When Recycling Isn't: Lessons from a Nuclear Industry Conference

Sign displayed at the NEI conferenceI learned many things at the Nuclear Energy Institute's (NEI's) annual meeting, but perhaps none more surprising than this: When nuclear power executives discuss the state of their industry, they highlight many of the same issues as their environmentalist opponents.

Of course, the emphasis and even the language are different. But presenters at the "Nuclear Energy Assembly," held in Chicago from May 5 to 7, discussed financing for new nuclear plants, nuclear waste storage and nuclear weapons proliferation concerns.

Nuclear power opponents argue that the industry shouldn't expect or need government support, some fifty years into its existence. In a hotel conference room populated mostly with gray-suited older white men, industry executives repeatedly called for an expansion of federal loan guarantees for new nuclear plants.

Early on in the conference, NEI president and CEO Frank L. "Skip" Bowman said, "We use loan guarantees in this country to support ship building, steel making, student loans, rural electrification, affordable housing, construction of critical transportation infrastructure, and for many other purposes. Please don't tell me that America's electric infrastructure is any less important." He added, "I wish someone would tell me when the word 'subsidy' became a slur, a four-letter word. ... What is there of value in American life that is not subsidized, to some extent?"

Nuclear power opponents argue that the radioactive waste generated raises serious environmental, health and safety issues, and the United States still hasn't figured out how to handle the waste from existing plants. At the NEI meeting, there was no "waste," only "spent fuel." And the answer to the storage issue is "recycling" -- not reprocessing -- spent fuel to obtain material that can again be used to fuel reactors.

"You still have a challenge of what to do with used fuel," admitted Craig T. Smith, a principal at the polling firm Penn, Schoen & Berland. "Recycling is a message that resonates with people. ... From a messaging perspective, it resonates with audiences that don't necessarily support, or are somewhat agnostic, with nuclear power."

Furthering the CASE

For me, Smith's talk was easily the highlight of the conference. His firm (which was co-founded by Hillary Clinton's campaign pollster, Mark Penn) has worked for nuclear industry for "several years," to "shape the image of nuclear power in the public policy marketplace," as Smith described it.

"Many of you may have heard of our firm because of the political work we do -- Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, [Silvio] Berlusconi, Michael Bloomberg," Smith explained at the beginning of his presentation. "But actually, 80 percent of the work we do is for corporations, and help position them ... not their products, but their image, their ideas, and what they're trying to do."

For the nuclear industry, much of that positioning has been accomplished via the "Clean and Safe Energy Coalition," or CASEnergy. That's the NEI-funded front group chaired by Greenpeace activist turned industry consultant Patrick Moore and former U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chair turned industry consultant Christine Todd Whitman. As the Center for Media and Democracy has reported, journalists are all too willing to accept Moore's and Whitman's self-description as environmentalists who just happen to support nuclear power, without asking or disclosing to news audiences who signs their paychecks.

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Craig Smith addresses the audienceWhile Hill & Knowlton handles the PR work for NEI / CASEnergy, the polling is done by Penn, Schoen & Berland. "Part of what I do is I work with an organization called CASEnergy," Smith said. "What we have done at CASEnergy is we've gone out and recruited opinion leaders around the country, who are supportive of nuclear power and ready to talk to people about that, to write letters to the editor. ... CASE goes to [nuclear plant] relicensing hearings, and ... provides a presence there. We have materials that we get out. We've done a lot of work in Illinois and Michigan and Florida and Iowa and New Hampshire, and we're going to be working in some additional states as we try to raise the public profile of nuclear power."

Smith patted himself and NEI / CASEnergy on the back, for successfully "positioning" nuclear power as an energy source that doesn't significantly contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Future CASEnergy talking points will focus on the benefits of used fuel "recycling" and the jobs created by building new nuclear power plants, he said.

Another Patrick Moore?

Craig Smith identified various groups who "need some additional convincing" about the benefits of nuclear power. These include women, people of color, young people, health care providers, environmentalists, people who live in cities and those who live in the Midwest.

Not surprisingly, these are the groups that CASEnergy is now focusing on winning over. While he didn't speak at the conference, Patrick Moore was in Chicago during the event, meeting with the editorial board of the respected African-American newspaper the Chicago Defender.

The speaker following Smith, Gwyneth Cravens, meets some of the nuclear industry's desired outreach demographics. She identifies as an environmentalist and former opponent of nuclear power, a mother, an organic gardener and a yoga enthusiast. She credits an acquaintance who worked on nuclear risk assessment issues with her gradual conversion into a supporter of nuclear energy, a process detailed in her book "Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy."

