Writing in Plain English—An Ongoing Challenge

Glenn Ellmers
Senior Communications Specialist

The NRC’s technical experts are highly educated individuals with a lot of expertise in their fields. But getting them to speak in plain English can be a challenge. That can be a problem because the public needs to be able to easily read and understand the reports these experts produce — explaining everything from whether a particular nuclear power plant is safe to what steps the NRC is requiring to make sure potential safety issues are addressed.

lettersThere is even a law—the Plain Writing Act of 2010—that requires government documents read by the public to be written in plain language, to the greatest degree possible. (This subject also happens to be a personal cause of NRC Chairman Allison Macfarlane.)

The difficulty is that the nuclear facilities we regulate are, well … complicated! A power plant, for instance, may have many different types of pipes, valves, switches, gauges and electrical controls. Each of these parts must have a specific name that identifies where it fits in the whole. All of which leads to a plain language pitfall that grammar experts called “noun/adjective clusters.”

Here’s an example from a recent NRC document: “a through-wall leak was identified in the body of a Reactor Core Isolation Cooling System Steam Supply Inboard Isolation Bypass Warmup Valve.” That’s a lot to swallow!

One solution is to drop any non-essential terms, and then use prepositions and other connecting words to break things up. So, “an isolation bypass warm-up valve for steam supply to Reactor Core Isolation Cooling,” would be a bit easier to follow. That’s still accurate but a bit less overwhelming. And, depending on the audience, it may be the better choice.

To comply with the Plain Writing Act—and to improve the clarity of our communications more generally—the NRC’s Executive Director of Operations has instructed the staff to include plain language summaries for technical documents that the public follows (mainly inspection reports, significant enforcement actions, and generic communications to NRC license-holders). A new memo reminding staff to use plain language will be issued later this month. And our human resources staff have created no less than five different training courses (some lasting two full days) to improve the staff’s plain writing skills.

Our Office of Public Affairs is also working to enhance the readability of many of our publications – including the Information Digest – by reducing the grade level needed to easily read the material.

We are not 100 percent there yet, but the NRC recognizes the importance of helping the public understand our documents, and we continue to take steps to improve in this area.

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