Media Bias

Unfortunately for both sides of the repository debate, the Las Vegas media embarassed themselves on the Yucca Mountain issue. Even more disturbing than the bias of some of the journalists (prevalently anti-repository) was the fact that they simply didn't do their homework. The DOE has many faults but no lack of watchdogs, ranging from the Nuclear Waste Technical Review Board, to the GAO, to the bloodhounds of the local media. The organization which had no watchdog was the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office, which the media allowed to roam free.

Since highpowered politicians like Senator Bryan, Governor Miller and ex-Governor Sawyer turned a blind eye to the activities of NWPO, it should have been the duty of the fourth estate to keep the state's nuclear agency honest (it isn't as though there wasn't enough material to write a book about it!). Not only did the Las Vegas media fail to verify the credentials of many of the flaky sources provided by NWPO, but they neglected to read NWPO's reports, failed to check peer review findings and in general demonstrated a limited understanding of the scientific peer review processes on which objective science depends.


One of the most egregious examples of media bias was a series of reports done in 1992 by Dan Burns, then news director of KVBC, the local NBC affiliate. With creative editing , the Burns series gave the impression that interviews with some noted scientists from Sandia Laboratories showed their experiments on nuclear waste transportation casks had been failures. Unfortunately, that is not what had transpired at all.

At the July 2, 1992 meeting of the Sawyer Commission, the state presented the KVBC documentary as evidence that cask designs were faulty. Dr. Robert Luna, who had been interviewed in an unfavorable light in the KVBC spots, gave a complete rebuttal of the Burns' series. Among other things, Dr.Luna told Grant Sawyer and the commission:

Dan Burns (KVBC) put a little spin on my comments by selective editing . . . . I would never agree with his characterization . . . The spent fuel in the cask was never in any danger of release . . .The casks are safe for the kinds of shipment being planned . . and for things being done in the United States for the last 40 years or so. [statement of Dr. Robert Luna to Sawyer Commission, July 2, 1992]

The misunderstanding of the cask testing films stems from a misconception about how modern science conducts tests of large scale projects like nuclear waste shipping casks. It is a luxury to be able to test large projects to failure, just as no one tested Boeing 747's to failure by flying a test fleet millions of miles until they crashed. Instead, a few prototypes are made which become the basis for computer models of the system.

Dan Burns and KVBC made much of the fact that cask testing shown in advertisements done by OIZ Advertising for the American Nuclear Energy Council weren't conducted to prove the structural integrity of transportation casks, but to calibrate computer simulations. The connection the technically naive reporter missed was that once calibrated, the computer models could then simulate accident modes barely conceivable in the real world and which would require thousands if not millions of full scale tests to statistically validate. Rather than being a deception, the cask test videos showed only a small part of a much larger validation process that the public, and media, were never aware of because software code doesn't generate splashy footage that makes the evening news.

Fortunately, Burns did not let his aversion to Yucca Mountain impede his career as reported by Jeff German of the Las Vegas Sun:


The pro-nuke raid on the media continues.

Another veteran newsman has been ensnared in the clutches of the pro-nuclear forces working to make Yucca Mountain the nation's first permanent high-level nuclear waste dump.

Dan Burns, managing editor at KVBC Channel 3, has announced that he's leaving the station after 10 years to hook up with a group of scientists studying the site.

Burns has accepted a job with Science Applications International Corp., the major contractor at Yucca Mountain. . . .[German, Jeff; Las Vegas Sun, Dec 1992]

Burns was by no means the only TV journalist who took liberties with the Yucca Mountain issue. Another video reporter who dealt loosely with the facts was Tanya Ellis, also of Channel 3, KVBC. For example, on the 10/24/91 report at 6pm, Ellis ran disk jockeys Johnson and Tofte radio spots which spoofed pro-Yucca Mountain ads, then interviewed mayor Jan Jones saying simulated pellets displayed in the ads would kill a person in a matter of minutes, and then opined that ANEC announcer Ron Vitto's arm would have to be amputated in one minute if he were holding a real pellet. On 10/29/91 Ellis followed with an interview of Lindsay Audin claiming cask tests were rigged and framed her report at the spaghetti bowl highway interchange in Las Vegas, implying a transportation disaster there was inevitable.


Sloppy journalism extended well beyond the state level. Most poignant was a telephone encounter this writer had with Roger O'Neil of NBC Nightly News. O'Neil had given a report the night before (July 14, 1992) which examined the possible impact of a number of earthquakes that had occurred in the California and Nevada area on the Yucca Mountain repository. As usual, the piece was long on political hype and shortchanged the science.

In the report, O'Neil suggested DOE had a credibility problem and that the pro-nuclear advertising was failing and making the matter worse in the minds of Nevadans. An interview conducted with NWPO director Bob Loux was particularly slanted. In essence, this was a remake of the local KVBC anchor's position and was hardly surprising.