Is Cravens following in Patrick Moore's and Christie Whitman's footsteps? Only time will tell. If that's the plan, Cravens needs a little more PR coaching. Her stated commitment to environmentalism and her exhortations to avoid an "us versus them" mentality rang a little hollow, when -- during the same speech -- she referred to environmentalists as "anti's" and "tree huggers."

Much of the rhetoric at the NEI conference was similar; it sounded good, until you listened more closely. To the industry executives gathered, issues like nuclear waste and the considerable price tag of and lack of private investment in new plants are challenges, not to be overcome so much as "repositioned" with poll-driven spin and managed via state and federal lobbying campaigns. This approach has been disturbingly successful to date. With not just our energy policy but also our environmental well-being on the line, hopefully legislators and journalists will start listening more closely and asking more questions.

Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's senior researcher.


Renewable energy advocates beware -- the nuclear industry is poised to shove its way to the front of the line, and eat your lunch! The industry and its new mouthpiece John McCain are asking for hundreds of billions in Federal loan guarantees and other subsidies. Nuclear power is so costly its advocates admit no nuclear power plants can be built without Federal backing. Contrast this to a robust renewable energy industry backed by billions in private venture capital, with no Federal guarantees. McCain got it right calling for a free market based "Cap and Trade" plan for carbon emissions. If you cap the carbon emissions from utilities, the utilities will find the most cost-effective means to meet the mandate. If nuclear power can prove it is competitive with other options such as conservation, wind, and solar, then it may get some of those contracts. The nuclear industry is not content to compete on a level playing field, however. The proposed subsidies for nuclear would exceed Federal help to all other energy sources combined. Sounds like Energy Pork all over again. Round One was the corn ethanol lobby. Now we have Round Two -- the nuclear lobby. Lets cut the pork and let the economy decide the best way to meet the emissions caps, with everybody competing on a level basis. See my detailed article at The Public Record at: http://www.pubrecord.org/index.php?view=article&catid=8%3Acommentary&id=149%3Anuclear-not-only-way-to-generate-a-kwh-&option=com_content&Itemid=11 Craig Severance, CPA, is co-author of "The Economics of Nuclear and Coal Power" (Praeger, 1976)

I have some mixed emotions on the issue of subsidies for any energy industry. As a libertarian leaning individual who has been working for a decade and a half to get a nuclear energy company off of the ground, I would love to play on a level playing field where there were NO subsidies, mandates or special fees. Unfortunately, the energy business is one with plenty of vested interests who have been playing the political game for a very long time. They have successfully erected many barriers to fair competition. It is grimly amusing to me that the officially sanctioned "renewable" energy industry includes such dirty technologies as waste-to-energy incinerators and paper company wood chip boilers. It is also amazing that the government provides "renewable" energy subsidies to such companies as GE (the largest US manufacturer of wind turbines), BP (one of the world's largest solar panel producers), and the infamous ADM (one of the world's largest agribusinesses). What many people do not understand about the challenges that nuclear power project developers face in terms of obtaining private financing is that VCs and investment bankers are discouraged by the very long and unpredictable lead times (4-7 years for a license approval) and the need to pay large and uncontrollable fees to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for license applications and reviews. The NRC is required by law - courtesy of the Reagan Administration - to collect essentially all of its costs from fees on the industry that it regulates. The current fee structure for new license applications includes a $250,000 initial fee and an hourly charge of $258 per hour for every billable staff hour. Imagine daily or weekly review meetings with 10-20 NRC employees around the table for a couple of hours. The cost estimate for a single license is currently between $60 and $120 million with no firm rules on what is acceptable and what is not. That is a range that is difficult to stomach for an investor who would like just a bit more certainty. Since my company's technology is a bit different from what the US regulators are used to seeing, we have the added challenge of paying fees to the US Government to teach their employees how to understand the differences between our gas cooled reactors (proven and tested in Germany and China and under development in South Africa) and the water cooled reactors that have been the primary power producers in the US nuclear industry. We expect that our fees will fall to the high end of the range and our review schedule would probably be more like 7-10 years under current rules. In contrast, there is NO federal license review for a coal or natural gas fired power plant. I know that the vast uncertainty in cost and schedule for initial start-up are THE issues for our potential investors. I have made the presentations to enough different groups to realize that they are the currently difficult-to-answer parts of our business plan. When potential investors have heard our plans for smaller, simpler plants, our plans for series production to enable quality and cost controls and our ability to produce power without any greenhouse gas emissions using a fuel that costs about 5% of the cost of oil, they get extremely interested. So far, however, we have not been able to overcome the acceptance barriers caused by regulatory financial uncertainty and cost hurdles that the establishment has erected to discourage the competition that innovators represent. Therefore, if the NEI is successful in helping congressional leadership to recognize that nuclear power has a role to play in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and our production of greenhouse gas emissions, we will gladly modify our presentations and spreadsheets to show the benefits of provisions like project loan guarantees and carbon taxes - which would be preferable to "cap and trade" provisions that reward long time polluters. It is time to add some additional points of view to the nuclear energy debate. The people who support nuclear fission as a fossil fuel combustion competitor are not all from big companies. We are not the bogeyman; we do not want to despoil the earth for private gain; we are not trying to sell a failed technology. Please think about the people and organizations that benefit by discouraging nuclear power plants that have proven that they can reduce the need to burn coal, oil and natural gas in electrical power plants and oil on board ships. If you think about the impact to fossil fuel profitability if there really is a viable alternative, you might recognize that accepting nuclear power is a progressive position that could make a huge difference in the world's general prosperity and fair distribution of resources. Rod Adams Editor, Atomic Insights Host, The Atomic Show Podcast Founder, Adams Atomic Engines, Inc.

