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Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima

In the end, the answer to the mystery of why nuclear power in the United States is still afloat comes down to money.

Editor's note: The following is an excerpt from "Nukespeak: the selling of nuclear technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima" by Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C. Bell and Rory O'Connor. Check out more about Nukespeak and buy the book here. 

 Global Warming Opens a Door

None of the nuclear industry’s public relations campaigns during the 1980s were able to wrest the industry from the quagmire of the Dark Age. Just when the accident at Three Mile island was finally beginning to fade into the past, along came the 1986 meltdown of the Russian reactor at Chernobyl. 

The imagery from Chernobyl was far more horrifying than anything from Three Mile island. All in all, the images brought back all of the fears  unleashed with the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the events that  cast such a pall over the early development of nuclear power. 

But in 1988, a flicker of hope appeared, when the issue of fossil-fuel driven climate change jumped onto the public agenda with the dramatic  Senate testimony from climate scientist James Hansen to the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on June 23, 1988. 

For proponents of nuclear power, the growing alarm in the scientific  community about climate change and global warming provided an unexpected and unprecedented opportunity to reframe the virtues of nuclear  power. A nuclear physics degree wasn’t needed to understand that the operation of a nuclear plant did not produce the vast quantities of carbon dioxide  that poured out of the stacks of coal plants.

The summer of 1988 happened to be one of record heat, and by December, another nuclear-promoting group with a Nukespeak name, the U.S.  Council for Energy Awareness (which was originally founded as the U.S.  Committee for Energy Awareness, mentioned above), was touting a new  study on the role nuclear power could play in reducing coal emissions.

The study proposed building many more nuclear plants. And while some  scientists called for replacing coal-fired plants with plants burning natural gas,  USCEA proposed leaving natural gas out of the electricity picture altogether,  saying that we should reserve it for home use. USCEA focused on using  market research to create pro-nuclear advertising. in an article in the international Atomic Energy Association’s newsletter, USCEA’s vice president for  advertising and the vice president for program and evaluation explained how  effective their mid-1980s ads to promote nuclear power had been:

The advertising has also created a reservoir of support in difficult times. For  example, research surveying the same people before and after Chernobyl  found that those who remembered seeing USCEA’s pre-Chernobyl advertising were much less affected by the accident than others who had not  been so informed. 

Since 1988, the nuclear industry has wrapped itself tightly in its “green”  mantle, as you can see at a glance at the website of the industry’s major  trade association, the Nuclear Energy institute (NEi). The organization was  formed in 1994 by merging the Nuclear Utility Management and Resources  Council (NUMARC), the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness (USCEA),  the American Nuclear Energy Council (ANEC), and the nuclear division of  the Edison Electric institute (EEi). 

NEi’s home page is a symphony of greens: click on the horizontal navigation bar, and the box turns from a grayish blue to a light olive green. Every  page has a prominent light-green vertical navigation bar. On the “Nuclear  Power and Climate Change” page, the central graphic is a sheaf of green  plants in the foreground, waving against a blue sky dotted with clouds. 

in 2011, the NEi website was full of material related to nuclear energy  and global warming, starting with a front-page link to a spreadsheet that was  entitled “ Emissions Avoided by the U.S. Nuclear industry 1995–2009.”  On  a “Clean Air” page, a graphic, “Sources of Emissions-Free Electricity 2009,”  shows solar, wind, and geothermal at 7.5%, hydro at 23.2%, and nuclear at  69.3%.