Inside Story: Award-Winner Chronicles Radioactive Risks at Midwest Nuclear Plants
Reporters Brett Chase and Madison Hopkins spent nearly a year combing through tens of thousands of federal and state documents to compile a series of reports on the nuclear power industry in Illinois. The resulting "Power Struggle" project, produced by the watchdog Better Government Association and distributed by the Associated Press, won the pair second place in the 17th Annual Society of Environmental Journalists’ Kevin Carmody Award for outstanding small market investigative reporting last year.
SEJ judges, who characterized the project as insightful and cautionary, well-researched and thoroughly documented, said the investigation “chronicles serious trouble at aging Illinois nuclear power plants: radioactive leaks and dangerous vulnerabilities, insufficient oversight and a Nuclear Regulatory Commission dismissive of nuclear plant whistleblowers' concerns and complaints. … [It] brought significant attention to a vulnerable industry that, without sufficient oversight and enforcement, can pose real risk to residents of Illinois.”
SEJournal Online’s “Inside Story” caught up via email with Chase. Here is the conversation.
How did you get your winning story idea?
We began looking into issues around a closed nuclear power site just north of Chicago in early 2017. Our reporting took us in a different direction that led to the broader series on oversight of the industry.
What was the biggest challenge in reporting the piece/series and how did you solve that challenge?
The regulators tried to minimize the significance of our findings. We also faced an aggressive company that tried hard to shut us down. Local officials were disinterested in the environmental findings and only offered praise for plant operator Exelon. Likewise, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission relies quite a bit on a company self-reporting system. Plant inspection records raised questions about the veracity of official reports.
We examined thousands of pages of documents largely gathered from the NRC’s online database, which isn’t easy to navigate. Our sources helped us understand and ask the right questions and aided our document searches by providing us useful tips. We exhausted and frustrated the NRC with our persistence.
What most surprised you about your reporting/findings?
We found a number of dissenting internal views about nuclear safety that were well documented within the agency. We also were fortunate to find several whistleblowers — both working inside and now outside the NRC — who were willing to tell their stories. Through interviews and documents, we were able to narrow our FOIA requests. Much to our surprise, the initial FOIAs were being answered in fairly short order for a federal agency. Two or three months into our investigation, those FOIA responses slowed significantly.
“[W]hile we interviewed a wide array of people,
we told the stories through the workers
at the agency and the plants.”
How did you decide to tell the story and why?
Once we found cooperative current and former agency employees, we knew that their voices carried more weight than anti-nuke groups. And while we interviewed a wide array of people, we told the stories through the workers at the agency and the plants. There were public documents to corroborate all the information we received from our sources.
What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the series and why?
We had the luxury of having months to work on this project. As with any big story, setting shorter deadlines can help create urgency in reporting and writing, and speed up the process. After the series ran, the company that operates all six Illinois nuclear plants, Exelon, attempted to discredit the findings. In hindsight, we could have written about the company's PR efforts. There were no corrections sought because the reporting was solid.
What lessons have you learned from your story or project?
We knew that the stories had to be ironclad in terms of facts and context. The story was carefully documented and went through an exhaustive fact check that paid off as both the NRC and Exelon were gunning for us.
What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
The NRC’s ADAMS database has a lot of information. It’s helpful to know a case number, an ascension number, as the NRC calls it. Sources helped us focus our inquiries. We also found that sometimes a simple Google search produced a document from a case, which allowed us to get the ascension number. Focused searches based on ascension numbers work best.
Also, it’s good to know that each plant reports environmental information to the NRC in two ways. Here’s an example. And here’s a link to whistleblower allegations from inside the plants. Finally, some links here, here and here are related to safety “events” at nuclear plants:
Brett Chase reports on environmental protection, pollution and the impact on public health. Over more than five years at BGA, he’s also written about public housing, transportation, health care and energy. Project partner Madison Hopkins is an investigator for the Better Government Association. She received her master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in August 2016. During her time at school, she worked as a research assistant for the Chicago Tribune in the investigative department and contributed to reporting projects at the Invisible Institute and WBEZ.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, No. 36. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.