While I'm responding to other comments here, I wanted to thank you, Rod, for adding your perspective. No one is trying to make bogeymen out of anyone, and I agree that the way in which federal energy subsidies (like farm subsidies) are allocated is often illogical. I also agree that there are problems with continuing to rely on coal and natural gas for electricity. And I understand that potential investors in nuclear power are scared off by the long and uncertain lead times for new plants -- as well as the industry's tendency (historically in the U.S. and currently around the world) to have nuclear plant construction projects go significantly over budget and over time. As we have [:node/7506|noted], the NRC has responded to such concerns by streamlining the new plant licensing process -- unfortunately in ways that reduce opportunities for public input. At the same time, I think that nuclear power plants raise specific issues -- waste storage, safety and environmental, not to mention changing reactor designs and a current shortage of skilled labor experienced in building new plants -- that warrant a rigorous oversight process.

Your article on the NEI conference is so full of willful misunderstandings and misinformation I almost don't know where to start. I can't cover the whole gamut but will here offer a few really obvious bloopers that a little bit of background research might have kept out of your story. --No one is trying to whitewash anything by using the term "spent fuel". There is a difference between spent fuel and nuclear waste. Utility execs would be expected to talk about the material they deal with all the time--unburned nuclear fuel that emerges from the fuel assemblies of their nuclear power plants--and not the other kinds of nuclear and radioactive waste out there. You might want to look up the different classes of radioactive waste before you accuse someone of trying to cover something up by using a specific term. --The Department of Energy loan guarantee program does not subsidize nuclear power generation. New and innovative energy technologies of all kinds, including the so-called renewable sources, apply for and receive loan guarantees from the Department of Energy from the same program. But no other industry applying for these loan guarantees is accused of seeking subsidies. That may be because the program in reality is not a subsidy. Antinuclear lobbyists commonly spread that misinformation around in their public communications. --Recycling spent fuel, i.e., the generation of new fuel out of spent fuel, is a very real technology that has been used without mishap in Europe for decades. It is actually not the same as reprocessing, but is the second part of the reprocessing technology. In other words, it is a more specific term. We do not have that technology here in the U.S. because of the irrational policies the U.S. adopted on nuclear in the late 1970s. So we have a major technology gap to overcome. Overcoming that gap in development is the "challenge" the gentleman you quoted was referring to. He was not saying that spent fuel is somehow unusable, or that recycling does not really exist. What's more, contrary to your misguided reporting, it is legitimate and not an obfuscation or lie to use the specific term "recycle" in discussing the use of spent fuel in public communications. There is nothing wrong with using a term that is an accurate description of the technology. BTW, I notice you did not touch on the fact that new reactor technology is far more efficient in burning fuel, thereby producing far less waste than the current generation of reactors, but if all you read about the subject is what antinuclear groups put out, you probably don't know that. Antinuclear activists never mention this aspect of modern nuclear technology. I don't know if it's pure ignorance on their part or whether they know and simply suppress it. Maybe you can turn your skeptical eye on their misinformation campaigns. They have based so much of their funding campaigns on antinuclear propaganda that they cannot change now, even in the face of the climate emergency that is upon us. --Regarding Gwyneth Cravens, you write as if NEI covertly recruited her as a nuclear advocate because she fits some kind of demographic. Isn't that shortchanging her motives and intellect just a little bit? Have you read what she has written about her process of investigation and research? Do you think she has been the least bit dishonest or less than candid about what she learned? Instead you chose to focus on her use of terms about the opponents of nuclear energy, like "antis", which is not really an insult but an abbreviation. "Treehuggers" is a term some pronuclear environmentalists proudly use to describe themselves. So whether those are negative terms is subject to interpretation, but, as all through the rest of your article, you choose to take the most negative possible interpretation. By the way, do you castigate the language of antinuclear lobbyists who suggest, among other things, that uranium mining executives should be executed for crimes against humanity? Don't you think their PR has some problems? Why don't you write an article about that? Nancy E. Roth Washington, DC

