Putting on a brave face

19 March 2010

We have reported over the last few months on some of the bad news in the industry, such as Entergy's disastrous handling of the Vermont Yankee tritium leak. There is still a need to know how to present bad news well. By Will Dalrymple

After the tritium leak, and after an Entergy company official bungled testimony about buried pipes on site, an angry Vermont legislature decided to vote not to allow a lucrative 20-year licence extension planned for 2012.

Of course, Entergy is not alone. Earlier this week the NRC issued a press release that it was hosting a public session to deal with the poor performance of California's San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. The press release was simply horrendous for SONGS: "The NRC continues to find problems with human performance and issues regarding the ability of workers to identify and resolve plant problems,” said NRC Region IV Administrator Elmo Collins. “This is the fifth consecutive assessment cycle where substantive cross-cutting issues were identified in both of these areas. Corrective actions taken to address these issues have been ineffective.” In a letter to majority owner Southern California Edison quoted in the press release, he wrote: "Allegations at San Onofre are at 10 times the national median. Trends in allegations claiming discrimination and retaliation, as well as anonymous allegations, have increased significantly over previous years.”

I do not want to argue that, based on these two examples, nuclear energy is unsafe or badly run. There are lots of successes too. The truth is that in any business there will be bad news.

Although I have never worked in public relations, I would expect that one of the most difficult aspects of that job is dealing with bad news. On one hand, organisations must be seen to react to criticisms. On top of this, the nuclear industry has an extra public responsibility to report about safety risks and safety issues, by virtue of the dangerous materials that it has been allowed to use by society to generate power. On the other hand, there is a business instinct for secrecy, to never release anything, for fear – I suppose – that enterprising journalists might go digging around in the muck. There is a constant internal battle between disclosure and non-disclosure.

In March, Entergy set up an entire website (www.safecleanreliable.com) to deal with the tritium issue. It had also published a (very good) response to the tritium debate in February, but we at NEI at least didn't find it until later. (In the meantime, its PR staff responded to our questions quickly and fully.) But we couldn't find the statement because it was put not in its news pages but in its 'hot topics' section. I have an axiom that advertising represents the exact opposite of reality; hence I read 'hot topics' as 'boring and pointless corporate pr spin', so I passed over it without a second thought.

And there is nothing so far that I can find on the SONGS web site as of mid-March.

A different approach to dealing with bad news came to us on a press release (not posted on its web site) from fuel transport company Transnuclear, an Areva subsidiary. It would appear that the company has had some quality control problems with a supplier's supplier with its fuel canisters; these problems were serious enough to threaten the company's regulatory compliance.

The company's March 11 press release went for the jugular: "Timely action by Transnuclear, Inc. to self-identify and report a QA condition to U.S. regulators has resulted in minimal impacts to customer used fuel loading schedules."

It continues: '“This positive outcome speaks directly to how proactively the TN organization responded to the condition when it was identified,” said President and CEO Tara Neider. “The quick resolution helped to minimize the impact on NUHOMS deliveries.”'

Apparently the quick thinking it is referring to was filing a notice with US regulator the NRC in October 2009. The press release goes on to say that in a 5 March letter the NRC praised the company for its 'initiative in identifying the violation's root cause'.

The press release concludes, "Transnuclear is working diligently on related corrective actions to prevent a recurrence."

The way it is written, the company sounds almost heroic. But perhaps it has taken positivity a step too far. After all, what has really happened? It noticed that its products weren't up to spec, and is trying to fix the problem. Although this happens all the time in manufacturing, few companies issue a press release about it. Still, I have to admire Transnuclear for putting on a brave face.

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