Last week, when the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission reported a security violation at Three Mile Island, a spokesman for the agency described the preliminary findings as "greater than very low safety significance."

That, of course, is a semantic gyration that seems to be endemic to government, or at least government how it's run these days.

Parsing the phrase, you can rest assured that the unnamed violation was not of "very low safety significance." Other than that, who knows? Was it a slight annoyance? Was it something that should cause grave concern? Was it head-for-the-hills-the-world's-going-to-end alarming?

You can't know. You can only tell, from that cryptic phrase, that it was "greater than very low safety significance," what-
ever that means.

It's impossible to judge what level of safety significance the violation represented because neither the NRC nor the operators of TMI will say.

Officials said releasing that information could result in the disclosure of safeguarded information -- which seems to imply that whatever happened was a good deal "greater than very low safety significance."

Basically, they aren't telling us what happened for our own good. That's certainly reassuring.

How many times have we traveled this road? How many times has the government or some large corporation refused to release information, citing the need for secrecy, when it turned out the release of the information only protected the government or large corporation from embarrassment? You need a supercomputer to tally that count.


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The NRC did say that the violation didn't jeopardize health and safety. Citing "local sensitivities," the NRC spokeswoman did say that the violation didn't involve "inattentive security officers."

"Inattentive security officers," of course, means security officers napping on the job. Again, parsing that phrase, a person who is asleep is inattentive so it is accurate. But sleeping on the job seems a little more serious than, say, reading a magazine or playing a video game.

The "inattentive security officers" were at the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station, contract employees of Wackenhut, who have since been replaced with company staffers.

Exelon also owns TMI, and this violation occurred when the same contractor provided security there.

Since then, TMI has also replaced the contract employees with its own staff.

The parallels are interesting, to say the least.

The only difference is we know what happened at Peach Bottom, thanks to a whistleblower who captured sleeping security guards on video.

We don't know what happened at TMI.

And we may never know. The experience of the whistleblower at Peach Bottom -- he lost his job when Exelon got rid of Wackenhut and he wasn't hired by the company as part of its own security force -- doesn't do much to encourage people to publicly report misfeasance.

Security is a paramount concern at nuclear power plants, and people deserve to know whether government regulators are taking adequate steps to safeguard the public.

Without knowing specifically what the violation is, how are we to judge that? There should be a way for the NRC to inform the public without jeopardizing security at the plant.

The public's right to know is, to paraphrase the NRC, greater than very low significance.