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Bill Dedman mislead the public in his claims about an NRC report and he told us misleading statements. Thanks to the U.S. government, we caught him in that falsehood.  (Source: MSNBC)

Our nation's nuclear plants are at no significant risk.  (Source: James Marvin Phelps)

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission helped us expose MSNBC.com's misinformation and get the true story to the public.  (Source: Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images North America)

The public is already uninformed and unnecessarily fearful about nuclear power. Mr. Dedman's report spread damaging misinformation and alarmist inaccuracies to thousands in the American public.  (Source: Greenpeace UK)
Nuclear fear-mongering for profit -- government provides our strongest evidence in stunning tale of misinformation

On Wednesday MSNBC.com published a story, which claimed to analyze a report [PDF] sponsored by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  That story, written by MSNBC.com Investigative Reporter Bill Dedman discussed which commercial U.S. nuclear plant was at "the most risk" of exposing the public to radiation.  

We wrote a piece on Wednesday criticizing numerous factual inaccuracies in Mr. Dedman's piece.  At the same time we contacted the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).  On Friday, after two lengthy phone interviews and an email dialogue with the NRC we had the complete story -- the NRC backed nearly every one of our assertions.

All journalists make mistakes.  But Mr. Dedman made nearly every one in the book in this report.

Sensationalism and factual errors -- the report and Mr. Dedman's assertions demonstrate an appalling disregard for the facts and a blatant attempt to alarm the public.

But don't take our word for it, read the facts.

I.  Reporter Refuses to Correct Factual Inaccuracies: Report DID NOT Assess Public Exposure

Mr. Dedman (MSNBC.com) writes:

It turns out that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has calculated the odds of an earthquake causing catastrophic failure to a nuclear plant here. Each year, at the typical nuclear reactor in the U.S., there's a 1 in 74,176 chance that the core could be damaged by an earthquake, exposing the public to radiation.

But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission says they calculated no such risk.  

The report itself states:

In contrast [to the seismic core damage frequency], the containment performance analyses conducted under the IPEEE program did not produce sufficient quantitative information to allow the estimation of either LERF or public dose.

That seems pretty clear -- the report does not talk about the risk of public exposure to radiation, so we helpfully suggest to Mr. Dedman:

This seems to be a clear cut factual error that's misleading and disingenous -- be it intentionally or unintentionally so. It seriously discolors the estimates and makes them something they explicitly are said to NOT be by the NRC.

Mr. Dedman writes us back:

No, Jason, the article is about core damage, which the NRC says would release radiation. You've decided that I must have been talking about something else, which I wasn't, and now you're saying, why aren't about that something else...

That is a clear mistake -- intentional, or unintentional.

Engaging in the due diligence that Mr. Dedman neglected to we discussed Mr. Dedman's comments and our analysis with government authorities at the U.S. regulatory commission.  They told me they never told him that.

Their spokesperson, Neil Sheehan writes us:

Seismic CDF is the probability of damage to the core resulting from a seismic initiating event. It does not imply either a meltdown or the loss of containment, which would be required for radiological release to occur. The likelihood of radiation release is far lower.

That was only the first of several falsehoods and factual errors in Mr. Dedman's correspondence and work that we were able to definitively verify.

States a separate NRC team member, "There were numeous inaccuracies in that story."

And this was but the first.

[MSNBC and its employee Mr. Dedman have not corrected this error in their story, despite knowing about it, at the time of this article's publication.]

II. Another Mistake - MSNBC.com Was Told to Use the "Weakest Link" Model

In Mr. Dedman's original piece he writes:

The chance of a core damage from a quake at Indian Point 3 is estimated at 1 in 10,000 each year. Under NRC guidelines, that's right on the verge of requiring "immediate concern regarding adequate protection" of the public.

In our report we question this number, pointing out that there's three different models and Mr. Dedman seemingly purposefully picked the most severe one.  The other models take into account other scenarios of vibration damage so they seem equally valuable to "weakest link" scenario, as it's unclear what parts would be damaged by what vibration frequency.

Mr. Dedman writes us stating:

You're cherry picking. You've decided that the weighted average is the right column to use. Based on what? The NRC staff prefers the column that we've used, the "weakest link." That's the number it sent us, when it sent us one number for each plant. And as the report explains, the NRC has no basis on which to weight the averages, so it says a weighted average wouldn't be meaningful.

There are three separate falsehoods in this statement.  As you will see, the NRC told Mr. Dedman nothing of the sort and he's clear mislead me, as he's done to his readers.

And again, Mr. Dedman mistakes the work of the USGS, for the NRC, clearly indicating his lack of understanding of the material he's writing on.