A few weeks back, Ms. Roth -- the managing editor of <i>Fuel Cycle Week</i>, a nuclear industry trade publication -- emailed the office with her complaints, above. I thought visitors to our website might want to see my response to her, so here it is: Dear Ms. Roth, Thanks for writing, though I think your comments misinterpret my article. My aim was to report on some of the presentations at NEI's annual meeting -- what people were talking about, and the language they used -- and to contrast that with the language and concerns of environmental advocacy groups. It is simply a fact that Penn, Schoen's Craig Smith was advising the audience on "messaging" around nuclear issues, and that he stressed the usefulness of using terms like "recycling" in order to decrease public resistance to new nuclear power plants. The "spent fuel" vs "radioactive waste" was a comparison of nuclear industry and environmentalist language on that topic. And it was Mr. Bowman himself who discussed subsidies (and the negative connotations of that word) in the context of the loan guarantee program. (As an aside, my understanding is that while the nuclear industry does cover the administrative costs of the loan guarantee program, there is concern that the program may wind up costing taxpayers, because the nuclear industry has historically high rates of defaults, compared to other industries that benefit from similar programs.) The new reactor technology / fuel efficiency topic that you mention was not discussed at the NEI meeting. Also, I made no claims about Gwyneth Cravens being "covertly recruited" and did not question her intelligence or sincerity. I was simply pointing out that she fit a demographic that Mr. Smith had identified as being key to NEI's ongoing outreach. It's naive not to realize Ms. Cravens' PR worth to NEI, especially given the group's extensive PR efforts. While it's certainly NEI's right to do public and media outreach, some of its PR efforts have been deceptive -- in particular, the frequent failure to disclose NEI's funding of the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and its co-chairs. Such efforts do not further public understanding or the policy debates on important energy issues. In addition, the terms "treehuggers" and "anti's" were used in a dismissive way, and are generally not used in respectful discourse. I also have never heard environmentalists call for executions of mining executives, and would be shocked and appalled if any group endorsed such extreme and hateful language. In closing, I would encourage you to add your comments to the article on our website. The direct link is: http://www.prwatch.org/node/7316 Sincerely, Diane

I think your readers would also find interesting my coverage of the same topics as Ms. Farsetta. My blog on nuclear energy, now two years old, reaches 6,000 people monthly in 70 countries. I'm not affiliated with NEI nor CASEnergy though I do write about the nuclear industry for publication as well as on my blog. I blog at http://djysrv.blogspot.com <strong>Idaho Samizdat</strong> After reviewing the talks and materials presented at the NEI meeting, I came away with a far different view of the meeting. It was a realistic appraisal of the challenges facing the industry. As far as "public relatons" is concerned, I fear that Ms. Farsetta sees zebras where I see horses. Any industry promotes itself to its own members. I don't see any effort to distort the facts. The keynote speeches were remarkably candid in their explanation of the challenges facing current nuclear utilities and those that want to build new plants. http://djysrv.blogspot.com/2008/05/nei-tackles-facts.html Patrick Moore is definitely a man on a mission who has been bitterly criticized by some members of the environmental community for changing his mind about nuclear energy. His affiliation with CASEnergy isn't a dark conspiracy. He's very open about it. Would that all people who promote a point of view were so transparent? Isn't that a quality your group promotes? http://djysrv.blogspot.com/2008/05/greenpeace-founder-brings-pro-nuclear.html Ms. Cravens is after all a novelist at heart who in mid-life has switched gears and gotten into the business of addressing critical issues of energy policy. Her ability to communicate is what makes her so interesting. See my interview with her here. http://djysrv.blogspot.com/2008/03/cravens-speaks-in-idaho-falls.html Dialog makes more sense than distortions. I encourage Ms. Farsetta to read more on the industry so that her next piece, unlike the barn burner in the Progressive, encourages dialog.

