Nuclear power, which accounts for 19 percent of the nation’s electricity generation, is facing some serious challenges. Not only did its hoped-for renaissance fizzle out, four reactors shut down last year, another is closing this fall, and the nuclear giant Exelon says it will announce plant closings by the end of this year if market conditions don’t improve.
Indeed, market conditions have not been good for Exelon, which owns 23 reactors at 14 plant sites, making it the largest nuclear plant operator in the country. Although the company netted $1.16 billion on revenues of $23.5 billion from all of its energy holdings in 2013, none of the Chicago-based company’s six Illinois nuclear plants turned a profit in the last five years, according to a recent Chicago Tribune investigation. At least three of those plants are reportedly on the chopping block.
Why is the nuclear industry in such dire straits? Mainly because of cheap natural gas and dampened electricity demand due to energy efficiency programs and a sluggish economy. The most vulnerable plants are in states with deregulated electricity markets, such as Illinois. Unlike regulated utilities, which are guaranteed an annual rate of return, these “merchant” plants sell power on the wholesale market and are being underpriced by their competition.
To try to stanch the bleeding, Exelon recently launched a front group, Nuclear Matters, to sell the public on the need to keep the remaining U.S. fleet of some 100 reactors running. According to its website, the group rests its argument largely on the fact that nuclear plants run 24/7 and don’t emit carbon or traditional air pollutants, and insists that efforts to address global warming will be foiled if any reactors close. The website also lists some of the commonly cited reasons for the industry’s current plight, but, echoing Exelon, also blames federal and state policies that support wind and solar power, which it claims “distorts” electricity markets. Not only is that a dubious assertion, it’s especially ironic given the nuclear industry would not be economically viable without more than 50 years of federal subsidies, many of which continue to this day.
A New York public relations firm, Sloane & Company, is managing Nuclear Matters for Exelon. Since the group’s launch in March, the agency has placed full-page ads and op-eds in a range of publications and recruited an impressive array of former public officials to plead the company’s case. Former Sens. Evan Bayh (D-IN) and Judd Gregg (R-NH) were on board at the beginning as co-chairs. They were soon joined by former Secretary of Commerce and White House Chief of Staff William Daley, former Energy Secretary and Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-MI), former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), and former Clinton Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Carol Browner, who served as the Obama Administration’s climate adviser.
Why start a front group? For the same reason the industry trade association Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) hired the Hill & Knowlton PR agency eight years ago to create the faux grassroots Clean and Safe Energy Coalition and tap former EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman to be its primary spokesperson. Who is the public going to believe? A former EPA administrator or NEI CEO Marv Fertel? A former U.S. senator or Exelon CEO Christopher Crane? More than likely the former government officials, especially if they don’t disclose the fact that the nuclear industry is paying them to advance its agenda.
Front groups are certainly not unique to the nuclear industry. Over the last decade or so, for instance, ExxonMobil and Charles and David Koch, owners of the coal, oil and gas conglomerate Koch Industries, have given tens of millions of dollars to dozens of self-described “free market” think tanks to spread disinformation about climate change and attack renewable energy. Unlike those think tanks, however, neither Nuclear Matters or the CASEnergy Coalition are bona fide organizations with staffs and brick and mortar offices. They are nothing more than PR agency-managed websites with high-profile paid spokespeople in tow. The other big difference is those fossil fuel industry-funded think tanks don’t have a code of ethics. The public relations industry does, and both Sloane & Company and Hill & Knowlton are violating it.
The industry’s code of ethics, developed by the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), includes a section on transparency. To build public trust and ensure informed policymaking, PRSA’s code states it is imperative that PR professionals disclose all pertinent information. Among other things, they should “reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented” and “disclose financial interest … in a client’s organization.” PRSA then provides some examples of improper conduct under this provision. The first one is front groups, when a PR firm, for example, “implements ‘grass roots’ campaigns….”
Thus far, Sloane & Company has been glossing over the fact that Nuclear Matters is financed by Exelon. There’s no mention of Exelon’s funding on the group’s website, and none of Nuclear Matters’ press releases to date cite Exelon at all.
Fortunately a number of reporters who have written about Nuclear Matters have at least mentioned that the group is a creature of the nuclear industry, and some have directly cited Exelon’s role, thanks in part to a press release disclosing the connection from the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. But reporters paid attention early on to the fact that NEI was behind the CASEnergy Coalition, and then, over the ensuing months and years, neglected to point out that Whitman was actually speaking on behalf of the nuclear industry, not some independent grassroots group that promotes “clean and safe energy.”
In any case, reporters can’t completely make up for columnists and other commentators who fail to reference Exelon or misrepresent Nuclear Matters to enhance its credibility. In late March, Nuclear Matters Co-Chairmen Bayh and Gregg wrote an op-ed laying out the group’s argument for The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress. The authors’ bios at the end of the piece didn’t mention that Exelon is underwriting their campaign. Meanwhile, in early May, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) wrote a Wall Street Journal column attacking a key federal wind tax break that Exelon wants Congress to kill. A longtime nuclear power proponent, Alexander called Nuclear Matters an “environmental” group.
Exelon Already Holds Sway in Washington
Nuclear Matters is just the latest gambit of a very powerful political player. Over the last five years, Exelon has spent millions on political candidates and tens of millions on lobbying, and has taken advantage of its close ties with the Obama Administration to weaken or stymie stronger nuclear plant safeguards.
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