Public Acceptance Obstacles to Nuclear Resurgence
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Holmes Report

Public Acceptance Obstacles to Nuclear Resurgence

Earlier this month, the Nuclear Energy Institute distributed a request for proposals, inviting public relations firms to pitch for a $8 million assignment to bosler “broad policymaker and decision-maker support for nuclear energy broadly and specifically for the Yucca Mountain project.”

Paul Holmes

Earlier this month, the Nuclear Energy Institute distributed a request for proposals, inviting public relations firms to pitch for a $8 million assignment to bosler “broad policymaker and decision-maker support for nuclear energy broadly and specifically for the Yucca Mountain project,” which would make the Nevada location a repository for much of the nation’s nuclear fuel.

The RFP is indicative of the resurgence of activity in the nuclear realm, 26 years after Three Mile Island and 10 years after the last new nuclear plant was connected to the grid  in the United States. But the mood within the nuclear industry is more optimistic than it has been for at least two decades. The no-longer-deniable threat of global warming and the focus on finding an alternative to the fossil fuels that contribute to climate change have created an opportunity for the nuclear industry, as even a handful of environmentalists acknowledge nuclear energy’s potential benefits.

“Nuclear energy is our nation’s largest source of emission-free electricity and the second largest source of power after coal,” says the RFP, which was drawn up by Scott Peterson, the NEI’s vice president of communications. “As an integral part of the U.S. energy mix, nuclear energy is a secure energy source that is not subject to volatility of fuel price or supply.

“Nuclear plants do not emit greenhouse gases and are a leading clean air tool for meeting the Clean Air Act of emerging voluntary greenhouse gas reduction strategies. Nuclear energy is one of the most ‘eco-efficient’ energy sources because it produces the most electricity in relation to its minimal environmental impact.”

At the same time, the RFP makes it clear that the nuclear industry still faces a massive public image problem. However sound the science behind the nuclear industry’s renewed optimism might be, the general public is still mistrustful. Any new nuclear plants will face massive opposition from activists and almost certainly from local communities.

“The new attitude within the nuclear industry is a result of several things coming together,” says the head of one Washington, D.C., public affairs firm with experience in the industry. “It’s the price of oil and the price of producing clean coal. It’s concern about greenhouse gases. It’s national security. It’s the fact that the last generation of nuclear plants is coming to the end of its life. It’s the fact that today’s plants are cleaner and safer and more advanced.

“But you still have a population out there that still associates nuclear power with Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, that hasn’t really heard from the industry since those incidents, that hasn’t had to think about nuclear power for 30 years. Nobody really knows how they are going to react to a new debate about nuclear power, but nobody believes it is going to be easy.”

And it is impossible to conceive of any new nuclear construction unless the industry can solve the seemingly intractable waste disposal problem.

Congress designated Yucca Mountain as the site for the nation’s repository for used nuclear fuel in 2002 after 20 years of scientific study and the Department of Energy is developing a license application for the repository, which it expects to submit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission next spring. But there has been stubborn resistance to the development of the Yucca Mountain site, most notably from Nevada Governor Kenny Guinn and Senators Harry Reid and John Ensign.

Yucca Mountain opponents have filed more than a dozen legal challenges to the repository. Last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals heard 13 separate cases and rejected all but one, which called on the Environmental Protection Agency to revise its radiation protection standards for the repository. Congress, meanwhile, has failed to appropriate the funds necessary to finance the Department of Energy’s plan for scientific study, repository preparation and transportation planning, even though—as the RFP points out—consumers of electricity generated at existing nuclear power plants pay $750 million to the Nuclear Waste Fund each year specifically for used nuclear fuel management.

“Congressional leaders and the Bush administration have indicated support for comprehensive legislation that can address [these] issues,” says the NEI’s RFP, “including a new repository concept that takes advantage of extended fuel retrievability and monitoring for at least 300 years, Yucca Mountain program management, full program funding, proper treatment of the Nuclear Waste Fund, establishment of a new radiation standard by EPA and potential benefits to the state of Nevada in exchange for hosting the repository.