I called Mr. O'Neil to suggest there was more to this story. Because of my research, I felt I could demonstrate Robert Loux was perhaps not as credible a source as O'Neil imagined and that things were not as they seemed at NWPO. O'Neil stridently defended Loux as a representative of the State of Nevada, claiming no interest in any possibility that the state might be hiding some rather large skeletons in its closet. O'Neil suggested we would never see eye to eye on this subject, though what was being discussed was information he'd never heard before and which at the least may have deserved a neutral hearing, if not further investigation on his part. I asked if I could quote him on his position and his reply was "No! You can't quote me on this. You can't quote me on anything!"


In the print media, the Las Vegas Sun took a particularly vitriolic editorial stance against Yucca Mountain, led by its owner, Hank Greenspun. After Hank passed away, his son Brian continued the tradition, often proclaiming pride in the fact that his position was locked in cement, no matter what new information might come available.

The ubiquitous Sun reporter, Mary Manning, provided the longest uninterrupted coverage of anti-nuclear events in Nevada from the early 1980's on. If their was a news release by Citizen Alert or a comment on Judy Treichel's involvement in anti-nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site, Mary Manning was like as not to be responsible for the coverage. Unlike the television media, Mary Manning's articles were written in a recognizable journalistic style and have provided what would otherwise have been a neglected history of these events. Nevertheless, it should be noted that what Manning was reporting on was often the activities of her friends, and lacked some critical technical analysis.

Manning's sources were frequently members of the environmental movement, whose expertise was accepted perhaps to quickly. For example, Manning quoted the Safe Energy Communication Council as a source for various official sounding pronouncements opposing the repository:


A national coalition of energy, environmental and public-interest groups has called for the Clinton administration to cut $305.7 million from its high-level nuclear waste project until an independent panel reviews the program.

The Safe Energy Communication Council recommended in its "Sustainable Energy Budget" Wednesday that the Department of Energy stop work and spending for underground tunneling at Yucca Mountain, temporary storage facilities, transportation, quality assurance and other programs. [Manning, Mary; Las Vegas Sun, Nov 18, 1993 p5A]

The question is why Manning reported the announcements of this out-of-state organization whose members had little if any technical expertise as an authoritative source. Perhaps it is inevitable that on a subject as emotionally charged as Yucca Mountain, even a solid reporter like Mary Manning would slip from being a reporter to an advocate. Nevertheless, Manning, who planned to finish a Masters in sociology in 1994 and then perhaps write a book on the Yucca Mountain issue, has provided a much needed look at the human side of the repository campaign.

In contrast, Keith Rogers of the Las Vegas Review Journal has brought a drier style to his reporting on Yucca Mountain than Manning. Rogers approach is neutral and technical and because it is less controversial he has not been quoted as frequently in this book. This should be thought of as a recommendation and not as ignorance of his work.


The complexity of the technical issues at Yucca Mountain has exposed a major flaw in the ability of our media to act as watchdogs over major technical issues. It appears an effective science reporter needs to have at least some minimal expertise in the subjects they cover, otherwise investigative questions become meaningless jabbering more likely to confuse than enlighten. The two main technical groups at Yucca Mountain, NWPO and DOE,are both governmental bureaucracies whose political structures render them secretive and overly political. Thus, reporters relying on experts from these groups inevitably found themselves reporting on the politics of Yucca Mountain, even when they thought they were reporting on the scientific substance.

Questions a media more in tune with scientific methods might have asked about the Yucca Mountain project are the following:

1) What are the priority dangers scientists worry about in regard to Yucca Mountain? While earthquakes and volcanos caught the headlines, they are low on the list of scientific concerns compared to climatic changes, criticality, faulting and heat pipe condensation. This is the opposite of NWPO's concerns, and the DOE may subconsciously have preferred the media to chase these answerable red-herring than investigate more important issues.

2) What do peer reviewers say privately about research being conducted. Jerry Szymanski's rising groundwater theories, and the Mountain West socioeconomic studies both received scathing remarks from insiders.

3) A survey of Nevada's professional engineers was never conducted until the UNR survey presented in this book (see Chapter 57). Instead, housewives were interviewed about their expert opinions on Yucca Mountain while Nevada's professional engineers, and university faculty, were never polled. Local expertise generally carry a wealth of insider insights.

4) Credentials, so important in academia as a means of filtering out trivial research, was overlooked. While PhDs make errors even in their own field, all things considered an English major may well be less knowledgable about radiation risks than a scientist who works in the field and holds a doctorate in radiation health science.

It is this author's belief that the media have failed to present critical issues at Yucca Mountain, on both pro and con sides of the scientific debate. Large federal science projects (e.g. Yucca Mountain, the space station, the super-collider project, etc.) may suffer from inherent difficulties in having their history's told by reporters more tuned to covering their locval sherrif's race. Hopefully, this book will serve as an inspiration for other technical writers to tackle future national scientific endeavors to act as independent oversight before billions are wasted on politicized science.