Sept. 11 Blurs U.S. Nuclear Information Policyby Leonard Anderson
Reuters - November 8, 2001
SAN FRANCISCO, (Reuters) -- The U.S. nuclear power industry, quick to beef up security at its reactors after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and the Pentagon, has struggled in efforts to redefine its public information policy.
Security concerns have blurred the overall picture of plant operations, resulting in policies that range from news blackouts to daily status reports available to anyone over the telephone.
News of the plants, producers of one-fifth of the nation's electricity, is vital currency for the electricity industry because production figures affect the prices consumers pay for their power today and in the coming months.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which licenses and oversees the nation's 103 reactors, blacked out information on its Web site giving operating conditions at the plants after the attacks.
The NRC said it wanted to review whether any data could be of value to anyone planning an assault on a nuclear plant.
"We're gradually adding things back to our Web site (www.nrc.gov) but we're still reviewing the plant report. A decision hasn't been made on whether to put it back," said Sue Gagner, NRC spokeswoman.
Before Sept. 11, many plants said competitive issues -- especially the availability of power supplies and their impact on prices -- precluded talk about operations. After the attacks, many have added plant security as another reason to offer "no comment" on what they are up to.
The lack of news has sparked a few wild rumors in the power market and widespread grumbling among energy traders.
In October, talk raced through the market that nuclear plants nationwide were closing due to security fears. The rumor pushed up wholesale power prices and, with no reliable information available, forced the NRC to rush out a denial.
Some nuclear utilities, however, continue to issue news about daily operations at their plants and send out press releases touting record-fast refuelings.
Nuclear Management Co., of Hudson, Wisconsin, began posting its own Web report on daily operations at six Midwest plants it manages on Oct. 22, only to pull it three days later after one of the plant owners voiced concerns, said spokeswoman Maureen Brown.
The company, however, will answer questions about daily electricity generation.
Energy company Dominion, of Richmond, Virginia, would not confirm power market rumors in October that its Surry 1 nuclear reactor in Virginia was shut for refueling and repairs, citing competitive reasons and the NRC's news blackout.
In California, however, PG&E Corp. unit Pacific Gas & Electric's Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, the state's biggest, continues to give telephone callers a taped daily production report for the twin-reactor plant.
"The telephone line has not been an issue," said Jeff Lewis, plant spokesman. "The plant report is part of a wider package of information we have given to the public for years."
Lewis said he talked recently with the NRC about what companies should or should not say about operations, and "the NRC said they were reviewing the process."
Diablo Canyon has stepped up security and suspended plant tours in line with NRC recommendations. Plant officials were working "on a case-by-case basis" with news outlets that want to visit the facility, said Lewis.
After the attacks, some utilities and the Washington-based Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), a pro-nuclear trade group, set up conference calls to swap communications tactics.
"We share information on how we're dealing with basic communications and the media," said Ann Mary Carley, spokeswoman for Exelon Nuclear, which manages 17 reactors in the Midwest and Middle Atlantic states.
Since Sept. 11, the unit of Chicago-based Exelon Corp. has "been less generous about certain information -- things like equipment dimensions, fuel storage pools, plant design and other specifics. And I will not talk about plants reducing or increasing power levels," said Carley.
"(NEI) leaves it up to the individual companies to decide what they want to put out and when," said spokesman Mitch Singer. "They each have their policies. They should try to be as forthcoming as possible within the parameters of security."
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