“The industry supports this approach to comprehensive legislation, but it must be pursued without jeopardizing support for the Yucca Mountain project as currently envisioned.”

Hence the need for a massive public relations effort, one that will include bolstering policymaker and decision-maker support for the industry and the Yucca Mountain project; developing a national coalition that would “activate and expand on” existing nuclear energy supporters, engaging employees, shareholders, academics, health experts, and environmental organizations; “pre-empting and offsetting” criticism from opponents; and developing a structure for a national advocacy campaign, including the appointment of a national executive director.

The NEI’s search for a public relations firm comes just a couple of months after a group of Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository supporters—including public utility commissioners and industry groups—formed a new coalition to urge the federal government to move ahead with development of the site and ensure that Nuclear Waste Fund receipts are spent on the project.

“It’s very apparent that we need to do a grassroots effort,” said Martez Norris, an official at the Nuclear Waste Strategy Coalition, a group of state utility commissioners that is part of the new taskforce.

Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is that in the complex debate about America’s energy choices, some environmentalists are beginning to see nuclear power as a viable alternative to existing fuel sources. “It’s not that something new and important and good had happened with nuclear; it’s that something new and important and bad has happened with climate change,” Stewart Brand, a founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and a convert to the cause of nuclear energy, told The New York Times recently.

Brand’s view is by no means the unanimous position of the green lobby.

“Americans love electricity but hate practically everything that produces or delivers it,” says Ken Kearns, a principal at Kearns & West, a public affairs firm that has expertise in conflict resolution around environmental issues.

In mid-June, he points out, nearly 300 environmental and consumer groups—including the Sierra Club and Greenpeace—sent a letter to Congress opposing nuclear power provisions in a bill about greenhouse gases. But other environmentalists indicated some support for nuclear power. Under the circumstances, the fact that some environmentalists are prepared to take a fresh look at nuclear “is remarkable and significant even if it’s only a handful.”

Environmental groups face a dilemma, he says. After 25 years of pursuing an agenda based on renewable energy sources, they have to face that fact that renewables alone cannot solve the greenhouse gas problem. So they have to answer a question. “Is their goal to take greenhouse gases and other pollutants out of the air, which favors nuclear power over fossil generation, or to continue to oppose nuclear power in favor of conservation and renewables, which can hardly make a dint in the problem. It’s a choice between the practical and the ideal.”

More and more environmentalists appear to be taking the practical view.

Electricity generation is responsible for about a third of the world’s greenhouse gases and according to the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency nuclear power—which provides 16 percent of the world’s electricity—saves roughly 600 million tons of carbon emissions per year, or almost twice the total the Kyoto Protocol treaty is designed to save.

As far as emissions are concerned, nuclear compares favorably with renewable sources of power such as wind and solar, the agency says. The nuclear power chain, from uranium mining to waste disposal and including reactor and construction emits roughly 2 to 6 grams of carbon per kilowatt-hour—about the same as wind and solar power, and two orders of magnitude lower than coal, oil and even natural gas.

“Many environmental groups and their leaders are increasingly focused on improving air quality and addressing the threat of global warming,” says Jim Cunningham, who manages the Entergy account at international public relations agency Burson-Marsteller. “Some of these groups have stated that nuclear should be part of a balanced portfolio of energy options. They also believe more work needs to done in developing other non-polluting sources of energy as well as continuing efforts to improve our efficient use of energy sources.”

Cunningham also believes that public opinion has mellowed, and that there is now “noticeable support for nuclear power. While issues such as safe operations and assurance of adequate security continue to concern the public at large, nuclear power over the past 40 years in the U.S. has demonstrated a solid track record of safe and reliable operations. Most surveys over the past 15 years have shown a core support of approximately 40 percent.  Recently that number has grown to a level of public support that exceeds 70 percent.”

