Nuclear Security: Assessed by the Media

ABC News interns posed as students, trying to gain access to college-based nuclear reactors

All visitors to K-State's reactor must provide identification, submit to a search of their belongings, and leave all purses and bags in the front. Cameras record visitor movements, and guests are never left alone inside the building.

When Patria and Wei showed up at the K-State reactor, the staff had a good idea who the women really were. After other campus reactors reported similarly strange visits, federal authorities had figured out that the visitors were actually undercover reporters. The FBI passed the tip along to K-State.

In hopes of proving their suspicions, reactor employees asked the women to pose for a photograph. To get the shot, Cullens said, he had to resort to his own little deception.

"They were playing the flirt card to get information," he said. "We wanted a picture of them for the FBI, so we flirted back."

At one point, a reactor researcher asked the women what had drawn them to K-State. One of them, Cullens recalled, said her boyfriend lived in Kansas.

"We asked where, and she sort of pointed off to the southwest and said, ‘Over there,' " he said. "We figured there had to be something strange going on."

Ohio State University's reactor was one of the first visited by Wei and Patria. Earle Holland, director of research information, said that the women acted suspiciously and that the staff asked them to leave before the tour ended.

After the women left, the staff called the police, who called the FBI, who called the NRC and Homeland Security.

Because the women had used their real names, it didn't take long for authorities to figure out they were working for ABC.

"I believe in investigative journalism," Holland said. "We're willing to take our lumps when we deserve them. But this was a cheap shot."

University of Kansas journalism professor Ted Frederickson, who studies journalistic ethics, said undercover reporting is a dangerous tool that should be avoided when information can be collected in other ways.

He speculated that a lot of information about reactor security could be found in federal reports.

"When we're supposedly in the truth business, being untruthful hurts," he said.