By Donella Meadows
–June 11, 1987–
You’ve seen the ad. An elongated cartoon man in green holds a candle and faces imposing stacks of OPEC oil barrels. The headline reads, “Nuclear energy helps keep us from reliving a nightmare.”
Ads like this show up regularly in major publications and on television. They come from the U.S. Committee for Energy Awareness (USCEA) — “Information about energy America can count on.”
Is it the energy or the information America can count on? Neither, it turns out.
The USCEA is a coalition of suppliers, financers, and users of nuclear power, including Westinghouse, Bechtel, General Electric, and many utilities. Its purpose is not to inform Americans about energy options but “to assure that nuclear power plants now in operation are allowed to remain in operation” and “to assure that nuclear plants now under construction are allowed to go into operation.”
The information put out by USCEA is decidedly slippery. Here, for example, is a close look at that USCEA ad with the little green man and the OPEC oil barrels.
The ad starts out:
“The 1973 Arab oil crisis is a haunting reminder of the darker side of foreign oil dependence. Since then, America has turned more to electricity from nuclear energy and coal to help restore our energy security.”
Only 4% of the electricity generated in the U.S. in 1985 came from oil in 1985– and only 0.2% from Middle Eastern oil. Electricity is simply not vulnerable to Arab oil embargoes.
Here and throughout the ad there is a deliberate confusion between oil and electricity. Nuclear power provides only electricity. It cannot replace many uses for oil — it can’t run vehicles, for instance, at least not vehicles like the ones we have now. But watch the repeated logical slips between oil and electricity throughout this ad. There’s one in the very next sentence:
“As a result, these (nuclear and coal) are now our leading sources of electricity and a strong defense against an increasing oil dependence that again threatens America’s energy security.”
Nuclear and coal are indeed the two leading sources of electricity, but nuclear has reached second place only recently and just barely. Here are the generation figures for 1985:
coal — 1400 billion kilowatt-hours (57% of the total) nuclear — 384 billion kilowatt-hours (15%) natural gas — 291 billion kilowatt-hours (12%) hydropower — 281 billion kilowatt-hours (11%)
The ad misleadingly puts nuclear in the same class as coal.
Nuclear currently supplies just 5% of total U.S. primary energy, about half as much as solar, wood and other renewable energy sources (and it receives 34% of federal energy subsidies).
“America imported four million barrels of oil a day in 1985. Last year that increased by another 800,000 barrels a day. Most of these new barrels come directly from OPEC.”
The U.S. currently imports about one-third of the oil it uses, mostly from its neighbors Mexico and Canada. The fraction of U.S. oil coming from Arab OPEC countries has recently risen from 4% to 7%. But how did the subject come back to oil? Oil is not electricity, remember?
“U.S. Interior Secretary Donald Hodel recently warned that ‘OPEC is most assuredly getting back into the driver’s seat’ and our increasing dependence will be ‘detrimental to the country’s economic and national security and its financial well-being.'”
The surest and cheapest way to keep OPEC out of the driver’s seat, would be to create decent mass-transit systems, raise efficiency standards for automobiles, and insulate our houses. We could pay for these measures many times over with the $50 billion per year we spend trying to defend the Persian Gulf.
“America’s electric utilities have helped diminish OPEC’s impact. Today, over 100 nuclear plants make nuclear energy our second largest electricity source, behind coal.”
Since 1978 America’s utilities have ordered no new nuclear plants and have cancelled 75 plants on order. They have done so because nuclear plants are expensive, hard to manage, and slow to construct, and because there is still no safe way to dispose of their wastes.
“And nuclear energy has helped cut foreign oil demand. It’s saved America over two billion barrels of oil since 1973, and our nuclear plants continue to cut oil use.”
Since 1973 energy conservation measures have saved five times more oil than has coal, and ten times more oil than has nuclear.
“Nuclear energy and coal can’t offer us guarantees against another oil crisis.”
“But the more we hear about the return of OPEC dominance, the more we need to remember the critical role played by electricity from coal and nuclear energy in fueling America’s economy and protecting our future.”
Notice how coal sneaks into that sentence in an attempt to make it factual? And notice that USCEA never mentions in this entire ad about energy security the fact that 50% of the uranium used in nuclear power plants is imported.
USCEA spends about $17 million a year to put out information like this, full of loose wording and statistical sleight-of-hand. It does so as a non-profit organization, subsidized by taxpayers. Under the guise of informing us about energy, it is selling us nuclear power.
And the nuclear industry wonders why it has trouble with public credibility.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1987