By Donella Meadows
–June 18, 1987–
The following message was brought to you by the U.S. Committee for Energy Awareness (USCEA) — for awhile. Then ABC and NBC decided to stop airing it until USCEA answered complaints about its inaccuracies.
“Almost a billion dollars every week.”
Thunk! A huge money bag drops onto a desert landscape.
“That’s how much America spends on foreign oil. Just about a billion dollars every week.”
Thunk! Another money bag drops.
“To help control the cost of energy imports, we use energy efficiently, and we use our country’s own energy resources, like electricity from coal and nuclear energy.” (A light bulb labeled COAL and NUCLEAR turns into a balloon and lifts off.)
“Coal and nuclear energy are made in America. Coal and nuclear energy are home-grown.” (Music fade-out.)
What inaccuracies? Well, for one, nuclear and coal, which produce electricity, are not substitutes for oil, which primarily powers vehicles. For another, nuclear energy is not exactly home-grown. Nearly 50% of the uranium that fuels our nuclear power plants is imported.
The complaints about the ad were filed by the Safe Energy Communication Council (SECC), an organization founded by several environmental groups to rebut the distortions of USCEA.
The struggle between SECC and USCEA is a classic David-and-Goliath confrontation. The annual budget of USCEA is $17 million. The annual budget of SECC is $120,000, less than half of what USCEA pays its president, Harold B. Finger ($308,145 for salary and benefits in 1985).
USCEA’s money comes from nuclear equipment suppliers — Westinghouse, Bechtel, General Electric — and from a host of power companies — among them Consolidated Edison of New York, Arizona Public Service Company, Commonwealth Edison, Boston Edison. Other members are the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, mining companies such as the Rocky Mountain Energy Company (coal and uranium), and financial organizations that have made loans to the nuclear industry, such as Morgan Stanley and Kidder, Peabody.
SECC managed to raise a flap in Congress about whether any of USCEA’s funds come from utility ratepayers (which would violate a federal requirement that electricity users not be billed for their own brainwashing.) Since USCEA keeps its financing secret, its funds cannot be traced directly to ratepayers, but after the question was raised more than 60 utilities dropped their USCEA membership.
Before that happened, here were some of the contributions made to USCEA (in 1984):
Carolina Power and Light $880,004 Pacific Gas and Electric $792,126 Baltimore Gas and Electric $564,569 Arkansas Power and Light $518,899 Public Service Company of New Hampshire $283,534
USCEA promotes nuclear power not only with TV spots, but with print ads, speaker’s tours, press conferences, and op-ed columns. In states being considered for nuclear waste repositories it provides speakers and newsletters in favor of the waste sites. And USCEA monitors public opinion about nuclear power, to find out how well it’s doing.
In these post-Biblical days Davids don’t win all the battles. After the Chernobyl accident USCEA put out an ad blitz claiming that the Chernobyl reactor did not have a containment structure as all American reactors do, and that the U.S. industry “used the Three Mile Island experience to enhance the safety of all U.S. plants”. SECC countered by pointing out that Chernobyl did have a containment vessel, that some U.S. plants do and some don’t, and that eight reactors of the same design as the one at TMI are still operating without safety modifications ordered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
Polls show that most Americans ended up believing that Russian reactors are inherently inferior to U.S. ones and that a Chernobyl couldn’t happen here. USCEA won that one.
Maybe over the long run it will win them all, but I doubt it. I think that as long as the press is free, a Goliath that uses misleading language, that draws a veil of secrecy over its budgets, and that represents a cause that profits a few at the expense of the many can’t prevail over an honest David. Even with a 100 to 1 funding advantage.
Speaking of Davids, back in 1975 the Atomic Industrial Forum invited David Comey of Friends of the Earth, a foe of nuclear power, to tell the nuclear industry how it could be more credible to the public. Comey gave them the obvious answer. To become credible you must tell the truth. For example, he said:
“Admit that low-level radiation can cause cancer and long-term genetic effects.”
“Confess that important safety research on light-water reactors has never been done, and that some has been done improperly.”
“Reveal all the costs of nuclear-generated electricity, both present and into the future.”
“Tell the public why you have not been able to reprocess spent fuel, and what impact the lack of sufficient storage pools may have.”
“Talk about the ethics of consuming electricity from fission reactors for 50 years and saddling 20,000 future generations with the social and environmental problems of caring for the radioactive wastes.”
Comey ended his speech by asserting his confidence that the nuclear industry would never follow his advice, would never tell the truth, and would never be credible.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987