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'No Dark Machiavellian Conspiracy' for New British Nuke Plants
by Chris Grimshaw, Corporate Watch
Regaining public acceptance of nuclear power will be one of the PR world's biggest challenges, according to PR guru Dejan Vercic. Speaking at a 2004 meeting of the UK's Institute of Public Relations, he said that within five to ten years public relations agencies would have to win back the nuclear industry's (and biotechnology's) "license to operate."
It appears, however, that the opening salvoes in the British campaign have come rather sooner. Summer 2004 saw an extraordinary wave of media interest in a possible nuclear power revival. The "debate" was opened by environmental scientist Dr. James Lovelock's article in the Independent advocating nuclear power as a solution to climate change. It was quickly followed by Tony Blair's indications in July that Britain may build new nuclear power stations.
Nuclear industry PR, previously antagonistic to renewable energy, is now stressing that the two are complementary. At the same time, Lovelock's, and several other famous environmentalists' pro-nuclear statements were portrayed as dividing green opinion. For a few days every news channel was covering the issue, and Lovelock's name was everywhere.
Corporate Watch was interested to see how the nuclear industry's PR activity helped to stoke the media. We approached British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. (BNFL), operators of Sellafield - the location of a spent nuclear fuel processing plant - and of the UK's aging Magnox reactors. We also approached British Energy (BE), the privatized operator of the more modern AGR and PWR reactors. We wanted to know how much money, including public funding, they spend on propaganda. We asked: What are the budgets for their in-house PR department, external agency fees and the Sellafield Exhibition Centre?
BNFL's press department likes to use an answering machine as its first contact with journalists and the company employs a number of PR agencies, including the world's largest consultancy Weber Shandwick, Edelman subsidiary PR21 and financial PR company Finsbury. Their corporate affairs director, Philip Dewhurst, was previously CEO of Weber Shandwick UK. However, after two weeks they still had provided no answers.
British Energy's very existence as a private company depended on extensive PR work to win over skeptical politicians, the public and the financial community. Hill & Knowlton, the notorious multinational PR consultancy, proudly describes their campaign for BE's 1996 privatization on their web site. It was one of the "most demanding challenges we've ever had to face. ... A privatized nuclear industry in Britain would once have been unthinkable. That such a business, British Energy, was successfully floated in 1996 is in no small measure thanks to the efforts of a talented group of individuals at Hill & Knowlton who were able to create a very substantial movement in public and political opinion."
Their spokesman told us that they do very little media relations work now. Given their precarious financial state (having nearly gone bankrupt), British Energy feel that "we haven't been in a position to talk about the future." He told us that they let the industry "umbrella groups," the Nuclear Industry Association (NIA) and the British Nuclear Energy Society (BNES), handle most proactive press work. BE uses only one external agency, Financial Dynamics, which handles PR about their financial situation.
BE's spokesman suggested that the current media debate is the result of a very long-term issues management campaign, saying, "ground work done [with journalists] two or three years ago has really paid off."
The Nuclear Industry Association is a trade association funded by more than 100 member companies that work in the nuclear industry. They denied conducting any proactive media relations work at all. They claim that their PR strategy is purely reactive, simply handling inquiries from journalists. Spokeswoman Ruth Stanway insisted that there is "no dark Machiavellian conspiracy" pushing for new nuclear power stations. She attributed the high media profile of the issue to rising oil prices, Russia's signing of the Kyoto Protocol and Lovelock's public utterances. She said she did not know what inspired the timing of Lovelock's article.
Despite this blanket denial, BNES spokesman, Ian Andrews, admits they have collaborated with the NIA in press work. "We are obviously proactive," he said. One of their strategies is to hold dinners and conferences with famous pro-nuclear speakers, creating an event for journalists to attend and report on (with a free lunch). When interviewed they were preparing, along with the NIA, for a conference entitled "Energy Choices" held in Westminster on the December 2. British Energy Minister Mike O'Brien was the main speaker at the event.
Both the NIA and the BNES are in touch with the group Supporters of Nuclear Energy (SONE), of which Sir Bernard Ingham is the secretary. Ingham is well known not only for his staunch support of nuclear power but also for his implacable opposition to wind power. Both he and SONE are involved in the anti-wind power campaign group Country Guardian and has boasted of personally halting two thirds of proposed wind farms in the UK.
When asked about SONE and Ingham, Andrews claimed to be busy and ended the interview. He stressed that SONE was "totally separate," though he did admit, "we know [Ingham] very well and meet occasionally."
SONE, which was founded with public money from BNFL, is highly critical of wind power and therefore somewhat out of tune with the new reconciliation with renewables. Embarrassingly the group collects its mail from the BNES' headquarters, and "maybe" uses BNES office space elsewhere. Sir James Lovelock, who is listed on SONE's web site as a patron, appears to have made some strange alliances for a man recently hyped as the father of the environmental movement.
This article first appeared in the Corporate Watch Newsletter, Issue 21, December 2004. For more on UK-based Corporate Watch, visit [http://www.corporatewatch.org.uk/].