Reporter: no “news blackout” at Nebraska plant

Is the White House covering up one of the worst nuclear accidents in U.S. history?

That’s the allegation made in a long-winded report by Pakistani newspaper The Nation, which claims the Obama administration has ordered a “news blackout” on any information related to Nebraska’s flood-surrounded Fort Calhoun Nuclear Power Plant.

The false story cites a “shocking report” from Russia’s atomic energy agency that allegedly describes a “catastrophic loss of cooling” at the plant, as well as a politically motivated “cover-up” by federal officials in order to preserve Obama’s energy policy.

In reality, the power plant has been in a safe, cold shutdown for months. Plant operators powered it down April 9 for a refueling and never restarted it because of the severe flood forecast. The plant sits along the Missouri River about 20 miles north of Omaha.

Still, the false cover-up rumors have spread. A Google search for “Fort Calhoun nuclear” and “news blackout” turns up around 13,000 results, many of them for right-wing political blogs and message boards.

I decided to call Omaha World-Herald staff writer Nancy Gaarder to ask her what it’s been like covering the nuclear plant story during the midst of a “news blackout”:

“The nuclear power plant on Friday held an hour press conference with the local media. I imagine anyone who wanted to could have come,” said Gaarder. “I haven’t taken the time to preoccupy myself with anything at the presidential level, so I don’t know where that thing came from, but there is not a news blackout. The utility is responding to questions. They had a briefing on Friday and, you know, I don’t know what else to say.”

Gaarder wrote about the plant on June 17 (“NRC: No flood danger at reactor“). Officials said the reactor was safely shutdown, and that flood barriers would protect it against the rising waters. She also interviewed a nuclear watchdog from the Union of Concerned Scientists, which, in this case, didn’t sound overly concerned about the flood risk.

So where did this “news blackout” rumor come from? Gaarder has some theories.

“There was a very interesting and well researched post on the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists lamenting the loss of news coverage; that the [news] industry is dwindling away so that it’s harder for this type of good coverage to occur,” Gaarder said, “and that has validity to it.

“I wonder if somehow the idea that we don’t have as many reporters anymore so we don’t have as much news morphed into an intentional news blackout. I don’t know where that came from, or whether this is the kind of thing that happens in an age of the Internet. I have no clue. All I can tell you is there is not a news blackout,” she said.

The World-Herald hasn’t published a story about the Fort Calhoun plant since Saturday. (Gaarder was working on a follow-up story for Thursday’s paper.) There’s a perception among some in the newsroom that they’ve already covered it. “We’ve already said the plant is safe, so what new is there to say?” Gaarder said rhetorically. “People will disagree. What’s news is subjective.”

But the biggest reason there hasn’t been more coverage of the plant is that there’s just a lot going on, and only so many column inches and reporters to get to it all. The airport, bridges and other infrastructure are also threatened by the flooding. A major gasoline terminal was forced to close because of standing water. Other reporters have been covering evacuation plans in the event of a levy break. Tornadoes ripped through the state on Monday. And the city hosted the College World Series over the weekend.

“So we have a lot going on, and a lot of flood-related issues to write about,” Gaarder said. “We have pieces of critical infrastructure that are important, that we’ve had to make sure we understood how they’re protected, and that takes time.”

12 thoughts on “Reporter: no “news blackout” at Nebraska plant

  1. Heard of this today in the crease of my local newspaper and couldn’t believe it. Who would of thought flooding in the middle of the state could maybe cause the same problem as over in Japan. This is a good example of why we need renewable energy and I hope soon people will care about it where i live for virginia alternative energy and virginia renewable energy solutions. Hope this works out okay…stay dry island.

  2. This comment is stunning:
    “We’ve already said the plant is safe, so what new is there to say?” Gaarder said rhetorically.

    Uh…. we heard the same reassurances from TEPCO, the utility managing the Fukushima nuclear power plants. They were very wrong, really, they lied.

    One of the safest bets in the world is that a utility with a mishap at a nuclear power plant will declare it is safe.

    What we need are reporters with a bit more skepticism toward the official commentary.

    There was also a report from a local TV station, included in a Pacifica report, that said that NPPD had requested they not film the flooded nuclear power plant. That’s a problem if we still value a free press in the USA (not a given).

  3. Hi Andy,

    To clarify, when Gaarder asked “what new is there to say,” she was describing one side of the debate that takes place in any newsroom, not necessarily her own opinion.

    I also think it’s unfair to suggest she displays a lack of skepticism toward officials. If you read her story from last week, you’d notice she sought out independent sources such as the Union of Concerned Scientists.

    But one reporter can only cover so much ground. A big part of journalism is choosing priorities. Do you continue writing about the topic you covered yesterday? Or do you move on to the next pressing, important topic that hasn’t been covered yet?

    My two cents. If you have a link for the Pacifica report, please share.

  4. Link to Pacifica’s “5 O’clock Shadow” show where news story from Action 3 is used. Arnie Gundersen is interviewed about the events that happened during/after the fire.

    Best wishes.

  5. Interesting. A couple questions I would ask:

    1.) In this post-9/11 world, wouldn’t any nuclear power plant, flood or no flood, request that a TV station not film its property?

    2.) Unlike Fukushima, the Fort Calhoun reactor is already in a cold shutdown mode, reportedly since April 9. How much does that change the risks related to flooding?

  6. really? no news blackout …you hear anything about it on FOX or CNN? not 1 peep from Billy or Glen …..

  7. C’mon, folks, didn’t we ALL learn a BIG LESSON from Fukusima — it’s not just the reactor(s) — it the FRICKIN’ SPENT FUEL RODS!

    Why aren’t reporters asking THIS QUESTION???

  8. Last time I read something along these lines the main character was a guy named Chicken Little.

    Folks, it’s been a slow news month. A factor which is only going to worsen when the rest of the planet goes on vacation in August. Get used to it. There’s going to be nothing worth reporting until the European banking collapse in Later September or early October. Trust me on this, I run into a girl from time to time. She knows a guy who’s cousin-in-law works for a guy in Europe. They assure its a done deal.

  9. I am shocked at the denial or lack of concern by not only reporters but also those defending the statements that all is safe. The sheer lack of media is nuts to me.(Casey Anthony has had more coverage in the last month) This is a real threat and if you do not think so then maybe consider moving out there with your family. Let me know if you take it seriously then. I am not saying something will happen, I can’t predict the future, but I am saying there is a real chance this could happen. We are not immune to catastrophic failure. Factor in the facility is 37 years old, there are preparedness issues that have not been addressed and the flooding….among other things. And to say there will be nothing to report until August? Haha….cover up your eyes…the truth will reveal itself in time. I only pray it does not take human lives.