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.”

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