There's no question that New York's Indian Point nuclear power plant could use some public relations help. But Entergy, Indian Point's owner, might have chosen their new PR firm a little more carefully.
Last year, the state of New York asked the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to deny the plant's license extension application, citing "a long and troubling history of problems." It was "the first time that a state had stepped forward to flatly oppose license renewals," according to the New York Times.
Then, in January, the NRC proposed a $650,000 fine against Indian Point, for having repeatedly missed deadlines to install a new emergency siren system. The fine is "10 times the normal size" of such sanctions, reported the Times.
To address such criticisms, Entergy has retained the Burson-Marsteller firm, funded the pro-nuclear "New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance" and brought Greenpeace activist-turned-PR consultant Patrick Moore to New York. Last month, Entergy made another effort to, in their own words, "provide public assurances about the operation and protection of New York's largest nuclear power facility." They announced the formation of an "Independent Safety Evaluation" panel to investigate Indian Point.
Given the crisis of confidence facing Indian Point, it's remarkable that Entergy hired Potomac Communications Group to promote its new panel. Four years ago, Potomac was outed as the PR firm behind what the Austin Chronicle called "Big Nuke's vast op-ed conspiracy: a decades-long, centrally orchestrated plan to defraud the nation's newspaper readers by misrepresenting the propaganda of one hired atomic gun as the learned musings of disparate academics and other nuclear-industry 'experts.'"
Entergy materials don't name the Potomac firm. But the press release announcing the Indian Point panel lists Matthew Simmons, a Potomac program manager (PDF), as the panel's contact person. The email address given for the Indian Point panel also maps back to Potomac's website, pcgpr.com. Simmons confirmed to the Center for Media and Democracy that he's with the Potomac Communications Group.
As the saying goes, Simmons has his work cut out for him.
The Indian Point safety panel quickly came under fire from plant opponents. New York state representative John Hall told the Times Herald-Record, "I am skeptical of the true independence of any panel set up, selected by, and paid for by [Entergy]." Environmentalist Lisa Rainwater said that her organization, Riverkeeper, "wants a state-mandated review of plant operations," similar to earlier committees that "included a citizens advisory panel." Even the NRC is "rather ho-hum" about the Indian Point panel, according to the New York Times.
In response, Simmons pointed out that Entergy only selected the co-chairs of the Indian Point panel, Drs. James Rhoades and Neil Todreas. The co-chairs then recruited the other ten panel members, based on their experience and professional and personal integrity, said Simmons. "No one [on the panel] has had significant interaction with Entergy in the past -- either Entergy as a company or Indian Point in particular," he added. The Indian Point panel will also hold a public meeting and is accepting input via email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
It's unlikely that anything short of a publicly-funded review overseen by government agencies (which the NRC sees as redundant to its plant inspections) would mollify Indian Point critics. But what the safety panel is able to do and how it is perceived have repercussions beyond New York.
Entergy's Vermont Yankee plant is also up for its license renewal. Vermont's state legislature and Public Service Board are conducting their own reviews of the plant, but Entergy might convene a safety panel there, too. "There is value in having something like this if just to assure the public about safety," Entergy's Jim Steets told Vermont's Brattleboro Reformer.
Diane Farsetta is the Center for Media and Democracy's senior researcher.