Thanks for the comment and pointer to your blog (which I have come across before). However, I must take issue with your assertions that I / CMD discourage dialog, that Patrick Moore has been open about about his industry ties, and with your apparent conclusion that Ms. Cravens can't both be a novelist and someone with PR value for the nuclear industry. As I can tell you from analyzing Mr. Moore's public events and media appearances (see [:node/5833|here]), much more often than not, he fails to disclose that he is a paid industry consultant. Sometimes, the lack of disclosure may be due to sloppy work by reporters or editors, but this is not the case with his live interviews or with his op/ed columns (one of which just ran [http://www2.tbo.com/content/2008/jun/27/na-greenpeace-founder-goes-nuclear/ in Tampa], with no disclosure). It's also concerning that CASEnergy's own press releases (most recent one [http://www.cleansafeenergy.org/PressRoom/NuclearEnergysResurgencePromisestoSpurJobG/tabid/247/Default.aspx here]) describe the group as "a grassroots coalition" that "support[s] nuclear energy," with no mention of NEI's role in founding and funding the group. As an example of real disclosure, just imagine if Mr. Moore mentioned his current role as an NEI consultant as often as he mentions his increasingly-distant past as a Greenpeace activist. I hope you agree with me that dialog is characterized by fair and honest exchanges, not an uncritical adoption of one party's views.

Your reply is interesting. I'll respond to the various parts of it. First off, the bad news . . . I disagree with the characterization of Mr. Moore as failing to disclose that he is a paid industry consultant. Of course he is. That's one of the ways he makes a living. If anything, Mr. Moore is probably suffering, at this point, from some degree of <em>over exposure</em> having worn thin the line "I used to be at Greenpeace." I agree his affiliation is in the "increasingly distant past," but so is everything else. Some people wear affiliations as life time signatures. I think that kind of engagement with an organization like GP has a lasting impact. Second . . . I agree that some press reports of Moore's talks have not reported affiliation with CASEnergy. However, anyone who does a search on the Internet for information about him runs into the link to CASEnergy on the first page of results. Also, I think you misunderstood my comment about Ms. Cravens. Her current PR effort is to promote her book. She's a novelist, and hitting the road to push a publication is what she does. I agree she has obvious PR value for the nuclear industry. That's why NEI invited her to speak at their annual meeting. It was a no-brainer from a PR point of view. However, in talking with her a few months back, when she was here in Idaho Falls, it became clear to me her primary concerns are global warming and the role that nuclear energy can play in cutting down greenhouse gas emissions. She does not dismiss other non-carbon energy sources like solar, wind, etc. I'm pleased to see dialog taking place here in the web pages of PRW. Thanks for your comments. DJY Idaho Samizdat http://djysrv.blogspot.com

Nancy E. Roth Washington, DC I want to point out that in our correspondence Diane never addressed the errors my first communication pointed out about her interpretation of the words "recycling" and "spent fuel." In her report she cast them as part of an industry whitewash of nuclear fuel technology. Even the title, "When Recycling Isn't" exhibits her misunderstanding of the process--and, what's worse, conveys that misunderstanding to its readers. A little bit of background research would have helped Diane understand what she was writing about. For example, in case other readers are wondering about this, I thought I'd provide this url for a Department of Energy website that defines "spent fuel" and "high-level radioactive waste." I found this by Googling "spent fuel definition." There are lots of other sources of information about it as well. http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/factsheets/doeymp0338.shtml You could also Google "nuclear fuel recycling" and immediately come up with a statement from the American Nuclear Association, a professional association for nuclear scientists and engineers, which clearly describes the process. Here is that url as well: www.ans.org/pi/ps/docs/ps45.pdf It took me all of about 10 minutes to come up with this basic information. Diane has not told me whether she ever looked these terms up. Maybe she has. But if so, she did not acknowledge it to me, and no correction has appeared on her blog. If a reader of my publication, Fuel Cycle Week, points out an error in fact or understanding we are quick to acknowledge and correct it in the next issue. We work very hard to get our facts straight, and consider that our first duty to our readers. I challenge PR Watch to uphold the same standard for its readers, and admit to its readers that the report contains important errors. And, ummm, correct them.

I have responded to Ms. Roth's critiques before, in emails and in an earlier post here, but will summarize again. First, I fully understand that "radioactive waste" is a larger category than "spent fuel" and that most (but not all) of the waste nuclear plant operators have to deal with is spent fuel. That does not in any way contradict the point I made in my article, which is that environmentalists use different language than nuclear industry reps when they discuss the same issue. Second, I also understand that people within the nuclear industry sometimes refer to reprocessing spent fuel as "processing and recycling." However, as a quick news article or dictionary search will tell you, it is extremely uncommon for general audiences to refer to reprocessing spent nuclear fuel as "recycling." And again, that does not contradict the point I made in my article, which is that at the NEI conference, pollster Craig Smith discussed how the intentional use of the word "recycling" (instead of "reprocessing") may help boost public support for nuclear power.