Category Archives: ‘Journalistic Reflections’

Reporting Reflection: Callaway II Reactor Addition

callaway-nuclear-plantThis week’s package is the result of an attempt to get inside the Callaway Nuclear Reactor Facility in Callaway County, Mo.

My initial goal with the project was to gain access to the control room and show how it’s operated, then interview people on both sides of the question of what sort of plant Ameren UE should build to meet the projected electricity consumption rate increases that they cite as the impetus for building a new reactor, and how to finance it.  I wanted to focus on technology, environmental impact, safety, demographic trends and alternatives to the financing strategy behind the proposed rate hikes.

My focus shifted, though, once I met with Mike Cleary, AmerenUE’s communication officer in Jefferson City.  I’d contacted him about three weeks ago by email, asking for access to the facility.  He responded enthusiastically , suggesting we meet and discuss such a project and that I interview him about the new reactor and the associated lobbying on behalf of Ameren going on at the State Legislature.  I agreed and met with Mike in his office, located just across the street from the Governor’s mansion.

There Mike and I spoke for about forty minutes about the issues surrounding nuclear power generation as a political, economic and environmental issue; we also discussed, in detail, the practicalities involved in providing power to Missourians, the level of sensitivity of the radiological detection sensors controlling access in and out of even the most tertiary buildings at the plant and Mike shared some great anecdotes about his time working on-site at Callaway.  After that, Mike passed along all sorts of fact sheets about the new reactor with artists renderings, and directed me to the Ameren Website, where the company was planning to set up a virtual tour to educate people about how the reactor makes electricity and its safety features.  He also suggested I contact a couple of MU professors to discuss some of the technical details and mis-apprehensions about nuclear power generation and associated danger and pollution levels.

He also explained that it was unlikely that I’d receive access to the facility due to heightened security that’d been in place since 2001, but told me that he had a plan:  He was going to work on getting me half-an-hour in the control room simulator, a 1:1 mock-up of the actual control room used to train operators.  He asked for some time, and I told him I wouldn’t bother him, and that I really appreciated the effort and that I would follow-up on the story from another angle in the meantime.  He closed our discussion with an explanation that it was really in the company’s best interest to grant me and other reporters as much access as possible right now, as it’s been proven that the more experience people have with nuclear energy generation, the more objective they are when considering arguments against it.

When I left Mike’s office, I saw that I had three options in terms of how to continue: 1. Focus on the legislative action (just in case I chose that, I did a quick stand-up while in Jeff), 2. Work the professor contacts Mike had provided and keep my fingers crossed that I’d get into the simulator so that I could illustrate what they were talking about, and 3. Find someone who’s affected by the proposal whose story hadn’t been told.

Shoot 1

I decided to go for #3.  I figured that simulator access would take a while to get, and that there wasn’t going to be anything other than “people in a room arguing” events from then until due date, so I thought I’d get a little enterprise on this one.  Consequently, the next day I had a chance, I grabbed a buddy who has some technical knowledge of atomic energy, hopped in my car and drove with great haste (3 hours is way too short!) to a little town near Fulton, Mo called Reform.

My friend and I stopped a couple times along the way to capture the way the reactor cooling tower loomed larger and larger on the horizon.  We recorded standups (sans tie, unfortunately, as I’d been rushed when packing for the trip – I now just keep one in my car) at several spots, as we didn’t know how close we could get to the site.  My goal was to record three different stand-ups depending on the content I was going to bridge.  The version presented in class will be the aesthetic effect upon the landscape of two additional cooling towers appearing.

I was inspired to pursue this route by the ruckus caused by Ted Kennedy’s out-of-character opposition to a wind generation plant on a federally owned island off the coast of Cape Cod.  Residents of the Cape had complained that the uniformly white windmills would extend 2 inches above the horizon and lower their property values by degrading the vista.  In comparison, the citizens of Mid-Missouri within eye-shot of Callaway are going to be treated to years of construction and then two addition steam-spewing iconic cooling towers rising to nearly the height of the Gateway Arch.  Because nuclear energy really is cleaner when everything’s working right, they’ll probably be the only people to actually experience a tangible degration in their everyday experience as a result of a Callaway II option.  That hasn’t been covered in-depth in the press, even though the contrast between the two projects impact on the vista is so huge that it practically jumped off the page as soon as I’d read of the Cape Cod controversy.  The reason I learned to that issues is that people on Cape Cod have a booming voice that resounds through national media organs, so their feelings get a priority that others’ don’t.

