Tom Hals on story revealing how two U.S. nuclear projects bankrupted Westinghouse
Earlier this month, Reuters showed how two ambitious U.S. nuclear projects pushed Westinghouse into bankruptcy and its Japanese parent Toshiba close to financial ruin. The story, by Reuters correspondents Tom Hals and Emily Flitter, reported that miscalculations by Westinghouse underscore the difficulties facing a global industry that aims to build about 160 reactors and is expected to generate around $740 billion in sales of equipment in services in the coming decade. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A, Tom offers a behind-the-scenes look at how they reported the story.
Q. How did you get started on this story?
A. I started examining these two nuclear projects in Georgia and South Carolina, which are being built by Westinghouse Electric Co, in December. Westinghouse’s parent company, Toshiba Corp, had said it was facing billions of dollars of liabilities stemming from cost overruns at the two nuclear power plants. I began making calls in my spare time to try to contact opponents of the plants and find official reports about the projects. After Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in March, Emily Flitter contacted me and I realized she was doing much the same. It was a perfect fit, so we teamed on the project. As luck would have it, I had focused on the Georgia project, and she had focused on the South Carolina project.
Q. What types of reporting/sourcing were involved in the story?
A. Some of the citizens’ groups that were critical of the huge costs of these plants were a big help. They were able to point us to revealing details that were tucked away in dense regulatory filings written by engineers, or send transcripts from hearings with striking passages highlighted. Westinghouse has generated a lot of goodwill among nuclear engineers over the years. We tracked down people who had dealings with the company and some wanted to help to ensure the story was accurately told.
Q. What was the hardest part about reporting the story?
A. Unlike a lot of reporting, these nuclear projects suffer from too much disclosure, not too little. Independent monitors have warned for years, in report after report, that these plants are billions of dollars over budget and way behind schedule. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission lays out problems with the quality of construction in mind-numbing detail, down to improperly installed rivets. We kept asking ourselves why this hadn’t registered beyond a few activists in Georgia and South Carolina.
Q. Why did you think this was an important story to tell Reuters customers and readers?
A. The failure of these two projects doesn’t change the need to meet long-term electricity demand, balanced with concerns about climate change. Critics of nuclear power will probably point to these projects to argue against ever considering atomic power. Before having that debate, people should know why the projects failed and what that says about the long-term prospects of nuclear power.
Q. What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A. I cover bankruptcy and courts in Delaware, where a lot of corporate litigation winds up. I fell into it by accident. But I stay with it, in part because I’m continually amazed by the human knack to use finance and law to create incredibly complex deals.
Q. What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A. I love to learn and converse. I love trading stories. My inner narcissist loves when someone out of the blue contacts me about a story with a few complimentary words. I hate the daily self-doubt and mental blocks that seems to plague me every time I start to write.
Q. Can you imagine being anything other than a journalist? If so, what?
A. I can imagine that publishing a best-selling graphic novel would be pretty rewarding, given my frustrating lack of artistic ability.