Nukespeak: The Selling of Nuclear Technology from the Manhattan Project to Fukushima
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%.
Or consider “key issues,” where the top item, “Protecting the Environment,” states:
Nuclear energy is America’s largest source of clean-air, carbon-free electricity, producing no greenhouse gases or air pollutants. The industry’s commitment to the environment extends to protecting wildlife and their habitats.
No one would deny that the normal operation of nuclear plants produces far less CO2 than any fossil-fueled alternative. But NEi’s bald-faced claim that nuclear energy produces “no greenhouse gases” is not correct, either. like every other industry on the planet, the nuclear industry is responsible for producing large amounts of CO2 because so many parts of the nuclear fuel cycle are based on burning fossil fuels: only a very small portion of the nuclear fuel cycle could, at least in theory, be run exclusively on electricity produced by nuclear plants. Fossil fuels power the mining and milling of uranium ores and fossil fuels power the production of the steel and cement of reactor cores and containment domes. So nuclear energy does produce greenhouse gases, albeit fewer than coal or gas plants.
Apostates Lead the Charge
To put a public face on its greening campaign, the industry has heavily promoted a very small group of environmental apostates, people formerly associated with organizations that strongly opposed nuclear power who now loudly tout the virtues of nuclear energy.
The most prominent of these apostates is Patrick Moore, who served as president of Greenpeace Canada between 1977 and 1986 and was a director of Greenpeace international. in 2006, he became the co-chair of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy), a group whose name gives no hint that it is funded by the Nuclear Energy institute, the industry’s major lobbying arm. Former New Jersey governor and Bush administration EPA head Christine Todd Whitman is the other co-chair. The international PR firm Hill & knowlton had the contract for CASEnergy. On a 2008 Hill & knowlton webpage that is no longer accessible, the firm said that CASEnergy was “a national grassroots organization that advocates the benefits of nuclear energy. The CASEnergy Coalition is a Hill & knowlton campaign run out of the Washington, DC office.”
On its 2011 green-tinted website, CASEnergy describes its mission as being
an important voice in the public dialogue over current and future energy needs, particularly in addressing how nuclear power can contribute to America’s energy security and economic growth.
The CASEnergy Coalition was formed in 2006 to reflect the broadbased and diverse support of nuclear power and is a large national grassroots coalition of allies united across the business, environmental, academic, consumer and labor communities. We believe that nuclear energy can improve energy security, ensure clean air quality, and enhance the quality of life and economic well-being of all Americans. The Coalition is funded by the Nuclear Energy institute.
While this statement falsifies the reason for the organization’s existence (would they really want to say that the CASEnergy Coalition is a pro-nuclear front organization created by the public-relations firm Hill & knowlton under a contract from the Nuclear Energy institute?), the group does at least identify NEi as the funder. But CASEnergy spokespeople such as Patrick Moore do not flaunt their NEi connections, and the press either omits it or fails to ask about such possible conflicts of interest. Here’s an excerpt from a typical column about Moore from the Denver Post in 2008, headlined, “The Greening of Nuclear Power: A founder of Greenpeace has done an about-face on nuclear power, and now says building new plants to help the United States overcome its dependence on foreign oil for its energy needs is the way to go.”
Dr. Patrick Moore, one of the founders of well-known environmentalist group Greenpeace, was once a critic of nuclear power. He now believes that the impact of popular culture and unfounded fears have led to a multitude of misconceptions. “The fact that nuclear technology was first used to make the bomb had a deep psychological impact on the mass mind,” he explains. “Even though i was doing a Ph.D. in science at the time i helped found Greenpeace, i made the same mistake, lumping nuclear energy in with nuclear weapons, when one is destructive and the other beneficial.”
Moore goes on to say that fear is a common public reaction to issues like apocalyptic climate change, genetic modification and chemicals. Or, more specifically, fear of the invisible. “COb [sic], DNA, radiation, and ‘parts per billion’ are all invisible,” he says. “it is fairly easy to make up a story about invisible things because people can’t see for themselves. Nuclear energy is by far the safest of the major energy technologies.”
Greenpeace finally became sufficiently vexed with Moore’s use of its good name that the organization issued a detailed statement on October 10, 2008, that pulled no punches:
While it is true that Patrick Moore was a member of Greenpeace in the 1970s, in 1986 he abruptly turned his back on the very issues he once passionately defended. He claims he “saw the light” but what Moore really saw was an opportunity for financial gain. Since then he has gone from defender of the planet to a paid representative of corporate polluters. . . .
By exploiting his former ties to Greenpeace, Moore portrays himself as a prodigal son who has seen the error of his ways. Unfortunately, the media—especially conservative media—give him a platform for his views, and often do so without mentioning the fact that he is a paid spokesperson for polluting companies.