Anyway, so, back to the first day of shooting in Callaway.  We drove closer and closer.  We took little roads without names or numbers, made great use of the iPhone’s GPS, and eventually found ourselves on an unmarked gravel road seemingly used by hunters (judging from the trail markings and hand carved signage).  The road led right up to the cooling tower.  We continued.  No guards…no razor wire…though, off to our sides we’d now and again see floodlight banks.  Then we came to a set of signs…we were maybe 500 yards from the base of the tower.  The signs were set about 10 yards off the side of the road.  They simply said “End Public Use”.  We pulled up to the imaginary line they marked…then reversed about 10 yards in a show of deference, in case the imagined snipers were watching.

Very quick stand-up complete, we grabbed some zoom footage of the steam pouring off the top of the tower, with a guardrail as tall as a nickle is thick ringing it to provide scale.  Big, I tell you.

Then we high-tailed it out of dodge and didn’t congratulate each other until we were drinking beer back in Columbia.  Shoot 1 accomplished.

Shoot 2

After exhausting my patience for political talking-head interviews by watching too much TV news, I decided that with the time remaining, I was going to go find a CCC who had a stake in the construction beyond constituency, beyond even an earnestly held belief in what was right.  I wanted to find somebody who’d be affected directly, and not just in the wallet or politically.

So, I checked out another camera, drove again like a bat out of heck to Reform, and started knocking on doors and honking in long gravel driveways at every farmhouse I could find with a direct view of the cooling tower.  Some people weren’t home.  Then, my first seeming bit of luck:  I pulled into this house on a rise with a great view of the tower from base to cloud.  The owners had a huge above ground pool and lived in one of those houses built into the earth like a Hobbit.  As I rounded the bend in their drive I saw a man with a great handlebar mustache wearing work boots.  I parked, got out, and let out a friendly “Howdy!”

He waved back and I walked to meet him, hand extended.  I introduced myself and explained that I was an MU journalism student doing a story about people who live near the Callaway plant and what they think of the plans to maybe expand the reactor and build two new towers.  After a little friendly discussion, the man told me that he didn’t own the place, but that he’d check with the owner really quick.  He disappeared, and I played with the cats.  The man came back and apologized, saying the owner didn’t want to talk on camera, but that it certainly was an eyesore.  He also complained that they’d never been allowed into the facility, even just to look around.  I asked if I could come back on another day.  He said to check back later the next week.  I thanked him for his time and got some quick intel on who amongst his neighbors might be home.

A couple stops later, and with time dwindling, I drove into the drive-way of Hank L.  He answered the door before I’d even managed to get to the front porch, and agreed to be interviewed and invited me in before I’d even completed my pitch.

Hank and his wife have lived in Reform for 46 years, since Hank returned from the Army.  They invited me into their home and we talked about all sorts of things, soybean prices, bio-diesel, the economy, planes, California, their family, ice storms.  It was great, and Hank’s take on the whole question of additional cooling towers was certainly not what I’d expected.  You can see in the package for yourself.

In the end, I found the access I got with Hank and his wife much more of a triumph than I’d have expected.  I learned about their church, which has a fascinating history deserving of a complete story all it’s own.  I’m still going to pursue the simulator room access, because I think the technical side of the story deserves exploration.  Mike Cleary interviewed that it’s been proven that attitudes change as people become more accustomed to nuclear technology, especially through direct experience.  I think that one of the most important responsibilities of journalists in regards the democratic proces is to foster objectivity in others, not just to seek objectivity in themselves.

Additional Question for Full Coverage

That said, the Callaway II question demands coverage that can best be accomplished multi-medially  Increasing electrical generation capacity in Missouri is an issue with many facets, among them:

  • Is there a real need to increase capacity for power generation?
  • What are the options for increasing capacity?
  • What factors need to be considered today, even though they won’t affect Missouri until around the time a new plant (of any type) comes online?
  • How do the options stack up?
  • What about the intangibles surround nuclear energy generation?
  • What voices are being heard in the media right now?
  • Who’s aren’t?

It takes years to get financing to build a new plant, years more to gain approval, yet longer to build it, and still longer to get it up and running.  We have time, but the questions raised now need to be considered in light of all factors.

Role of Television in Evolving Dialogue

Television news can best serve the process by focusing on conveying those aspects of the question that lend themselves to subjective interpretation.  Illustrate, characterize and transport.  Don’t rely on objective visuals like graphs of demographic trends and power loads to frame the story too wide, force the politicians to do their jobs and encapsulate the conundrum into a catch-22 or to defuse that potentiality…on-camera.  People talking to others in person is still the means of communication most people rely upon when shaping their own opinions based upon outside stimuli.  So, when you’re giving folks the second-best thing (or the best, depending on the quality of sourcing) make it count.

I think Hank isn’t the perfect source, but he was the best source I could get given the constraints of organization, resources, time and information.  The fact that he holds the opinion that he does about the whole project challenges everyone to be objective in their decision making.

Perhaps that point will get lost, but, in the end, my goal in this piece was to tee-up those who’d follow to consider the hard choices we’re having to make about the future of energy in Missouri.

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