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.

Author: Moderator

Public Affairs Officer for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission

12 thoughts on “Writing in Plain English—An Ongoing Challenge”

  1. NRC technical experts should also learn grammar, good! all NRC staff should use plain language for technical documents. I hope all the staff keep the spirit, learning grammar is not as complicated as making reactor nukilir he .. he .. keep the spirit!

  2. I wish you nothing but success. Acronyms are OK as long as they are well known and understood to a broad audience. Also on Figures and Tables were space is limited and a legend can be provided. Yucca Mountain had 8000 acronyms – Yikes! I put a CR in the system titled “Lost in Translation” to challenge the use of acronyms: “The LAAO requires the LA to describe the WP in accordance with the WP and the WP for the LA. The WP is not made of La in LA, but is relieved via LA, and evaluated by the LA, and described in the LA. The WP does not have a LA. The LAAO dictates the contents of the LAAO, LAAC and LAATL.” Now, what did I say?

  3. Since the issues you bring up are not in my area of responsibility, I asked others for answers. From out web team: At the top of each page at our website, you will find a simple search feature that is powered by the same technology that is found at google.com. It is a quick, efficient way to find both Web pages and ADAMS documents that match your search word or phrase.

    Glenn Ellmers

  4. We should be reminded that the very public are those who pay for and use nuclear power plants. And they are our members of family, neighborhood, society, and nation.

  5. Reducing the use of acronyms — when we can — is one way we’re trying to enhance the readability of our documents for the public. Some acronyms may help readability, as pointed out, but only if they are commonly known.

    Glenn Ellmers

  6. Sorry, acronyms are here to stay so you might as well get used to them. Do you open a chemistry text and complain that they talk in code (H, He, Li, Be, … U)? People working in the field think and speak using the jargon and the acronyms, their use actually improves the communication rather than hinder it.

  7. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is gained with acronyms in these modern times. But communication can be lost or misinterpreted. And clear communication = safety. And surely you will not be “writing it out” anyway. If anything, key in the acronym and then do a search and replace. Everyone wins, including the poor public who we are supposed to be able to follow this stuff.

  8. As long as an acronym is spelled out at its first usage, that is commonly acceptable. Surely there is no need to write out “Reactor Core Isolation Cooling System” or “Primary Containment Isolation Valve” at every instance such a reference is made within the same document.

  9. A MUCH more needed update is a plain language search box on the NRC website so that documents are not hidden in several layers of NRC “speak”…

    If a high school student cannot find a particular meeting webcast or a document relating to a reactor in their State, then the NRC system (ADAM) is a failure at public access!
    Every webcast should have a contact number that the public can call and speak to a human being if they have issues with listening and/or asking question during the webcast. Having an “operator” controlling the questions that is not available to answer callers questions is unacceptable!

  10. Any chance that the plain language initiative will ring the death knell for acronyms? I’ve come to hate acronyms because they are so over used.

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