Come in Spinner: Chutzpah and the nuclear lobby

Anyone imagining that the nuclear industry is reeling in disarray and on the defensive after the Japanese disaster ought to think again.

The nuclear industry, which gives new depth to the concept of chutzpah, will simply be planning the next stage in their long-running campaign to get more power stations in more countries.

Indeed, the industry’s campaign started soon after a previous disaster, the Three Mile Island (TMI) incident.

Before the partially melted core at TMI had cooled, the nuclear industry began planning a long-term campaign to undo the PR damage and make nuclear power more acceptable. Previous campaigns had been a tad less sophisticated. Following the earlier major nuclear accident at the Windscale plant in Cumbria where a fire had caused a large release of radioactive material one of the responses was to get rid of the problem by changing the plant’s name to Sellafield. But now, Robert Pool in Beyond Engineering says, the Nuclear Power Oversight Committee (NPOC) developed a phased plan to do so which involved technological, regulatory and attitudinal elements.

The plan listed 14 ‘building blocks’, or goals, which needed to be met if nuclear power was to be revived. Pool revealed that the NPOC plan also focussed on the “social, political and economic environment for nuclear power” to improve public acceptance of nuclear power. By the mid 1990s the industry believed its time would come again and that: “if nothing else, the threat of global warming may eventually force the US and other countries to burn less coal, oil and gas and look for alternative ways to generate electricity. When that day arrives, the nuclear industry plans to be ready.”

It should be noted that this plan was unfolding while contributors to the NPOC campaign were providing millions of dollars to finance organisations, politicians and scientists who deny the reality of climate change. For instance, Republican Senator, James Inhofe, who has declared climate change to be “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people”, has been a major recipient of campaign donations.

At the same time as the US nuclear industry was planning for a nuclear comeback, lobby groups in Australia and the rest of the world were undertaking similar campaign planning. The Uranium Information Centre was set up in 1978 and became part of the new Australian Uranium Association in 2006. Its purpose was to “increase Australian public understanding of uranium mining and nuclear electricity generation.” The Centre produced email and web weekly digest summaries of material; a bimonthly newsletter; Nuclear Issues Briefing papers; colour information brochures for schools; and, provided information to the media.

There are a host of other groups including the World Nuclear Association in London; the Nuclear Energy Institute in the United States; the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition; and, in the UK the Supporters of Nuclear Energy (SONE), the British Nuclear Energy Society, and the Energy Industries Club.

A number of newspaper articles have discussed how these groups operate. Liz Minchin in The Age “Fission expedition” June 28 2005; Jonathan Leake and Dan Box “When PR goes nuclear” AFR May 27 2005; and, PR Watch also features a number of articles on how the nuclear industries’ PR campaigns work.

Essentially the PR tactics are co-ordinated – not directed – globally, but all the campaigns share similar features, similar messages and similar tactics.

A major one is placing articles in the media. In Australia, many of them are by a prominent scientist, Leslie Kemeny. Sadly his most recent AFR article detailed how safe the Japanese industry was and how well-prepared it was for earthquakes.

A film, Nuclear Nightmares, made by Dox Productions for BBC Television and screened on SBS in January 2007 suggested that Chernobyl’s health impacts were limited.

The campaign also tries to discredit alternative energy sources. This started in the UK when Margaret Thatcher’s former media secretary, Sir Bernard Ingham, fronted major local campaigns opposing wind farm construction. Wendy Frew in The Sydney Morning Herald May 19 2006 investigated the links between Australian anti-wind farm groups known as Landscape Guardians or Coastal Guardians which rely on the tactics Sir Bernard used with his British group Country Guardians. The aid to local communities wanting to stop wind farms was operating simultaneously with the NPOC plan to change the regulations relating to nuclear power siting to make it faster, cheaper, and to avoid interference by local residents and environmental groups when building nuclear plants.

A never-ending campaign element is the promise of the “next generation of reactors” which are promised to be cheaper and safer (a claim the NPOC was making 20 years ago by the way).

All this was consistent with the foundational record of hyperbolic claims. Everyone remembers Lewis Strauss, US Atomic Energy Commission Chairman, 1954 prediction that; “it is not too much to expect that our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter”; and, President Eisenhower’s 1953 UN speech when he said that nuclear power could be “rapidly transformed…(into)…a universal, efficient and economic usage” and promised the world an ‘Atoms for Peace’ program to allow the world to prosper and develop. In their book, The Nuclear Power Deception, Arjun Makhijani and Scott Saleska point out that the very first draft of the Eisenhower UN speech focussed on the destructive nature of atomic and thermonuclear weapons. The speech was re-drafted to balance the parts about nuclear weapons with words which “spoke in glowing terms about the promise of the peaceful atom.”

An interesting expat PR campaign

Expats in Japan are not happy about some of the media coverage of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami. In an interesting PR campaign they have set up a site which outs outlandish news media claims.

Declaration of interest: The author confesses to some self-plagiarism from his recent book, How PR Works, and has undertaken work for mining companies with uranium interests.