Reporting Nuclear News – Workshop for Journalists from the Middle East

Speakers and participants in the Atomic Reporters/VCDNP workshop gather 24 June in Vienna before an image that was tweeted to protest the sentence of three AlJazeera reporters in Egypt.

Nuclear science, the weapons it gave birth to and their challenge is not a compelling subject for journalists, many of whom lack the knowledge essential to reporting about the subject.

On the eve of Ramadan, as talks on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction continued in Geneva, journalists from ten countries in the region met in Vienna to discuss its key element—nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation.

Atomic Reporters and the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation (VCDNP) brought these journalists together with leading policy and technical experts and prominent journalists in the workshop Reporting Nuclear 23-25 June 2014.

The participants came from Jordan, Kuwait, Iran, Israel, Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. The workshop coincided with the meeting in Geneva between Israel, Egypt and other Arab countries to consider an agenda for a proposed summit of nations in Helsinki possibly before the end of the year to discuss the zone proposal.

The concept for the workshop grew out of a half day workshop Atomic Reporters provided journalists in Cairo in 2012 and was a response to interest in nuclear issues among journalists from the region as well as recognition that the proposed zone is not well understood in the Middle East.

The Vienna workshop topics included the history of nuclear weapons, threats to the nuclear non-proliferation regime, nuclear safety and security, and IAEA Safeguards. Participants also visited the headquarters of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO). Senior journalist presenters talked about their experiences covering the topic. One of the key goals of the workshop was to help participants turn complicated nuclear topics into stories understandable to the wider public.

At its conclusion participants completed a blind questionnaire: their overall assessment, the workshop was positive, useful and informative. “…even an old hand like myself learnt a great deal from my participation,” one commented.

Atomic Reporters and the VCDNP extend their gratitude to the Permanent Mission of the United Arab Emirates to the IAEA in Vienna for their generous support that made the workshop possible. Atomic Reporters also wishes to thank Ireland and Austria for their invaluable support.

Trip Report: Paks Nuclear Power Plant

paks overview

On July 7 Atomic Reporters, with the support of Hungary’s IAEA mission, organized a full-day tour of the Paks Nuclear Power Plant (NPP). Eleven Vienna-based journalists representing news organizations from eight different countries took the four hour bus ride to the power plant.

We were greeted in the visitors’ center by Geza Pekarik, technical director at the NPP. He gave a tailored PowerPoint presentation that provided an overview of the facility, contextualized nuclear power in Hungary’s energy mix and discussed planned construction of two additional reactors.

After the talk, we walked to the plant entrance, where security met us. The guards were friendly and unobtrusive. They had already received our personal data and were prepared before we arrived on site. Once past the sparkling steel gate our group was taken by minivan to the enormous hall housing reactor units 3 and 4.

Entrance to Paks NPP. Photo by Andrei Zolotov
Entrance to Paks NPP. Photo by Andrei Zolotov

We saw the domes covering the two reactor vessels. One of the units had been under maintenance and some of the radiation-shielding equipment still was present in the hall. Surrounding the vessel were six hermetically-sealed lids that covered the reactor’s pumps and steam generators, or heat exchangers. Plant personnel pointed out the blue IAEA video cameras monitoring the facility. Two men in white jumpsuits and hardhats were working on the plant floor. Members of our group commented on how orderly and clean the facility looked amid the densely engineered web of tubes and machines.

Next stop was the control room. This is the place where visitors recognize they are inside a 40-year-old facility. Not many fancy graphical-user interfaces here. The four operators in the room sat before drab green control panels populated with buttons and switches. Pathways of colored lights were embedded in the walls. A digital monitor blinked real-time power fluctuations. “What a boring job,” remarked one journalist looking at the men behind the glass partition. “It makes covering the Iran talks seem exciting,” said another.

We were shepherded into a freight elevator and hardhats awaited us when we got out. This was the generator hall, the place where condensing steam rips through the turbines that supply Hungary with 51% of the electricity it produces. The noise and vibrations engulfed our party once we entered. Conversation inside was scarce. Exhilarating and a little bit scary to see how much power a measly 3.5% percent enriched uranium can release.

That marked the end of our power plant tour. Unbeknownst to us was that the best was yet to come.

We hopped back onto the minivan and drove a short stretch from the plant to a low-rise building. It was a newly-erected training center, home to a complete VVER reactor disassembled and transported to Paks from Poland. It had never been commissioned and was therefore safe to approach. Hungary uses the facility for maintenance and emergency training for its own plant personnel as well as future operators from nuclear-newcomer states. Walking into the building, we were struck by sharp smells of fresh paint.

Reactor vessel in Paks NPP training center. Photo by Andrei Zolotov

It is hard to understate the awe experienced when standing next to a pressure vessel. Twenty-three meters deep with a 3-meter-wide diameter, this was the alloy ingot built to contain a reactor’s fission energy. While some journalists stared into the vessel’s maw, others ventured down a steel stairway to examine the steam generator, where they could shimmy down a narrow shaft marked inside with control numbers. Still other reporters examined two-meter long fuel assemblies and began to understand the complex craftwork needed to safely power a reactor. There were valves as big as a person and bolts greater than a fist. While cognoscente that these were components of potentially-deadly business, the combination of physical and intellectual stimulation they provided reminded some among us of a well-designed and organized playground. The sense of danger and discovery were balanced.

Reporters examine VVER fuel assemblies at the Paks NPP training center. Photo by Andrei Zolotov
Reporters examine VVER fuel assemblies at the Paks NPP training center. Photo by Andrei Zolotov

Well over our budgeted time, the Atomic Reporters trip drew to an end. We were treated to Hungarian carp soup in the plant’s cafeteria. Later in the afternoon we received a presentation about Hungary’s long-term high-level waste disposal strategy. Even at that late hour — and with 340 kilometers separating us from home in Vienna — the questions continued unabated. It is not often that reporters hear tangible plans from countries intent on confronting and solving the nuclear waste issue.

This was Atomic Reporters first excursion to a nuclear facility. Based on the feedback given, it won’t be our last. Stay tuned.

[ UPDATE: To see the full presentation and additional images, visit the Hungarian IAEA mission’s website]