Precision matters

The complainant, Adam Lewis, said that there was an error of fact in a piece about a Russian-owned, U.S.-based uranium mining company. There had been an ongoing controversy regarding the approval of a deal under the Obama administration which gave Russia an interest in U.S. uranium production. CBCnews.ca provided analysis because the issue was back in the news.

The background is complicated, but I agreed that the phrase in question was imprecise.

COMPLAINT

You wrote to point out what you thought to be an error in an article about an ongoing political controversy surrounding a uranium mining operation, Uranium One, that is controlled by the mining arm of Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy agency. The company was sold in 2010, with operations in Canada, the United States, Australia, Kazakhstan and South Africa. During the 2016 U.S. presidential election campaign, there were accusations that Hillary Clinton had given away U.S. uranium rights in exchange for donations to the Clinton foundation. The accusations were false, but the story lived on. In November 2017, cbcnews.ca published an Analysis piece entitled: Trump is hyping a uranium scandal about Hillary Clinton. Here’s why some observer’s call it ‘bogus’.” Republican senators had decided to look into the matter. In his analysis, Matt Kwong debunked some of the allegations and concerns. During the campaign, then candidate Trump stated that Ms. Clinton had given away 20% of the uranium in the country. In debunking it, Mr. Kwong said:

Even if the Russians wanted to do something with the relatively small amounts of U.S.-produced uranium, they wouldn't be able to export any of it outside the U.S., anyway. That's because they don't have an export licence from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

You said this was “100% incorrect.” You pointed to a cbcnews.ca article published in 2012 involving the presence of yellowcake in an Ontario refinery which had originated from a Uranium One facility in the United States.

You also cited an article published in a U.S. publication, The Hill, which noted that while there was no export license, the atomic regulatory agency had granted permission to move some uranium to Canada and Europe for further process.

You also questioned the fact that all the sources cited in the article were from the Obama and Clinton administrations, and this violated journalistic standards.

MANAGEMENT RESPONSE

The Managing Editor of @cbcnews, Steve Ladurantaye, replied to your complaint. He told you he did not agree that the statement required a correction. He stated that Uranium One does not have a license to export uranium for commercial use. He acknowledged that the company does move uranium between Canada and the United States:

The company does move uranium back and forth from Canada to the United States at various stages of processing - but this isn’t what “exporting” would mean in the context of the story. It’s clearly about “exporting” uranium to countries that may be hostile to the United States.

The political angle to the story is indeed intriguing, as the writer points out in his article. But it is separate to the idea of exports.

He added the story was evolving and CBC would cover further developments.

REVIEW

Accuracy and precision of language are two important commitments of CBC’s Journalistic Standards and Practices.

In dispute here is whether it is correct to say, as Mr. Kwong did in his story, that they would not be able to export it because they do not have a license from the Nuclear Regulatory Agency. Technically, this is correct:

Even if the Russians wanted to do something with the relatively small amounts of U.S.-produced uranium, they wouldn't be able to export any of it outside the U.S., anyway. That's because they don't have an export licence from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

It is true the company could not directly export product. The material that found its way to Canada, for example, was sent for further refining. Mr. Ladurantaye stated that it is clear the concern and the context is that uranium might be exported to countries hostile to the United States. As you pointed out, the reality is somewhat more complex. While it doesn’t materially alter the overall analysis of the issue being overblown, it is complex and nuanced enough that it is not acceptable to have phrased it in this way without some qualification. For a period of time, according to The Hill story you quoted, uranium was moved for further processing to Canada and Europe, although there have been no shipments since 2014. The reporters at The Hill obtained Nuclear Regulatory Commission documents that indicated there had been some movement:

Yet NRC memos reviewed by The Hill show that it did approve the shipment of yellowcake uranium — the raw material used to make nuclear fuel and weapons — from the Russian-owned mines in the United States to Canada in 2012 through a third party. Later, the Obama administration approved some of that uranium going all the way to Europe, government documents show.

NRC officials said they could not disclose the total amount of uranium that Uranium One exported because the information is proprietary. They did, however, say that the shipments only lasted from 2012 to 2014 and that they are unaware of any exports since then.

NRC officials told The Hill that Uranium One exports flowed from Wyoming to Canada and on to Europe between 2012 and 2014, and the approval involved a process with multiple agencies.

Rather than give Rosatom a direct export license — which would have raised red flags inside a Congress already suspicious of the deal — the NRC in 2012 authorized an amendment to an existing export license for a Paducah, Ky.-based trucking firm called RSB Logistics Services Inc. to simply add Uranium One to the list of clients whose uranium it could move to Canada.

The license, reviewed by The Hill, is dated March 16, 2012, and it increased the amount of uranium ore concentrate that RSB Logistics could ship to the Cameco Corp. plant in Ontario from 7,500,000 kilograms to 12,000,000 kilograms and added Uranium One to the “other parties to Export.”

The Hill piece goes on to explain that yellowcake was moved from Canada to Europe with the approval of the U.S. Energy department. I don’t think the context Mr. Kwong was using was quite as obvious as Mr. Ladurantaye stated. Given that The Hill article was published before Mr. Kwong’s, he might have thought of rewording his assertion. I do not think this aspect of the story changed the overall analysis, but it would have been worth noting.

You pointed out that all the experts quoted are from the Clinton or Obama administrations. The article is framed as a look at why the uranium scandal is bogus. It does, however, quote Mr. Trump and other critics about their concerns and accusations. Most analysis, from organizations like FactCheck.org have come to similar conclusions, based on the facts.

Your challenge raised an interesting point - that there is a need for a level of precision when dealing with complicated situations. It appears it is not precisely true that the company could not move small quantities of uranium out of the United States. It might be true the quantities are small and the impact and danger is low, but the need for precision remains.

Even when writing from a single perspective, reporters should be careful to test assumptions and assess the information.

Sincerely,

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman