The four-month investigation sent undercover interns to gain access to the reactors in an attempt to examine how vulnerable the facilities could be to terrorists who could set off bombs that release radiation into the atmosphere.
“We determined from a citizen’s perspective what levels of security we could observe from these nuclear reactors,” said Stephen D. Grove, one of the Kennedy School interns. “The strategy of ABC News was to send us out to find out what we could about the reactors.”
Hsing Wei, the other Kennedy School intern, said she and her partner, stationed in the Midwest, found unmanned guard booths at some facilities, entered the labs with minimal background checks in most places, left their bags near the reactors in two of the places, and walked inside one lab with their bags.
Other interns found a guard who appeared to be asleep, unlocked building doors and, in a number of cases, guided tours that provided easy access to control rooms and reactor pools that hold radioactive fuel.
Since the report was released last Wednesday, some have criticized ABC for using the interns to conduct unethical reporting.
“We are concerned that interns, college students, were placed in a position where they were dishonest about their roles and intentions,” Terry King, dean of Kansas State’s engineering school, said in a letter to the Associated Press (AP).
“With investigative journalism, a lot of the time people try to spin it into using bad practices,” Wei said. “When you’re doing this kind of work, you’re walking that fine line, so a lot of the time it’s hard to understand that investigations are necessary to reveal certain things. I think all the fellows involved were ethical and wanted to be ethical.”
Grove declined to comment on the ethics of the reporting.
ABC conducted its investigation in conjunction with the Carnegie Corporation, which allowed five universities to select two of their most promising journalism and government graduate students to work with the ABC investigative unit for the summer.
The Kennedy School chose Grove and Wei, both of whom applied for the ABC internship through the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center, told the AP that he did not want to prejudge ABC’s report.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with finding out whether minimal security was being observed at nuclear facilities, providing you didn’t misrepresent yourself,” Jones said. “And from what I understand, none of these students did.”
Wei said that questions of journalistic ethics should not overshadow the findings of the report.
“The purpose of this story, as presented, is to raise discussion,” she said. “The larger picture is how this fits in to the whole framework of national security, nuclear security, and the question of whether these facilities should exist—the tradeoff of the value these nuclear reactors provide and their risks.”