Looking forward to the future of journalism

Small-town newspaper keeps tabs on South Texas Project nuclear plant

The San Antonio Express-News has been delving into many story angles about the proposed expansion of the South Texas Project nuclear plant near Bay City. CPS Energy wants to invest more than $5 billion for two new reactors, which has touched off a heated debate in San Antonio.

South Texas ProjectFor today’s story about nuclear safety, I mostly relied on government reports to learn about the industry’s safety record. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission offers vast archives of official material online. And the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has published several reports about problems at some plants, such as guards sleeping while on duty. The GAO’s search page is a great resource for just about any topic.

But government records aren’t the only resources out there. One incident I came across was documented by the local newspaper, the Bay City Tribune, which had learned through word-of-mouth about a bizarre day at the plant. The incident became the lede of my story:

BAY CITY — On a gusty October day last year, two F-16 fighter jets were scrambled at Ellington Airport in Houston and raced toward rural Matagorda County — home of the South Texas Project nuclear plant.

A small civilian plane was flying near the plant without broadcasting a proper transponder code, raising the specter of a 9-11-style terrorist attack. STP employees saw one of the F-16s roar past the nuclear reactors near Bay City on Oct. 23 at 1:30 p.m., company spokesman Buddy Eller said.

Minutes later, plant personnel dealt with a potential danger on the ground. At 1:40 p.m., a man was spotted in the parking lot carrying a rifle case. Security officers detained him.

Both incidents — first disclosed by the Bay City Tribune, a local newspaper — turned out to be unrelated false alarms. The civilian plane landed, and authorities determined that the pilot had made an innocent mistake. And the man detained at the plant was an STP employee who had bought an empty gun case at the facility’s company store, which catered to hunters.

“They’re not selling rifle cases at the company store anymore,” said Victor Dricks, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Since the NRC does not release details about many security-related events at nuclear plants, the initial news story in the Bay City Tribune was the only way the public learned what happened that day. So the local journalists deserve a pat on the back for chasing down the story, and kudos to STP for answering their questions.