When “Nuclear” is the Star of Stage and Screen

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

Anything radioactive makes for good drama – or so many television and movie scriptwriters believe. “China Syndrome” in 1979 and “Silkwood” in 1983 are just two movieexamples of movies with nuclear themes – reactors in one and materials in another. But how accurate are Hollywood’s depictions of radioactive substances?

Often they’re off the mark by a lot.

But there are times when writers and producers check with us on whether a script or scene is close enough to reality for Hollywood’s purposes. This year we’ve gotten questions about the sequence of a reactor meltdown and its aftermath. We walked through the scenario in generalities, careful not to reveal security details or other protected information. We feel it’s in our best interest to have whatever accuracy is possible in a Hollywood production.

That being said, entertainment is not a documentary and often facts don’t get in the way of a good tale.

For instance, the 2005 season of the pressure-packed “24” had a “black box” that could remotely operate all U.S. nuclear power plants via the Internet. It made for thrilling TV, but this is what we said about that plot point: There is no such black box or suitcase for controlling nuclear power plants. Control systems at the plants are not accessible via the Internet.

“NCIS: Los Angeles” also aired an episode titled “Empty Quiver,” during which bad guys hijack a Department of Energy Secure Transport. One of our NRC experts saw the show and had first-hand knowledge of these vehicles. This is what he said about it: “The only similarity between what was shown on TV and reality is that in both cases the transport vehicles each had 18 wheels!”

In another example, the 2006 season of “West Wing” featured the government response to a nuclear power plant accident that in many – but not all ways – was fairly accurate. This is what the NRC said at the time: The NRC understands the writers’ literary license in assigning roles and responsibilities to various characters in the show, but the NRC would be the federal coordinating agency in any event involving a nuclear power plant.

So what’s the bottom line? When the plot synopsis reads “nuclear,” feel free to enjoy it, but don’t confuse fiction with fact.

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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