We write him:

Do you have a contact at the NRC who can substantiate your claims? How can you weight data without having a factor to do so? If you get me this information I can [edit my article].

Virtually always weighted data is what you would use in a case like this, as the data is typically weighted by the frequency of occurrence of the event (e.g. a probability of the probability). It's possible your correct, that would just be a bit unusual.

Mr. Dedman refused to provide us the identity of his phantom "contact" at the NRC, so we contacted them ourselves.

We asked them if they told Mr. Dedman to use this figure or told him that the weighted average was non-meaningful.

We inquire:

Did an NRC spokesperson tell MSNBC's Bill Dedman that the weighted risk was invalid and to use the weakest link model?

They respond:

No.

And they add:

The weighted average is not invalid (see Answer 5 below). All of the values in Appendix D were developed by NRC staff. Table D-1 in Appendix D uses the (2008) US Geological Survey (USGS) seismic source model, but the Seismic Core Damage Frequency results were developed by US NRC staff. The USGS seismic source model is the same one used to develop the USGS National Seismic Hazard Maps.

Tables D-1 through D-3 in Appendix D of the US NRC study show the “simple” average of the four spectral frequencies (1, Hz, 5 Hz, 10 Hz, peak ground acceleration (PGA)), the “IPEEE weighted” average and the “weakest link” model. These different averaging approaches are explained in Appendix A.3 (simple average and IPEEE weighted average) and Appendix A.4 (weakest link model). The weighted average uses a combination of the three spectral frequencies (1, 5, and 10 Hz) at which most important structures, systems, and components of nuclear power plants will resonate. The weakest link is the largest SCDF value from among the four spectral frequencies noted above.

Most nuclear power plant structures, systems, and components resonate at frequencies between 1 and 10 Hz, so there are different approaches to averaging the Seismic Core Damage Frequency (SCDF) values. By using multiple approaches, the NRC staff gains a better understanding of the uncertainties involved in the assessments.

In other words, each model is important to gaining a full understanding of various possible scenarios and Mr. Dedman erroneously selected the most sensational model and then falsely claimed the NRC told him to.

The NRC adds:

The weakest link model is a method for evaluating the importance of different frequencies of ground vibration to the overall plant performance. The model and its details are not integral to understanding the fundamental conclusions of the study.

That conclusion?  The nation is quite safe (as we write in our piece).

[MSNBC and its employee Mr. Dedman have not corrected this error in their story, despite knowing about it, at the time of this article's publication]

III.  More Misinformation -- Did the Report Evaluate Risk at All 104 Plants?

We admit, we missed this error in Mr. Dedman's report initially, but the NRC pointed it out for us:

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission study, released in September, 2010, was prepared as a screening assessment to evaluate if further investigations of seismic safety for operating reactors in the central and eastern US (CEUS) are warranted, consistent with NRC directives. The report clearly states that "work to date supports a decision to continue …; the methodology, input assumptions, and data are not sufficiently developed to support other regulatory actions or decisions." Accordingly, the results were not used to rank or compare plants. The study produced plant-specific results of the estimated change in risk from seismic hazards. The study did not rely on the absolute value of the seismic risk except to assure that all operating plants are safe. The plant-specific results were used in aggregate to determine the need for continued evaluation and were included in the report for openness and transparency.

In other words Mr. Dedman claimed the study looked at all plants and discussed what risk they were at.  It did not.

The NRC adds:

The plant-specific results were used in aggregate to determine the need for continued evaluation and were included in the report for openness and transparency. The use of the absolute value of the seismic hazard-related risk, as done in the MSNBC article, is not the intended use, and the NRC considers it an inappropriate use of the results.

In other words, Mr. Dedman abused the data to support his own fallacious conclusions.

Mr. Dedman accused me:

I don't mind criticism at all, but twisting of facts...

We agree with his assessment.  His statements were unacceptable.

[MSNBC and its employee Mr. Dedman have not corrected these errors in their story, despite knowing about it, at the time of this article's publication.]

IV.  Textbook Alarmism

Mr. Dedman claimed the results of the study showed that the chance of a plant disaster was as likely as winning a $10,000 prize in the national Powerball lottery.  This is factually inaccurate.  The powerball frequency per population is greater than 1 per year.  The chances of a core meltdown per population are less than 1/7,400th per year, according to the report.

Further, Mr. Dedman writes:

How much risk is too much? Is a roller coaster safe only if no one ever dies? If one passenger dies every 100 years? Every year?

This is alarmism at its finest.  People are not dying every year from quake-induced plant damage in the U.S.  And there's little chance a single life will be lost over the course of the next century from quake damage in the U.S.

