Dumping on Nuclear

By: Andrea Jennetta and Nancy E. Roth

Why do respected reporters and editors so often use the word “dump” in mainstream news stories on any kind of radioactive waste, including spent fuel from civilian reactors? “Dump” appears in reports on the Yucca Mountain project, proposed interim storage sites and even low-level waste facilities in South Carolina, Utah and Washington. The word is endemic in the popular media. No one gives it a second thought. But does “dump” fairly characterize these sites? No.

Spent fuel and radioactive waste have some of the most extraordinarily exacting oversight of any regulated substance. According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary the word “dump” means:
  • to let fall in or as if in a heap or mass
  • to get rid of unceremoniously or irresponsibly
  • a disorderly, slovenly, or objectionable place

After an eye-opening dialogue with a well-regarded environmental journalist who has frequently used “dump” to characterize the Yucca Mountain Project and other radioactive-waste disposal sites we gained the startling insight that reporters and editors see neutral words like “repository” or “facility” as euphemisms in reporting on nuclear. In their minds, “dump” is an accurate word for Yucca Mountain, and “repository” is a soft-sell word that the nuclear industry and its regulators use to dupe the public about the true nature of the facility.

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary the word “repository” means:
  • a place, room, or container where something is deposited or stored : depository

Check out these two pictures of nuclear waste storage facilities. The first is the spent fuel storage facility at Finland’s Olkiluoto nuclear power plant. The second is the low-and intermediate-level waste containers stacked in the rock cavern of Sweden’s repository. Hardly a depiction of irresponsibility or disorder, is it? These images argue, perhaps better than the written word, why “repository” more accurately characterizes the meticulously engineered facilities in which nuclear waste is managed all over the world.

Not only is radioactive waste not dumped into these facilities, it is carefully placed so that it can be later retrieved. In fact, in the U.S., federal law requires that the material be retrievable—and that the Department of Energy monitor the facility for 100 years after it is closed. Radioactive waste cannot be “dumped” and yet be retrievable.

Our interlocutor did know about the law, it turned out, but has discounted it when writing about waste disposal. We wonder if most journalists who use the word “dump” do this. Or whether most journalists covering nuclear even know about the law.

By the way, this journalist has covered nuclear for well over a decade for a general readership publication—and is also in involved in teaching other journalists how to cover nuclear.

This leads us to ask: if journalists for publications and programs read or heard by the general public are truth-seekers and myth-busters, why then do they insist on using inaccurate and biased language? And make excuses about why they should continue to do so, as this journalist did, even when the error is pointed out and a reasonable, accurate term is available?

Could it be that the very people the public most needs to clarify and explain complex issues of energy policy have another agenda?

On the Net - news stories that illustrate our point

Associated Press

Las Vegas Sun


Nuclear Australia said...

Nice post ladies. Welcome to nuclear blogging.

Randal Leavitt said...

The key language issue in the anti nuclear power propaganda campaign is the word "waste". Spent fuel is not waste (unless it is dumped into a permanent repository like Yucca Mountain). Fuel that has been through a reactor once still has more than ninety-five percent of its energy potential in it. It can be fissioned again and again, to deliver lots more power. So spent fuel is not even spent, and is certainly not waste. It is slightly used and still highly reusable fuel. It gets better. Anti-nuke propagandists claim that the waste problem has not been solved. Well, used once fuel from American reactors can be put directly into Canadian CANDU reactors and used again. That is part of a pretty good solution. There are lots of others. But the big lie that is being repeated and repeated is that this stuff is waste and the waste problem is not solved. Both of those claims are completely wrong. This is double-think right out of Orwell's 1984 - i.e. black is white.

Rod Adams said...

What a great question? Slants, which reporters are used to be taught to avoid, can go in either direction. Your intrepid, established reporter, in an attempt to avoid the appearance of buying industry's "slanted" language readily accepted the suggested, slanted term from the anti-nuclear industry.

Why is the questioning attitude only directed at the nuclear industry and not at their well heeled opposition?


Great start on the blog, BTW. You have been added to my list of links.

Rod Adams
Atomic Insights

Rod Adams said...

Wow. I really need to do a better job of proofreading before I post. In my previous comment, the following sentence - "Slants, which reporters are used to be taught to avoid, can go in either direction" - should have said "Slanted language, which reporters used to be taught to avoid, can go in either direction."


Randal Leavitt said...

If you want to break out a term that will set everyone sputtering, try "radiation hormesis". The truth is that low dose radiation is good for you. Try getting that discussed in a balanced manner.

GRLCowan said...

I've been know to use "dump" as both a noun and a verb with respect to spent nuclear fuel, but Jennetta and Roth have made me think again about this.

It seemed like plain speaking to me because it's one syllable rather than five, and I understand the magnitude of the long-term nuclear waste problem. We're dum-- um, dealing with megacuries of long-lived radioactivity in a world that has teracuries of it; if we dump the megacuries, it's like dumping out a hamster cage, after first moving the hamsters to their other cage, it's like dumping out their leavings in a thousand-acre cow pasture.

Now, "repository" is still a lot of syllables. Consider "cache" as a non-slanted monosyllable.

How shall the car gain nuclear cachet?

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for tackling the wilful continued misuse of the word "dump" to apply to a nuclear waste repository. As your dictionary citations prove, "dump" is not merely a poor choice of words, it is simply an incorrect word. What is most disturbing about the experience you relate is the fact that the reporter in question seemed reluctant to accept the correction even when given the facts.

I have concluded that any reporter who uses the word "dump" in a story on high-level waste disposal either does not know anything about the subject, or does, and is deliberately using a negatively charged (and incorrect) term. In either case (ignorance or bias), I tune out on the rest of what they say, since it is not worth the paper it is written on.

Thanks again.