Department of Energy Heavily Redacts Documents on Homer Simpson Blog

What did Homer know and when did he know it?
July 29, 2021, 1:00pm
Springfield nuclear plant
Image: Department of Energy via Freedom of Information Act request

On April 4, 2018, the Department of Energy's Office of Nuclear Energy published a blog titled "7 Things The Simpsons Got Wrong About Nuclear." Although the blog acknowledged "we do recognize that this show is a parody with the intent to entertain," it went on to point out that despite the animated series' depiction, fuel rods are not actually used as paper weights and "Nuclear power plants do not cause mutations."

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The blog piqued my curiosity because The Simpsons' depiction of nuclear power has had an undeniable influence on public perception of its safety and viability, even if the impact of that perception is difficult to measure. There is no denying that, much as the monorail has become synonymous with transportation swindle, when someone mentions "nuclear power," a solid chunk of the American populace hears that phrase in their own heads in Mr. Burns's voice. The show's casting of Homer as an incompetent and lazy safety inspector, along with Mr. Burns as its corrupt, plutocratic owner more interested in winning softball games than running a safe facility is, to Americans of a certain age, the sum total of things they know about nuclear power plants. 

Interested in how this blog came to be, particularly during the Trump administration which was enthusiastic about nuclear energy, Motherboard filed a Freedom of Information Act request for documents relating to the blog. The Department of Energy heavily redacted these documents, including several versions of drafts and expert technical reviews of the content.

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As a blogger myself, I sympathize with these redactions. I, too, wouldn't want my drafts published for all the world to see, like our content management system sometimes does by mistake, much less the comments my editors make. Still, one can't help but roll the eyes at a redaction like this:

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Or this:

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Due to the redactions, the documents shed minimal light on the blog's origins. It is not clear, for instance, how the idea originated or if the Department of Energy has a content quota to fill. It is also not clear how many Simpsons references were made in the making of this blog, although the unredacted emails yield but one solitary Simpsons reference, a stray "Cowabunga!" in celebration of the draft's finalization, the type of Simpsons reference made by someone who has seen the Simpsons twice. 

On its website, the blog is attributed to Mike Mueller, who the emails reveal is a senior digital content strategist for the contractor The Hannon Group, which had a contract with the Department of Energy "to provide communications support services." But the earliest released document is an email from a Department of Energy intern named Kathleen Harrison, who sent Mueller a blog draft on February 21. When asked for clarification on who wrote the blog, Mueller told Motherboard in an email, “I wrote the blog with support from Kathleen while she was an intern with us back then. She helped research some of the examples for me. From what I can remember, she did provide some rough drafts on the content, which I used to inform the draft of the final piece.”

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Although it is difficult to say for sure because of the heavy redactions, the blog underwent no fewer than four rounds of edits: one by Mueller, another by his boss, and others by "some ID technical people" and "some of INL's CPLs," perhaps referring to the Idaho National Laboratory's communications program liaison. In a separate email, Mueller asks the Department of Energy's communications director Karla Olsen to check in about the blog, saying he wants to "make sure the blog is [two lines redacted]. So I would like the ability to make sure this is still aligned with what we are going for here." Her response is redacted.

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It is tempting to try and ascribe a moral to this story, perhaps about how the Freedom of Information Act is not the powerful tool for open, transparent government it was created to be, or about how difficult it is for interns to receive credit for their work. Or, perhaps, there is no moral to this random blog, and instead it is just another short episode in a long running series that is our lives about a bunch of stuff that happened. Either way, it certainly was memorable.