainly not with the manpower we have at a network. I cover 25 federal agencies on my beat."
Carl Goldstein, a longtime spokesman for the nuclear industry who retired from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) last November, says decommissioning is not a priority because it's too early to cover it. "We don't know timetables, costs or techniques, or how many utilities will tear down their plants or simply mothball them," he says. "Questions like these need to be settled."
The New York Times' Matthew L. Wald, the reporter who has probably filed more inches on the nuclear industry than any other American journalist in recent years, says that the disposal of low-level radioactive waste is a more pressing problem. "We don't know what it will cost to decommission plants without knowing what is going on with low-level waste," he says. "It's like discussing your funeral arrangements without having a burial plot.
"Having said that," he adds, "it probably deserves more attention."
Trade magazine reporter Daniels says reporters who discount the timeliness of decommissioning coverage are mistaken. "It's an immediate problem given the time needed for the development of engineering expertise," he says. But, he adds, "given the fact that the engineering community – which stands to make billions from it – is just now devoting some attention to the problem, it's not surprising that the media is further back from that."
The dearth of coverage makes Robert Pollard angry. He's a nuclear safety engineer for the Union of Concerned Scientists and a former NRC licensing project manager. "It's been 19 years since I left the NRC and I have yet to figure out the media," he says. "They seem to want to wait until there's something dramatic, like dead bodies or a bankrupt company, when this problem is coming up quickly and will affect all of the plants."
Former Newsweek reporter Glick concedes Pollard's point. "We don't cover the industry until a Three Mile Island happens," he says.
Because of this prevailing attitude, Pollard says that "decommissioning is the next surprise for the public about the disadvantages of nuclear power – although it wouldn't be a surprise if the media were doing their job."
There have been a number of pegs for the story during the three-and-a-half years tracked for this article. Three plants – the 17-year-old Trojan plant in Oregon, the 24-year-old San Onofre 1 in California and the 32-year-old Yankee Rowe plant in Massachusetts – have been shut down since January 1991. Three were closed in 1989; eight other commercial reactors, including Three Mile Island Unit 2, were shut down permanently before 1989.
Several reports warning that nuclear plants are aging prematurely have been published over the last few years. Two private organizations, the Cambridge Energy Research Associates and Shearson Lehman Brothers (now Lehman Brothers), predicted two dozen plants will probably have to close by the year 2000 for economic or safety reasons. Meanwhile, a September 1993 study by Congress' Office of Technology Assessment concluded that "absent license renewals, about three dozen operating nuclear plants will have to retire in the next 20 years."
For its part, the industry says such predictions are speculative. Former NEI spokesman Goldstein also says it would be a mistake to make generalizations about the future of the industry based on the experiences at recently closed plants. The OTA report agrees with that point. "Any tendency to judge the industry by early retirements," it states, "may give a misleadingly dim view of the remaining lives of other plants."
A number of newspapers covered the closing of Yankee Rowe. The Trojan plant shutdown and the reports on prematurely aging plants also generated some interest. But the bulk of the stories that went beyond a few paragraphs ran only in the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, New York Times and Wall Street Journal.
The newsweekly magazines have given the issue only cursory attention. In March 1991, Time devoted one page to the problem of aging nuclear power plants, focusing on Yankee Rowe and the NRC's plans to extend licenses to 60 years. The story, however, did not mention decommissioning. Meanwhile, U.S. News & World Report ran only three paragraphs on Yankee Rowe in July 1991 and followed up with another paragraph the following June. Last July, the magazine reported on the closing of the Barnwell, South Carolina, low-level waste dump to waste from all but eight states. Newsweek ran nothing on the issue from January 1991 through last summer.
The television networks covered nuclear plant closings during that time frame, albeit briefly and not always during prime time. Half of the 10 pieces on ABC, CBS and NBC aired before 9 a.m. Only two evening news pieces were longer than two or three sentences.
One other reason cited for the lack of national coverage is that decommissioning is not a "national" problem. "These really are local stories rather than national stories," says William Beecher, the NRC's public affairs director and a former reporter for the New York Times, Boston Globe and other papers. "In a particular community it is news."
Likewise, the Washington Post's Thomas Lippman explains that his paper isn't compelled to cover the issue because the Washington, D.C.-based electric utility doesn't own a nuclear plant, and utilities in Maryland and Virginia don't have plants approaching retirement. "If Calvert Cliffs [a nuclear plant on the Chesapeake Bay] were up for decommissioning," he says, "we'd be writing about it."
But Christopher Flavin, research director of the Worldwatch Institute, an environmental group, and author of the recent book "Power Surge: Guide to the Coming Energy Revolution," points out that given "there are plants across the country, it's not a local story. There are a lot of commonalities. If you looked at it that way, air pollution could be considered a local story."
Even so, Pam Hill, the executive producer of the 1985 ABC special "The Fire Unleashed" and now executive producer of CNN Special Assignment, says there's a widespread reluctance to deal with the subject. "There's a kind of 'It's all right, Jack' feeling about nuclear issues," she says. "Nobody wants to think about it anymore."
Karl Grossman, a journalism professor at the State University of New York at Old Westbury and the author of several books on nuclear power, goes further, suggesting that most Americans believe science will eventually overcome negative side effects of technology.
"For the generation that came of age in the 1950s, nuclear power is another example of progress," he says. "But nuclear power is different than steam engines or automobiles. It's so dangerous and unnecessary.
"People are in the dark on decommissioning, not only about the enormous cost..," he adds. "But the bigger problem is having toxic radioactive poisons around for centuries. We are really doing something that will affect future generations. The press should be in the lead on publicizing this." l