Reporting An “Incident” As An “Accident”

Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Station, Ukraine

Zaporizhia Nuclear Power Station, Ukraine

By Will Davis

On November 28, 2014, “Block 3″ (or the third unit) at the massive Zaporizhia Nuclear Generating Station in Ukraine experienced a fault in electrical transmission equipment outside the nuclear portion of the plant itself. This fault essentially caused the 1000-MW rated nuclear plant to have nowhere to send that large amount of power it was generating, per its design. The nuclear plant tripped off its turbine generator (opening its output breakers) and scrammed the reactor. In the world of power generating equipment anywhere, no matter the power source, this type of event is fairly common. This scenario is possible when severe storms play havoc with the grid during intense lightning.

The trouble—if it should be called that—related to this incident began when the Ukrainian Premier publicly referred to this event as an “accident.” The term “nuclear accident,” still burned into the minds of so many after Chernobyl and Fukushima, refers to a very serious event. Such an event compromises all the layered, defense-in-depth levels of safety protecting nuclear materials from reaching the environment. In the case of a nuclear plant it would normally be assumed to involve melting of the fuel.

In the case of the Ukrainian nuclear power plant, Zaporizhia Unit 3, no such event occurred and was never approached; not only did the units beside it continue generating power, the immediate fault (related to a power transformer) was identified and within hours was scheduled for immediate repair. The unit was announced as ready to be back on the grid Friday, December 5.

After the Prime Minister used the “nuclear accident” phrase, a shock wave of reporting went around the world so that by 8 am CT Thursday morning, American Nuclear Society headquarters had already been contacted by major media for comment on the situation. It was clear, quite early, that what had actually happened was essentially a non-event (and the official Zaporizhia NPP site, in Russian only, had announced this fact on the November 29.) Headlines such as that seen here continued after the fact to use the term “accident,” even though nothing that satisfies the use of that term related to nuclear energy had happened.

It led to a roller coaster effect for some bond markets, and according to energy analyst Glenn Williams, “it’s actually dangerous. Some people lost money, although the (bond) markets that got hit recovered.” Bloomberg reported on the shakeup of the Ukrainian bond market yesterday. Williams noted that “if one unit at a giant six-unit power plant like that can go down and do that to their markets, it essentially demonstrates that Ukraine has an energy security problem.” That might be the real news from this event; we shall wait to see.

What’s essential to understand here is the significance of misreporting events such as these “incidents” (unintended, but fairly routine events) as “accidents.” Clearly there is a desire for news outlets to get views and clicks, and the use of the word “accident” will encourage that. Unfortunately, it seems that this desire overrode any attempt by many to get the actual facts. “Drudge had the report with the word ‘accident’ up for quite some time, and AP pushed that word too, but later had to back off from it,” said Williams. Numerous sources worldwide, in fact, carried this same verbiage.

What matters is that a routine event—an equipment failure that causes a power plant of any sort whatsoever to take automatic protective action—got mislabeled by a public official, and then vast media sources parroted that report without any further facts.

At least one silver lining was found, though—one media source did contact ANS for expert information and apparently killed the story when it was found to be a non-event.

ENERGOATOM, operator of Zaporizhia NPP, press release

IAEA press release on the event

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SavannahWillinControlRoomWill Davis is the Communications Director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian, newsletter editor and member of the board of directors. Davis has recently been engaged by the Global America Business Institute as a consultant. He is also a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013–2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

About Will Davis

Will Davis is the Communications Director for the N/S Savannah Association, Inc. where he also serves as historian, newsletter editor and member of the board of directors. Davis has recently been engaged by the Global America Business Institute as a consultant. He is also a consultant to, and writer for, the American Nuclear Society; an active ANS member, he is serving on the ANS Communications Committee 2013–2016. In addition, he is a contributing author for Fuel Cycle Week, and writes his own popular blog Atomic Power Review. Davis is a former US Navy reactor operator, qualified on S8G and S5W plants.

6 thoughts on “Reporting An “Incident” As An “Accident”

  1. James Greenidge

    All hands down on what Dr K S Parthasarathy said! What is even worst than press ignorance and bad or non-existent fact checking by reporters is WILLFUL misinformation by media outlets carrying an agenda. We saw this all too vividly here on Long Island with the NYC media’s shamelessly malicious slanders regarding the Shoreham nuclear station. They royally got away with it along with the toppling dominoes of New England’s Yankee stations because who ever checked — much less challenged — them? Indian Point is now tardy Part 2.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  2. Dr K S Parthasarathy

    Though the INES level classification came up for implementation during the 90s, there was no large scale attempt to describe it to public. Scholarly description of it in crisis communication is least effective.

    Science communicators must use the opportunity to explain the INES classification. Slightly over doing it is also welcome. Editors of main stream dailies must be briefed well.

    Right from the beginning , IAEA populrized the INES scale through excellent booklets for the professional and the public. It is still ineffective. More efforts are warranted in that direction.

  3. A.David Rossin

    Very good and timely report, Will – – We can only wish that some media editors take not and stay alert next time. – – Dave

  4. L Boing

    Interesting article – points out how when dealing internationally – slight issues in interpretation or translation can have a major impact how others respond or may perceive a situation to be.