Some of the other most visible environmental apostates include Dr. James lovelock, author of the Gaia hypothesis that the Earth is a living entity, and Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. in public-relations campaigns, such converts play an insidious role, allowing the industry to substitute these few individuals as stand-ins for the entire environmental movement. Most reporters or editors fail to point out that while a handful of environmentalist may have changed their views on nuclear power, virtually no grassroots environmental groups have become pro–nuclear energy because of its potential role in alleviating global warming.
Follow the Money
Even the best public-relations campaign will only get you so far when it comes to the American nuclear industry’s life blood: federal money. The nuclear industry has spent lavishly on an armada of lobbyists, while not neglecting to hand out millions more in the legalized form of bribery we politely call campaign contributions, and its decades of federal subsidies are worth every penny the industry invested over the years to secure the cooperation of key members of Congress and presidents.
in 2010, American University’s investigative Reporting Workshop published a major report on the nuclear industry’s money blitz, using campaign finance donations and lobbying reports to piece together a highly revealing portrait. led by reporter Judy Pasternak, the group found that between 1999 and the third quarter of 2009, the nuclear industry spent $645 million in lobbying, and almost $63 million in campaign contributions.
Pasternak found a close correlation between bursts of expenditures on lobbying and specific legislative priorities:
in the first half of last year, when Congress was considering whether to add nuclear loan guarantees to the economic stimulus package and was starting to work on the climate change bill, companies and unions interested in nuclear energy spent more than $55.8 million on lobbying, the analysis found.
Legislators who benefitted from the industry’s largesse did not hesitate to abuse the legislative process in an effort to steer yet more federal money to nuclear power. For example, spending in the economic stimulus bill was supposed to go to “shovel-ready” projects in order to reduce unemployment quickly. But that didn’t stop Senator Bob Bennett (R-Utah),
who received $56,000 in nuclear-interest donations from 1999 to 2008, [and] pitched the addition of $50 billion in loan guarantees for the nuclear power industry to the economic stimulus bill. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., allowed it; he chairs the energy appropriations subcommittee and has received $190,000 in industry contributions since 1999, nearly half of that in 2007–2008. Although nuclear power plants starting a multi-year licensing process are hardly “shovel-ready,” “You take the vehicles you can get,” Bennett said in an interview.
Pasternak showed how the industry had used its money to move beyond its traditional base in the Republican Party, adding strategically placed Democrats like House majority whip James Clyburn from South Carolina, a leader in the Congressional Black Caucus and a key ally of Barack Obama. Federal Election Campaign records showed that Clyburn had received
about $195,600 from nuclear energy companies and affiliated unions since 2000, $187,000 of that in the last two election cycles. NEi contributed at least $10,000 to Clyburn’s scholarship foundation, and nuclear interests spent more than $30,000 for two six-day trips for Clyburn and his wife. One was to inspect nuclear facilities in France, and the other in the United kingdom. He also owns stock valued at $15,000 to $50,000 in SCANA Corp., a South Carolina company that has applied to build two reactors.
The environmental community, which strongly supported Obama’s campaign bid, has reacted with dismay at the president’s enthusiastic support for nuclear power. But Obama’s support for nuclear power should not have come as a surprise. illinois has eleven reactors, more than any other state in the country: if it were a country, illinois would rank twelfth in the world in the number of reactors. Exelon, one of the country’s biggest nuclear utilities, is headquartered there, and Exelon money has flowed to Obama since his U.S. Senate race:
The company. . . has funded Obama campaigns since his Senate run, when employees contributed more than $48,000, according to CQ Moneyline, and Exelon’s political action committee gave the maximum of $10,000. Exelon employees gave Obama nearly $210,000 for his presidential campaign, according to CQ Moneyline.
Exelon’s management includes two Obama bundlers who are friends of the president. One, director John W. Rogers, helped direct Obama’s illinois fundraising during his presidential race and helped plan the inauguration. The other, Frank M. Clark, has lobbied on nuclear issues for the company.
Exelon was also financially involved with President Obama’s two top advisers, White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel (elected mayor of Chicago in 2011) and chief campaign strategist David Axelrod:
The merger that created the utility was the biggest deal of Emanuel’s brief but lucrative investment-banking career. Another White House connection is strategist David Axelrod, whom Exelon subsidiary ComEd once hired to create a fake grass-roots organization supporting higher electricity rates.
So in the end, the answer to the mystery of why nuclear power in the United States is still afloat comes down to money. After decades of contributions from the nuclear industry, Congress, often with the enthusiastic support of the president, has enacted a mind-numbing array of subsidies. This circular flow of cash and friendly legislation also frees up enough money to prime the pump of campaign donations and simultaneously run an unending public-relations campaign that floats entirely free of the industry's water-logged finances.