Particularly encouraging is the fact that support for nuclear power increases with proximity to nuclear plants, and thus with familiarity with the industry’s safety practices. “Many areas that have lived with nuclear power plants now for 25-plus years are very comfortable with them as neighbors,” says Kearns. “Some of these localities would be very supportive of new plants added at existing sites because of added benefits—the tax base, employment—they would bring.”

But even some people who work with the nuclear industry are skeptical about its polling data.

“The questions tend to be very vague, designed to elicit the highest degree of support, so they ask whether people would be willing to consider nuclear as part of the nation’s energy mix, at some point in the future,” says one public affairs executive familiar with the issue. “But when the media ask whether people want America to start building new nuclear power plants, support is much lower.”

And a wild card in the debate is post-9/11 concern about terrorism. A recent issue of PR Watch, an industry watchdog newsletter, focused on the risk of a terrorist attack at the Indian Point nuclear reactor, operated by Entergy and located just 35 miles north of midtown Manhattan.

“A terrorist attack on either of Indian Point’s two reactors or their spent fuel pools, or a large-scale accident, could render much of the tri-state area uninhabitable and indefinitely contaminate the watershed that supplies drinking water to nine million people in the region,” says Lisa Rainwater van Suntum of activist group Riverkeeper. “That the plant sits atop an active fault line, daily destroys significant amounts of Hudson River aquatic life and has abysmal security, operations and safety records only compounds the arguments for closure.”

Says a public affairs executive close to the debate, “No one has really asked people who they feel about nuclear plants in relation to terrorism. Do they see plants as potential targets, as vulnerable to attack? Do they increase security, by reducing our dependence on foreign oil, or do they decrease our security by presenting a target for attacks?”

The current U.S. administration is considerably more supportive of nuclear than most of its recent predecessors, precisely because of the security implications. President George W. Bush has said he wants a new nuclear power station to be operating by 2010 and has made it clear that he sees the development of nuclear power as a national security issue—a way of reducing American dependence on oil. Kyle McSlarrow, deputy energy secretary, recently told a Senate committee, “This dependency on a single fuel type for generation represents a potential vulnerability in our energy security. Nuclear power should be a key part of the US generating portfolio.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Authority has a new permits program in place, designed to make it easier for companies to win construction and operating licenses, and the U.S. government has promised financial aid of up to $300 million to encourage developers to test the regime. So far, three major U.S. utilities have applied for early site permits for new reactors: Dominion in Virginia; Entergy in Mississippi; and Exelon in Illinois. And two large consortia—including utilities, reactor makers and construction companies—have applied for construction and licensing permits.

 “Now is a great time to be in the nuclear energy field,” says Akira Thomas Tokuhiro, a University of Missouri-Rolla assistant professor and expert on nuclear energy. “I think the next wave of nuclear plant designs is about to happen. If the current energy bill passes, I’m hearing there will be three orders for three nuclear plants. The industry is getting primed and started again.”

But Thomas Capp, chief executive of Dominion, says his company has no intention of actually building a plant. He told an energy conference in May, “If you announced you were going to build a new nuclear plant, Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s would assuredly drop your bonds to junk status… In my opinion no company in our industry is large enough to take on this risk.”

The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the tragic accident at Chernobyl in the Ukraine in 1986 led to much stricter regulations in which added safety measures along with increased layers of pre-regulatory review multiplied the cost of construction by a factor of five or six. According to Ken Silverstein, editor-in-chief of the influential industry newsletter EnergyBiz Insider, the cost of building a nuclear facility in the days before Three Mile Island totaled about $1 billion. After the incident, costs rose to about $6 billion.

When Long Island Lighting began work on the Shoreham nuclear plant in 1965, the estimated cost was around $75 million. Twenty years of legal battles and local opposition increased the final price tag to almost $6 billion. And after local authorities rejected evacuation plans, the plant has failed to generate even a single kilowatt of energy.

A major challenge is the fact that nuclear stations can take up to 15 years to build, and almost as long again to start repaying their financial and carbon investments. In the end, the economic issues may be more daunting than the public relations challenges.

