Nuclear Energy Industry: Sooo 20th Century
She's cute, she's wholesome, she's All-American. With scooter, headphones and helmet, she's wired and sooo contemporary. And this highly likeable kid is saying, into her cell phone, that nuclear power is "so important to America's energy future."
Our Summer Greenwash Award goes to the Nuclear Energy Institute, for the ad "Clean Air is Sooo 21st Century."
For choosing an adolescent girl -- someone more susceptible than average to the harmful effects of radiation (and advertising) -- to represent the renewed aspirations of the nuclear energy industry, the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) wins the CorpWatch Summer (Blackout) Greenwash Award.
NEI is no newcomer to greenwash. In 1991, the organization, then known as the US Council for Energy Awareness, ran an ad saying, "Trees aren't the only plants that are good for the atmosphere." That ad pictures a lovely lake, trees and blue skies, co-existing harmoniously with the characteristic dome of a nuke. The copy includes blanket statements like nuclear plants "don't pollute the air," " reduce certain airborne pollutants more 19,000 tons every day," and "produce no greenhouse gases."
In 1999, Public Citizen and Nuclear Information Research Service filed a petition (http://www.citizen.org/cmep/restructuring/ftc.pdf) to the Federal Trade Commission alleging that NEI environmental ads with similar claims were false and misleading. The FTC agreed that the ad was inaccurate, but also ruled that it was political, not commercial speech, and therefore protected.
The 2001 version (21st Century nuclear greenwash) brings in the human factor in the form of the modern girl. It assumes we all agree, including the nuclear industry of course, that clean air is a must. And that plenty of energy is likewise a must. And then comes the great news for the girl: there need be no trade-off between environment and consumerism. Nukes can see to that.
The attempt to rehabilitate the image of nuclear power is understandable, since not a single nuke has been ordered in the US since 1973. To overcome opposition, the industry will have to overcome not only economic obstacles but its own reputation as the quintessentially scary technology. Several recent events have given the industry what they see as an opportunity to make a comeback.
First, the energy shortage in California is causing a certain amount of panic among electricity consumers. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that 59% of Californians now favor additional nuclear power capacity. The previous poll showed Californians opposed nukes 2 to 1. Nuclear's popularity is rising even though the energy shortage is a short-term problem due in large part to price-gouging by energy corporations. Meanwhile, any nuclear plants would take so many years to come on line they would not solve the current problems.
Second, concern about global warming has become more widespread (although it hasn't reached the Bush White House). The production of nuclear power does not produce carbon dioxide, it is true. And certainly, we at the CorpWatch Greenwash Awards are as concerned as anyone about reducing CO2 emissions. But nuclear power is not the most efficient way to do it, and may not help at all.
Energy efficiency and renewables, such as solar and wind, are cheaper than nukes. Each cent spent on a nuclear kilowatt could have bought two kilowatts worth of efficiency. Because of that kind of lost opportunity cost, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, buying nuclear power will actually make climate change worse than if the cheapest renewable options were bought instead. In addition, when you include CO2 generated in the production of nuclear fuel, during mining of uranium for example, nukes emit about 4 times as much as renewable energy sources.
Finally, high energy prices make nuclear's exorbitant price tag a little less steep, relatively speaking. But even The Economist magazine editors, who believe that "on the whole, nuclear power plants (at least in the western world) are today safe and well-run," says the claims of "dramatically improved economics" are "dubious." The Economist asks "why in the world such a mature, well-capitalized industry should receive subsidies," and predicts that "as subsidies are withdrawn, that possibility [of building new nuclear plants] will become ever less likely."
Subsidies are where the industry's parallel strategy of lobbying comes in. No industry worth its uranium 238 would leave it all just to greenwash ads, which are for placating the general public. The real work is in influencing the politicians. And so it was, as the New York Times reported on May 23rd, that seven nuclear executives met in March with George W. Bush's political advisor Karl Rove and Dick Cheney's energy task force director Andrew Lundquist. Just a few days later the Vice President said on CNBC that "if you want to do something about carbon dioxide emissions then you ought to build nuclear power plants..." (This from a man known more for ridiculing proponents of conservation than for concern about climate change.) And voila, nuclear energy appears as part of the mix in the Vice President's energy plan. He even supports the biggest subsidy of all, the Price-Anderson Act, which limits liability in case of nuclear accident.
The industry is ecstatic. Listen to nuclear mogul Christian Poindexter, Chairman of the Constellation Energy Group who attended that meeting with Rove and Lundquist. "In my wildest dreams when I was over at the White House in March, I couldn't imagine them [the White House] getting so behind us."
But perhaps Poindexter and friends should calm down. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl killed nuclear power, but economics will prevent its re-birth. Despite US taxpayer subsidies of over $1 trillion over 50 years, nobody is ordering nukes. Cost overruns average 2-3 times estimates. The Rocky Mountain Institute calls nuclear power the "greatest commercial failure of any enterprise in the industrial history of the world."
Even if nukes could compete economically, what of their affect on our friend in the ad, the wired girl, and on her planet? Children are more susceptible to the effects of radiation than adults, since their cells are still dividing. Furthermore, woman of childbearing age, or girls still developing reproductive capability, bear a second burden: the danger to their future offspring. Somehow that girl doesn't seem anxious to embrace a higher risk of cancer for herself or birth defects for her children.
Even low-level radiation -- the kind routinely permitted for nuclear power plants -- damages tissues, cells, DNA and other vital molecules -- causing programmed cell death (apoptosis), genetic mutations, cancers, leukemia, birth defects, and reproductive, immune and endocrine system disorders. Though there have been no major accidents at US reactors since Three Mile Island, more than 90 percent of the country's reactors have violated government safety regulations during the last three years, according to Public Citizen.
And accidents did not end with Chernobyl. In 1999, two workers were killed by radiation exposure at an experimental fuel-reprocessing plant in Japan. Also in 1999, British Nuclear Fuels was caught falsifying records relating to shipments of spent fuel to Japan. There's still no safe way to dispose of high-level radioactive waste, and the US still hasn't sited a permanent storage facility. The situation in Europe is no better.
The tag line, "Clean air is sooo 21st Century" makes nuclear power seem like the technology of the future. But what kind of industry would continue to generate waste that remains dangerously radioactive for a hundred thousand years? A 20th century industry, of course.
And nuclear power is sooo 20th century.