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Why Did Reporters Promote a Student Paper on Nuclear Security?

There was a flurry of attention in the press last week when a political science professor held a press conference to tell the world that one of his students had written a paper concluding that all of the nuclear power plants in the United States were vulnerable to a terrorist attack.

For unpublished reasons, a number of reporters accepted the scare story at face value and published articles stoking fear, uncertainty and doubt. Editors at outlets as varied as Fox News, CNN, Reuters, and National Journal ran headlines like the following:

Fox News – Security at nation’s nuclear facilities vulnerable to terrorist attack, report says

CNN – Report: U.S. nuclear plants remain vulnerable to terrorists

Reuters – U.S. nuclear power plants vulnerable to 9/11-style attacks: report

National Journal – Pentagon-Sponsored Report: Civilian Nuclear Reactors at Risk of Attack

Here is an example of the kind of breathless reporting that makes nuclear energy professionals so frustrated with the ad supported media.

One of the email groups to which I subscribe included the following response from Jerry Paul. I obtained his permission to publish his observations.

It is a stretch to even call this document a “report”, much less research. It is political propaganda. It is not authored or sourced by anyone with technical or scientific credentials nor is there any peer review (for obvious reasons). The faculty author, whose experience is in political science, asserts that the “research” was “primarily by his [student] assistant”. Little can be found to indicate any subject matter expertise upon which he or his student might rely for his conclusions which depend on technical and complex aspects of nuclear science, nuclear materials and nuclear engineering. Rather, his bio boasts of his background as an activist for Greenpeace which is a political, not a scientific, organization. Few references are given in the paper other than quotes from individuals at other anti-nuclear activist organizations.

Most of the paper reads like a science fair project, simply providing a catalogue of nuclear facilities coupled with only publicly-available generalizations about security at such places. The reader quickly concludes that neither of the authors have ever seen inside one of the nuclear facilities about which they perform an autopsy. The authors then make a Grand-Canyon size leap into conclusions about the way multiple agencies assess the DBT (Design Basis Threat). They essentially repeat the tired theory that the security posture of all facilities should be assessed identically.

They ignore differences and distinctions that nuclear security experts understandably build into differing vulnerability assessments tailored to different scenarios, facility types, and nuclear asset types. The author’s errors emanate from multiple underlying shortcomings, not the least of which is an absence of detailed understanding of the way that intelligence is gathered and analyzed by the governmental agencies involved with the process. This is understandable, of course, in that the authors, who apparently do not have a security clearance, admittedly rely solely on un-classified information for conclusions that require classified intelligence. (The tone and style of their discussion about intelligence indicates a depth a sophistication that is in parity with a chamber of commerce brochure)

I do not think any of us should refer to this as a “DOD report”. The author claims his study was prepared as part of a “larger inter-disciplinary study” (which could mean anything) at the University of Texas “for the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which provided financial support for the research”. I suspect the SecDef knows nothing of this “report” nor a request for it. It is likely that the “larger study” is so remote from the subject matter of this fiction novel so as to effectively have no connection to it. It is quite doubtful that the “Office of the Secretary of Defense” would request this type of study from a Greenpeace activist or any other person who has no credentials or experience with the subject matter. Nor would the SecDef likely “provide financial support” for this effort … at least not knowingly. (Perhaps some investigative journalism should be directed toward this latter point.)

James Conca says it well in his Forbes column on this titled Anyone Can Write A Story About Nuclear Terrorism

There are good people at the University of Texas who are capable of credible research on topics of nuclear security. They apparently were not consulted by the public affairs or political department. It is unfortunate, but U.T. should indeed be embarrassed to have let their good name be exploited for the dissemination of this piece.

Jerry Paul is a nuclear engineer and attorney who formerly served as the Principal Deputy Administrator of the U.S. National Nuclear Security Administration and served as the U.S. NNSA Deputy Administrator for Nonproliferation. He also formerly served as the Distinguished Fellow for Energy Policy at the University of Tennessee Howard Baker Center for Public Policy.

Here are some questions for reader discussion.

  • Why did the reporters write scary stories about a documentthat is clearly marked as a “working paper” and includes a clear disclaimer on the front page indicating that most of the work was done by a graduate student assistant?
  • Why did editors from so many different news outlets go with the story and accept scary, inflammatory headlines without asking hard questions about the source of the “report”.
  • Why didn’t more people take the simple step of entering the professor’s name into a search engine to find out that he is an activist who often writes scary stuff about nuclear energy and advocates starting a war with Iran to halt its nuclear energy program?

The post Why did gullible reporters promote a student paper about nuclear facility security? appeared first on Atomic Insights.

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