When all eyes turned to New Orleans, I thought, finally, things will change.
By Diane Farsetta
The nuclear power industry is seeing its fortunes rise. "Seventeen entities developing license applications for up to thirty-one new reactors did not just happen," boasted Frank "Skip" Bowman. "It has been carefully planned."
Bowman, a retired admiral, heads the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the main lobbying group for the industry. His remarks, at a February gathering of more than 100 Wall Street analysts, were part of a presentation on "reasoned expectations for new nuclear plant construction."
Bowman knew it was important to impress his audience of wary potential investors. "We are where we are today because this industry started many years ago on a systematic program to identify what went wrong the last time," he said, "and develop ways to eliminate or manage those risks."
NEI has certainly won bragging rights. Thanks to its persistence, a growing number of commentators and policymakers see nuclear power as the solution to global warming. "Safe, secure, vital," is the mantra of the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York -- the plant closest to a major U.S. population center -- which was recently sanctioned by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for repeatedly missing deadlines to install new emergency warning sirens.
Industry-funded groups with names like the "New Jersey Affordable, Clean, Reliable Energy Coalition" keep springing up near nuclear plants applying for license renewals.
Credulous reporters describe NEI consultant Patrick Moore as a "Greenpeace co-founder," even though he has a longer record of flacking for the logging, mining, biotech, and nuclear industries than his increasingly distant past as an environmental activist.
In what could be considered a double greenwash, General Electric counts its new nuclear reactor design among its "Ecomagination" line of environmentally friendly products.
Such public relations efforts address one thing that "went wrong the last time" -- widespread public opposition to nuclear power. But the so-called nuclear renaissance, which NEI estimates will bring four to eight new nuclear plants online by 2016, also requires generous government support.
Accordingly, NEI has ramped up its already-substantial lobbying operations. In addition to the sixteen NEI employees registered as federal lobbyists, the group currently retains fifteen outside lobbying firms and consultants. Last year, NEI lobbyists visited thirteen federal agencies, as well as both houses of Congress. NEI's lobbying disclosure forms show that the organization helped shape more than twenty bills in 2007, from the Nuclear Fuel Management and Disposal Act to the Tax Technical Corrections Act to the Energy Independence and Security Act. All in all, NEI spent nearly $45 million on industry coordination, policy development, communications, and "governmental affairs" in 2006, according to its most recent financial report.
That doesn't include lobbying by individual companies with a stake in the nuclear power business, such as Entergy, Exelon, or Duke Energy. "We now have a fewer number of companies operating most of the nuclear plants, and so nuclear power for those companies is a core business," NEI's Scott Peterson explained to the trade publication O'Dwyer's. "They have to be much more aggressive in communicating about nuclear energy."
NEI's numbers also don't include utility groups, an important part of the pro-nuclear lobby. On Yucca Mountain, the controversial proposed nuclear waste repository in Nevada, "utilities went to the mayors of the towns where nuclear waste was being stored," explains Anna Aurilio, the director of Environment America's Washington, D.C., office. "And even though it wasn't necessarily the best thing for those towns, the mayors were convinced by the utilities ... to support a bill that overrode a lot of protections for the environment and public health, when it comes to nuclear waste." And NEI's local lobbying got a substantial boost last year, when the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that brings together corporate lobbyists and state legislators, decided to promote state bills on new nuclear power plants and nuclear waste storage and reprocessing.
While nuclear industry lobbying is widespread and aggressive, its impact is not always readily apparent. Take, for example, the Lieberman-Warner climate change bill, which the Senate is expected to debate this summer. The bill -- also known as S.2191, or America's Climate Security Act -- does not mention the word "nuclear" once in its 200-plus pages. Yet an aide to Senator Joe Lieberman called the measure "the most historic incentive for nuclear in the history of the United States," according to Environment & Energy Daily.
One section of the Lieberman-Warner bill says that "25 percent of all the funds deposited into a new climate change worker training fund shall be reserved for zero and low-emitting carbon energy that has a rated capacity of at least 750 megawatts of power," notes Tyson Slocum, the research director of Public Citizen's energy program. "That's a huge threshold, so that's going to exclude wind and solar right off the bat.... The only thing that could possibly meet that target would be nuclear power." Similar language in another section of the bill effectively reserves another half a trillion dollars for the nuclear industry, according to Slocum.
The NEI is also steamrolling the approval process for new nuclear plants. The original process required companies to obtain separate permits to construct and operate new nuclear plants. "At each of those two stages, the public or anybody could intervene, if they met standing requirements and had a valid technical contention, not just some rooted opposition to nuclear power," explains Dave Lochbaum, the director of the Union of Concerned Scientists' nuclear safety program. NEI started pushing to change the new plant approval process in the 1980s.
The current process not only combines plant construction and operating permits, but also seems designed to stymie local opposition. Companies get permission to build a new nuclear plant at a particular site at any point over twenty years, while specific reactor designs are certified separately. "That process eliminates public participation, because the reactor design is being certified, but nobody knows where it will go. It's hard to fight a reactor that may or may not be built in your backyard," says Lochbaum. "The public can watch, but that's about it." Lochbaum adds that citizens have more rights to oppose a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood than they do a nuclear power plant.
As NEI's Skip Bowman assured his Wall Street audience, this is no mistake. Last year, as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was finalizing the new plant approval process, NEI worked hard to ensure that it met industry standards. "We assembled several hundred industry personnel -- the top licensing lawyers and licensing engineers in the United States," Bowman recounted. "They sifted through the proposed rule section by section, sentence by sentence, identifying ambiguities and potential uncertainties, and developing techniques to eliminate them."
As is true for many high-powered interest groups, the revolving door has been kind to NEI. NEI's chief lobbyist, Alex Flint, started his career in the office of Senator Pete Domenici, Republican of New Mexico. In 2000, Flint left Congress to work as a lobbyist. His clients included NEI, Exelon, and other nuclear companies. In 2003, Flint went back to work for Domenici as majority staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Under Flint, the committee helped craft the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which contained $12 billion in subsidies for the nuclear power industry, according to Public Citizen.
When Flint joined NEI in February 2006, his new boss, Skip Bowman, remarked, "Working daily with Senator Peter Domenici, Alex has played a vital role in developing a bold future for nuclear energy in America." One of NEI's current lobbying priorities is to expand the federal loan guarantees for new nuclear plants that were included in the 2005 bill.
Former NRC Commissioner Jeffrey Merrifield championed several measures to hustle the new plant approval process, including a proposal that originated with NEI to narrow the meaning of the word "construction." The new definition allows companies to build roads, start digging, and even erect cooling towers for new nuclear plants without triggering the permitting process. In July 2007, just twelve days after leaving the NRC, Merrifield joined the Shaw Group, a company that describes itself as "a leading force in nuclear new plant design and construction."
Ethics reform legislation may make nuclear industry lobbying slightly less flamboyant. As recently as 2006, NEI sponsored the House Energy and Commerce Committee's softball team, took part in Congressional caucus golf outings, and funded literally hundreds of Congressional "fact-finding" trips to Las Vegas that included tours of Yucca Mountain.
But the reforms haven't impacted NEI's nonstop lobbying, generous political donations, and high-powered policy forums.
"It's hard to imagine an industry that's more brazen in its quest for ever-larger federal subsidies," says Environment America's Anna Aurilio. "They already get their waste completely taken care of, they already get a guaranteed cap on liability in case of an accident.... Any problem that could happen with the nuclear industry, the U.S. taxpayer is ultimately going to have to pick up. And yet, they keep coming back to Congress for more and more and more."
Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's senior researcher.