May 5, 2010, Don Kreis: The Perils of PowerPoint at Vermont Yankee

Don KreisAssistant Professor Don Kreis wrote an op-ed piece May 5, 2010, in about Vermont Yankee.

It might be an exaggeration to suggest that a PowerPoint slide, entitled “Review of Test Data Indicates Conservatism for Tile Penetration,” caused the Space Shuttle Columbia to disintegrate in the midst of a fiery reentry in January of 2003. But it is this slide, prepared by Boeing engineers for NASA decision makers after Columbia had been struck by debris upon launch but before it tried to land, that comes in for special criticism by Edward R. Tufte, the Yale University emeritus professor who has written four books about the visual display of data.

In his book Beautiful Evidence, Tufte calls the slide “a PowerPoint festival of bureaucratic hyper-rationalism” that contrasted sharply, and tragically, with worried communications that passed during Columbia’s last flight among lower-level NASA engineers. Moreover, as Tufte points out, the official Columbia Accident Investigation Board agreed.

“[I]t is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation,” the Board concluded, as quoted in Beautiful Evidence. “The Board views the endemic use of PowerPoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as an illustration of the problematic methods of technical communication at NASA.”

Now imagine that, instead of being a NASA bureaucrat trying to figure out during a space shuttle flight whether launch-related damage had left the spacecraft unable to land safely, you are a nuclear consultant hired by the State of Vermont to help the Legislature decide whether the plant should stay open past 2012. You show up for a meeting on Sept. 11, 2008, with engineers and other scientists from Vermont Yankee. They’ve prepared a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Buried Underground Piping (BUP).”

This meeting looms large in the first section of a report released last month by the law firm of Morgan Lewis & Bockius on the investigation it conducted for its client Vermont Yankee. The investigation concerned whether the nuclear plant deliberately misled state officials about the existence of underground pipes at the Vernon facility – pipes that turned out to be leaking radioactive tritium.

Morgan Lewis found Vermont Yankee not guilty – concluding, in essence, that employees of the plant did indeed mislead officials about those pipes but not on purpose.

At least one of those officials – Commissioner David O’Brien of the Department of Public Service – has publicly criticized the report as a whitewash. But given the manner in which dealings between regulated utilities and their regulators typically unfold as to complex technical questions, the law firm’s conclusions have the ring of plausibility. The ring gets louder when PowerPoint is involved.

As recently as April 26, a New York Times story echoed the assessment of Tufte and the Columbia Accident Investigation Board about PowerPoint, this time in the context of the war in Afghanistan. According to the Times, General James N. Mattis, commander of the joint forces in Afghanistan, offered this assessment of the military planning process when speaking at a conference recently: “PowerPoint makes us stupid.”

The times also reported that General H. R. McMaster banned PowerPoint outright as he planned a major military effort to secure an Iraqi city in 2005. He told the newspaper that PowerPoint is “dangerous because it can create the illusion of understanding and the illusion of control. . . . Some problems in the world are not bulletizable.”

One such problem might be the distinction between “underground” and “buried” pipe at Vermont Yankee. It turns out that, at least in the minds of Vermont Yankee’s engineers, the pipes that leaked tritium were “buried” but not “underground.” By this they meant that buried pipes are laid in trenches and, thus, unlike underground pipes, do not make direct contact with the soils beneath the facility. So, the reasoning goes, when Vermont Yankee claimed there were no underground pipes containing radionuclides at the plant, their only sin was failing to clarify that there were pipes in trenches that contained such materials.

This brings to mind President Clinton’s famous grand jury testimony in 1998 that the question of whether he had been lying to aides about certain sexual transgressions turned on “what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” However much this kind of parsing seemed unreasonable before a grand jury, it happens all the time in the utility industry when regulators meet with the regulated. At such gatherings, regulators who fail to pose exactly the right questions often do not get the information they need.

And it is in this precise light that one ought to view the contents of a PowerPoint slide, one of four whose bullet points are quoted in the Morgan Lewis report. Entitled “Program Scope” — i.e., purporting to describe the scope of Vermont Yankee’s program for inspecting buried pipe – the slide had these bullet points:
“• Piping and Tanks identified in License Renewal
• Piping that could provide a path of plant-generated radioactive material contamination to groundwater
• other as they could present an environmental concern”
Would those bullets leave the impression that the program excluded pipes in trenches? Or that Vermont Yankee had pipes with tritium in them that were outside the program? It would likely turn on what the presenters said when this slide was on the screen.

According to the Morgan Lewis report, one of the Vermont Yankee officials who helped make this PowerPoint presentation to the state’s consultants was Mark LeFrancois, whose job was “Supervisor, Code Programs.” According to Morgan Lewis, LeFrancois said he was “not sure” if the consultants asked in the course of this presentation if there was underground piping with radionuclides in it.

LeFrancois told the Morgan Lewis investigators that he explained to the state’s consultants that the now-infamous tritium pipes were “in trenches and accessible,” and therefore “not in the scope” of the pipeline inspection program. The consultants, LeFrancois told the investigators, “appeared to understand” and “did not question or challenge” Vermont Yankee’s highly specialized definition of “buried.”

Morgan Lewis reported that LeFrancois “[d]oes not see now [the consultants] could come away from the meeting thinking that there were no underground pipes that were contaminated.”

Perhaps. But in all likelihood there were engineers at Boeing who did not see how NASA decisionmakers could have come away from their infamous PowerPoint show while Columbia was aloft in 2003 without being aware that the shuttle was in mortal danger.

Admittedly, the Vermont Yankee PowerPoint presentation was just one juncture in an extended series of contacts among plant officials, the state’s consultants, and the officials to whom the consultants reported. At the September 11, 2008 meeting itself, Vermont Yankee handed out a printed table that also purported to describe the scope of its pipe inspection program. But it is hard to ignore the assertion by LeFrancois that the PowerPoint show made everything clear.

We don’t know what understandings the consultants took from the September 11 meeting. Morgan Lewis only interviewed people within the hierarchy of Vermont Yankee and its affiliates within the Entergy utility conglomerate.

So the question lingers: Was LeFrancois right? Did he and his colleagues successfully convey to the state’s consultants that pipes at Vermont Yankee were leaking tritium, but the plant didn’t consider them to be underground pipes? Or were these people just another victim of PowerPoint, described by Edward Tufte in his book as “a prankish conspiracy against evidence and thought” that “allows speakers to pretend that they are giving a real talk, and audiences to pretend that they are listening”?

Donald M. Kreis, associate director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School, is the former general counsel to the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission.

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