“The simple solution is that renewables and energy conservation can deliver the cuts immediately,” says a Greenpeace spokesman. “To start a new nuclear program would divert political will and money away from renewables. The money that would have to be spent developing a new generation of nuclear stations could massively stimulate renewables.”

Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain Institute, an energy consultancy that has advised governments and companies, says cost is likely to be insurmountable obstacle to any new nuclear development.
“Capital is finite,” says the Institute. “Each dollar invested in electric efficiency displaces nearly seven times as much carbon dioxide as a dollar invested in nuclear power, without any nasty side effects. If climate change is the problem, nuclear power isn’t the solution. It’s an expensive technology that diverts money and time from cheaper, safer, more resilient alternatives.”

Another  problem is that the industry has been on the back foot for more than 20 years, defending itself against critics who used the emotive imagery of Chernobyl—despite significant design differences between the Soviet plant and nuclear facilities in the U.S.—and Three Mile Island to convince policymakers and the public that nuclear power was too risky.

“Despite this difficult climate, the owners of nuclear plants did actively communicate with residents and public officials in the area of their plants,” says Cunningham. “Most importantly plants demonstrated their commitment to safe and secure operations.”

On a national scale, Cunningham says, the industry did little to promote the technology through broadcast advertising. That low key approach made sense “because advertising in this climate would not resonate properly with target audiences.” But the industry has been proactive in public relations terms. “These efforts enabled the industry to gain the confidence of key policymakers by improving awareness of the benefits of nuclear power,” Cunningham says. “This effort, while not as noticeable as a paid broadcast advertising campaign, maintained a solid base of public support during difficult times.”

And waste disposal remains a major obstacle. Says William Magwood, nuclear director at the U.S. Department of Energy, “Unless the utilities see the resolution of the issue with spent fuel, it will be difficult for them to proceed with new projects.”

Still, NEI’s Peterson believes the industry has a good story to tell on waste disposal. “The environmental policies and practices at nuclear power plants are unique in having successfully prevented harmful impacts on the environment since the start of the commercial nuclear industry five decades ago. As a result, the nuclear energy industry is the only industry established since the industrial revolution that has managed and accounted for virtually all of its by-product material. Throughout the nuclear fuel cycle, the small volumes of nuclear by-products created are carefully contained, packaged and safely stored.”

They key for the industry, according to Cunningham, is to improve public’s understanding of the benefits of nuclear power and improve the public’s understanding of the industry’s track record of safe operations. At the same time, nuclear companies should “create a public environment that promotes and rewards responsible leadership and exposes actions motivated by political expediency.”

In other words, the industry wants to create an environment in which politicians are rewarded for looking at the fact rather than pandering to people’s fears. “This latter point will be the most difficult to achieve,” Cunningham acknowledges.

In June, at the American Nuclear Society’s annual weeklong conference in San Diego, there was much discussion of the best way to earn public acceptance for new nuclear construction. A former Sierra Club activist turned nuclear proponent, Ruth Weiner, advised her colleagues to forge alliance with credible scientists and academics, while Todd Flowers, a nuclear safety analyst with Dominion Generation in Richmond said he and other employees had staged a counter-rally to support a nuclear projects. Opponents were stunned, he said. “It really took them back. They didn’t know how to handle it—passionate young people showing up for the issue.”

The opposition, according to Andy Karam, professor of naval nuclear power at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, includes both those who are implacably opposed to nuclear power under any circumstances and those who are open to reason. Karam believes the nuclear industry has a compelling story to tell and one that includes an abundance of raw material, zero emissions and an impeccable safety record over the last 25 years.

“The hurdles to be crossed are political and social,” he says.

Nuclear groups need to forge alliances with moderate environmentalists, and allow them to tell its story. Former opponents are likely to be far more credible than industry insiders.

The major challenge, says Kearns, is to make the environmental choice—between continued global warming and nuclear energy—clear and compelling. “A communications opportunity is to build bridges and partnerships with environmental leaders to develop practical energy strategies that simultaneously couple the need for improving the environment with the realities of supplying electricity.”

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