The report explicitly states:

Plants have seismic margin and the results of the GI-199 Safety/Risk Assessment confirm that overall seismic risk estimates remain small. GI-199 is not an adequate protection issue.

And the NRC tells us:

The study is still under way and it is too early to predict the final outcome. However, the NRC staff has determined there is no immediate safety concern and that overall seismic risk estimates remain small. If at any time the NRC determines that an immediate safety concern exists, action to address the issue will be taken. The NRC is focused on assuring safety during even very rare and extreme events. Therefore, the agency has determined that assessment of updated seismic hazards and plant performance should continue.

[MSNBC and its employee Mr. Dedman have not removed these misleading statements from their story, despite knowing about it, at the time of this article's publication.]

V. The Moral of This Story

The moral of this story is that sensationalism and alarmism may be a ticket to cheap page views, but when you get the facts wrong and then cook up tall tales to cover up your tracks, someone will eventually call you out.

One must wonder what MSNBC.com thinks of this performance.

After all, Mr. Dedman's story apparently touched off a U.S. Senate inquiry into plant quake safety.  In other words it not only created mass public panic and misinformation, it triggered a knee-jerk response by the federal government.

Most journalists make mistakes, but most don't reach as many people as Mr. Dedman does or trigger government inquiries.  And few journalists would refuse to fix blatant factual errors like Mr. Dedman did when we clearly discussed these points with him.

Thus far Mr. Dedman has defiantly refused to correct the numerous factual inaccuracies and mistakes in his piece, even when his source, the NRC, clearly stated his story was inaccurate.

We feel that it is critical to MSNBC.com's reputation as a legitimate news site that this story be removed and/or corrected immediately.  And they need to take a long hard look at Mr. Dedman's reporting and how he conducts himself.

Otherwise, they are allowing themselves to become a tabloid.

Update 1: Saturday, March 19, 2011 2:20 a.m.

We've temporarily removed a paragraph referencing the ownership of MSNBC.  It appears that Google Finance and Yahoo Finance may have inaccurate information with regards to Microsoft's stake.  We've contacted MSNBC for more information and hope to resolve the question of ownership briefly.

We also amended the text in the opening paragraph to clarify that the NRC was responsible for Appendix D, but was not responsible for any assertion about public radiation exposure.

MSNBC.com's Bill Dedman sent us the following statment with some remaining criticism of this post:

Mr. Mink (sic) chastises me for using the weakest-link number in the NRC report, but that's the number the NRC staff provided to me. Several times I sent to Mr. Mick a copy of the spreadsheet the NRC sent to me, containing the weakest-link model as the single number it reported for the risk estimates. (We already had the eastern and central plant data from the report; this spreadsheet, for all plants, gave us the western plant data as well, as we told our readers.) Mr. Mink (sic) fails to mention this in his article. The point, as I told him, was that the NRC staff uses the weakest-link model as the best representation of the risk, and, as I explained to our readers, this is the most conservative estimate. I also pointed out to Mr. Mink that the NRC report describes that its actually has no basis for knowing how to weight a weighted average in this case; he fails to mention this.

The NRC says, "the results were not used to rank or compare plants." Mr. Mink (sic) twists this: "In other words Mr. Dedman claimed the study looked at all plants and discussed what risk they were at. It did not." That's completely nonsensical. Yes, the NRC looked at all the plants, and made an estimate of the risk at each one. Did it rank them? No. We ranked them, from the NRC data, just as we explained in the original article.

If the newspapers starts reporting the American League East standings in alphabetical order, the reader is free to arrange them by winning percentage.

He later adds:

Perhaps you're naive. Perhaps you have a bias for nuclear power. Perhaps -- who knows? But for some reason, you've fallen for the oldest page in the government PR playbook: the non-denial denial.

We will let you know if he shares any further criticism.


Comments     Threshold


This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled

RE: 3rd paragraph from the bottom
By fearrun on 3/19/2011 1:35:38 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
(...Before the grammar nazi[s] strike me down...).


Would that not work as well? If he meant they for plural use.


RE: 3rd paragraph from the bottom
By Master Kenobi (blog) on 3/19/2011 7:22:34 PM , Rating: 2
Either would indeed work.

Side note. Suck it fearmongers!


RE: 3rd paragraph from the bottom
By Hieyeck on 3/24/2011 1:41:10 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Side note. Suck it fearmongers!

It should read:

"Side note--Suck it, fearmongers!"

</gnazi> Let's see how long this we can keep this nazi-chain up!

Actually now that I think about it... it could be,
"Side note: Suck it, fearmongers!", if "Side note" was meant as a header...

I think I just gnazi'd myself. Help!


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