Plainly Telling the Public about Our Environmental Reviews

Tomeka Terry, Project Manager
Office of New Reactors

The NRC feels it’s important to write our documents so that all readers can understand them. We’ve previously discussed writing in plain English and acronym use. The agency’s made extra effort to write plainly in its documents most read by the public, and to reduce the use of acronyms when we can.

We use many tools to inform the public about who we are and what we do. Our work is technical and some documents must meet legal standards, but we still want people to understand as much as possible. So we went a step further—creating a new tool to improve understanding and reduce reading effort.

Environmental impact statements help the NRC decide whether to approve projects, such as licensing the building and operating of a nuclear power plant. Each environmental impact statement for a new reactor will now include a “Reader’s Guide” with a simple, short overview of the statement. The Reader’s Guide summarizes the project’s potential environmental impacts. It also describes alternatives and ways to reduce the effects the project would have on the environment.

We’ve also included an overview of the NRC’s new reactor licensing process and opportunities for public participation in the Reader’s Guide.

The brochure format makes understanding the environmental impact statement easier. Most NRC environmental impact statements average 1500 pages, while the Reader’s Guide gives an overview in about 40 pages.

The Reader’s Guide also helps us conserve resources. When we send our documents to the public, we can now print a short document and include the full environmental impact statement on an enclosed CD.

Two recent Reader’s Guides cover a draft environmental impact statement for a proposed new reactor in Pennsylvania and a final environmental impact statement for a site in New Jersey.

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.