Nuclear Power Gets Media Makeover

FAIR Extra! July/August 2001 Nuclear Power Gets Media MakeoverEnergy crisis sparks atomic hype By Karen Charman“Nuclear Follies,” a February 11, 1985 cover story in Forbes, declared U.S. nuclear power “the largest managerial disaster in business history.” With $125 billion invested, the magazine wrote, “only the blind, or the biased, can now think that most of the money has been well spent.

It is a defeat for the U.S. consumer and for the competitiveness of U.S. industry, for the utilities that undertook the program and for the private enterprise system that made it possible.”Pretty strong words. But now, a mere 16 years later, nuclear power is being widely reported in the mainstream media as not only the cheapest source of electricity, but also as a clean and environmentally friendly form of energy that we now must embrace to combat global warming.

Even before the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, electric utilities that had bought into the nuclear option on the promise that it would be “too cheap to meter” had begun racking up huge debts because the technology turned out to be vastly more expensive and complicated than they had anticipated. After the accident, and the increased public and press scrutiny that resulted, the industry was forced to adopt costly new safety modifications.
Then, in April 1986, a catastrophic meltdown occurred at Chernobyl, spewing high levels of radiation across Europe and galvanizing public opposition to nuclear power both here and in Western Europe. In the U.S., a total of 117 nuclear reactors were eventually canceled, says Safe Energy Communication Council executive director Scott Denman– pointing out that the cancellations outnumber the country’s 103 currently operating reactors.

Except for one or two plants that came online in the mid-’90s, no others were scheduled. “As we went through the ’90s, all those reporters who had been focused on safety issues after Three Mile Island, then the cost, and then safety issues again after Chernobyl, began to drift away,” Denman says. “As events in the industry quieted down, so did the regional reporting, and nuclear power faded from public view,” he explains. The consequence is the recent wave of largely uncritical and shallow reporting.
Nuclear’s new day

Until the Bush administration took office, any public discussion of expanding nuclear power might have been dismissed as wishful thinking on the nuclear industry’s part. True, the industry has dreamed of its comeback for many years (Extra!, 5-6/90). But it wasn’t until the energy fiasco erupted in California, and the Bush administration and other pro-nuclear politicians began calling for massive increases in energy production, that a nuclear power renaissance could be considered.

Now that nukes are on the table again, many of the “facts” the corporate media are dishing up seem to have come straight from the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main lobbying group.

Take claims about the cost of nuclear power. ABC World News Tonight informed its viewers (1/6/01) that nuclear production costs are “lower than any other source, even coal.” This claim was echoed by NBC (3/19/01), whose parent company, General Electric, is one of the largest nuclear power plant designers. In comparing the costs of nuclear power to other sources, the Houston Chronicle (4/17/01) even used figures that came from an NEI press release–1.83 cents per kilowatt hour for nuclear, 2.07 cents for coal, 3.52 cents for natural gas–without citing the source. Even Popular Science (5/01) reported that the inherent instability of fossil fuel costs “has created a long-awaited opening for the oft-despised but super-cheap (less than 2 cents per kilowatt-hour) nuclear.”
These figures, however, include only the operating costs of running the reactors. The big ticket costs associated with nuclear power have been shifted onto the public. In virtually all cases, ratepayers and taxpayers have been saddled with the capital costs of building nuclear plants, which in some cases exceeded $10 billion apiece. In total, about $300 billion (in 2001 dollars) has been spent on nuclear plants, according to Charles Komanoff, an economist who researches nuclear power.

The public also picks up the tab for dealing with the reactors’ deadly radioactive waste, which the Department of Energy most recently estimated at $58 billion. The cost of “decommissioning”–tearing down and cleaning up old, contaminated nukes once they wear out–also falls to us. As an indication of this bill, decommissioning the Yankee Rowe plant in Massachusetts, which is about one-seventh the size of the largest nuclear reactor now operating, is expected to cost almost $500 million, says Paul Gunter, director of the reactor project at the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, a watchdog group.
On top of all that, nuclear utilities evade the lion’s share of the cost of a potential nuclear disaster. Under the federal Price-Anderson Act, originally passed in 1957 and up for renewal next year, a utility’s liability for an accident is limited to $7 billion. Current estimates of Chernobyl’s costs, by comparison, exceed $350 billion.
………….Nuclear greenwashing

For more than 10 years, the nuclear industry has been promoting itself as a clean source of energy that, unlike fossil fuels, produces no greenhouse gases or air pollution. Now that global warming has gained more credence in the mainstream press, many media outlets tout this advantage: “Advocates like to claim nuclear power is environmentally friendly because it doesn’t contribute to global warming the way fossil fuels do” (NBC, 3/18/01).

Many media outlets pit fossil fuels against nuclear power, as if these choices are our only alternatives. The Washington Times (3/18/01) informed its readers that “unlike coal, natural gas and oil-fired power plants, nuclear plants are free not only of carbon emissions but also of other noxious gases like sulfur dioxide, mercury and nitrogen oxide that have made fossil-fuel burning plants the biggest sources of air pollution in the United States.”

While nuclear energy does not produce as much CO2 or other greenhouse gases as, say, coal power, it’s inaccurate to call nuclear technology CO2-free. An enormous amount of electricity is used to enrich the uranium fuel, and the plants that manufacture the fuel in the U.S. are powered by coal plants………………
Selling safety

The failure of nuclear power in the U.S. is frequently attributed to an irrational public response to the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island, whose only real victim, according to the conventional media narrative, was the nuclear power industry. According to the Houston Chronicle (4/17/01), “no one died or was injured because of the release of radioactive material from the plant. More than 2,000 personal injury claims were filed. But after 15 years of litigation, none was upheld.” USA Today (4/17/01) said the partial meltdown merely “leaked radioactive steam into the atmosphere.”
In truth, hundreds of residents living near the plant reported symptoms of radiation poisoning before the accident was even announced. Later, an unusually high number of both strange and common cancers and an array of other health problems started showing up among residents, particularly those living in the path of the radiation plumes that crept over nearby communities during the first few days of the accident. Hundreds of victims have settled lawsuits out of court, but the terms of their settlements remain secret. (See Extra!, 7-8/93.)
After considering the current high price of fossil fuels, mentioning that opponents have safety questions without identifying what they are, and remarking on the high-level waste problem, NBC Nightly News (5/3/01) asked if Americans were “over the scare that Three Mile Island created 22 years ago.” The answer came from a Georgetown University professor: “There’s no way around it, and therefore we have to cope with the consequences.” The reporter concluded that “with soaring energy costs, people will soon be more afraid of their utility bills than nuclear power.”

A CBS Evening News report (5/30/01) on nuclear power in France told viewers that “the giant cooling towers that symbolize some of America’s anxiety about atomic power are symbols here of self-assurance.” The reporter briefly mentioned concerns about waste and accidents, but ended the story by noting that Paris’ nickname, City of Light, came from “a reputation for progressive thinking.”

NBC News’ March 19 report ended with the comment that “two decades ago, fear nearly crippled the industry.” But then the reporter reassured viewers that “now those fears have receded, and nuclear power could play a huge role in America’s energy future.”

Nuclear Power Gets Media Makeover

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