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Saturday, June 25, 2011

Floods spur wild rumors of nuclear plant perils in Nebraska

Floods spur wild rumors of nuclear plant perils in Nebraska

In this June 14 photo, the Fort Calhoun nuclear power station in Nebraska is surrounded by Missouri River floodwaters. The photo alarmed some people who saw it.
In this June 14 photo, the Fort Calhoun nuclear power station in Nebraska is surrounded by Missouri River floodwaters. The photo alarmed some people who saw it. / ASSOCIATED PRESS
The sight of two Nebraska nuclear plants fighting off a severely swollen Missouri River this week has brewed a furious, Internet-fueled scare that warns of impending disasters of a scale similar to the tsunami-stricken Fukushima plant in Japan.

Operators of the Fort Calhoun and Cooper plants and the federal agency that regulate them say the reactors are flood-proof, are in no danger of leaking, and extra precautions have been taken.

"The rumors have been as difficult to combat as the rising floodwaters," said Victor Dricks, spokesman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Much of the information on blogs, YouTube and social media has been inaccurate, the NRC reported.

A particularly inflammatory report originated on an English-language online newspaper based in Pakistan. The article claims that a Russian nuclear energy agency has obtained information about a June 7 accident at the Fort Calhoun plant near Blair, Neb., which it described as "one of the worst" in U.S. history. The report goes on to say President Barack Obama has ordered news organizations not to report the accident and imposed a "no-fly" zone over the plant because of radiation leaks from "a near catastrophic meltdown."
Several callers to The Des Moines Register this week suggested the newspaper and other "mainstream media" organizations were participating in a conspiracy to cover up news of a looming nuclear disaster. Most cited the Pakistani website as the source of their information. A Google search on the term "Nebraska nuclear plants" returned 1,171 hits for sites discussing the incidents.

The feeding frenzy has prompted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the owners of the Nebraska facilities to take the unusual step of confronting the rumors at their source — the Internet.
The nuclear agency, known more for straight-laced news releases loaded down with engineering jargon, created a blog of its own to discuss the Nebraska facilities.

The Omaha Public Power District, which operates Fort Calhoun, also created a special webpage on its site to dispel the rumors. It and the Nebraska Public Power District, which runs Cooper, say they have repeatedly addressed flood-related concerns on their websites and in news reports.
The incident that apparently ignited the blogosphere controversy appears to be rooted in a June 7 electrical fire in a switchgear room at Fort Calhoun. That fire disrupted cooling systems for 90 minutes, which critics said threatened to result in a radiation leak.

In fact, federal regulators who investigated the incident say there was no release and only a slight, fleeting increase in temperature in the nuclear rod storage facility.

Confusion surrounding two low-level alerts sent to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission earlier this month may have also fueled the rumor mill, agency officials said.
The Cooper nuclear plant, near Brownville, issued an alert on June 19 known as a "notification of unusual event" advising the agency that the river was rising near the plant. At one point, the Missouri River came within 18 inches of forcing the Cooper plant to shut down, but it is still operating.

The notices are the least serious of four types of reports that plants file with the agency when there is a potential problem or threat to a plant.

Fort Calhoun issued a similar notice two weeks earlier. That plant remains surrounded by water and has been shut down because of concern about floodwaters, but a series of barriers have stopped the water's advance.
The companies that run the plants have set up sandbags and water-filled barriers that exceed the projected flood crests. Both operators say they also have initiated other types of extra protection at the plants, which are already required to be floodproof.

Perhaps more important, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has sent four additional inspectors to Fort Calhoun to join two others who are permanently assigned there.

Power plant operators, as well as others with businesses and homes near the river, have had plenty of notice that flooding was possible and when it could arrive, giving them time to prepare.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in May warned that releases from a South Dakota reservoir would be double the previous record set in 1997 because of heavy upstream rains and snowmelt.

And the "no-fly" zone supposedly established as part of the news blackout or because of radiation leaks? Also false, plant operators say.

Instead, they said the Federal Aviation Administration was asked to remind pilots that airspace around nuclear plants has been restricted since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. They said news helicopters repeatedly ignored the rules after the electrical fire at Fort Calhoun.
Advances in technology and the changing nature of how news is reported — or in some cases, misreported — has made it easier than ever for such stories to go viral in the global Information Age, according to journalism scholars.

"The news travels faster than the coverage," said David Perlmutter, director of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa.

"We live in an era in which facts and fantasies and lies can travel around the world three times before anyone mobilizes to investigate whether they are true or not," he added.
"One person can post one thing and it's picked up and cited and, within hours, people in Islamabad and Lagos and Christchurch are talking about it," Perlmutter said.

The hyperspeed of reporting around the world by everyone from average citizens to professional journalists makes the danger of inaccuracies higher. The constant corrections about the circumstances surrounding Osama bin Laden's death is but one recent example, he said.

Jacqui Banaszynski, who teaches journalism at the University of Missouri, said news consumers should seek several trusted sources of information, rather than a single Tweet or YouTube video.
"The bottom line is that we are in an era of 'news consumer beware' because of the way people can both produce and distribute information," she said. "It's really up to the individual to decide whether they want to find out where the information came from. Sometimes, that comes down to a trusted brand. But the New York Times has made mistakes.

"People need to understand that if they want good, solid information they have to take more than a friend's post on Twitter," she added. "Are you going to add to the white noise of b.s., or offer real information?"

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