Mar 1 1992

The Nuclear Industry’s Secret PR Strategy

One reason so many news articles and opinion pieces support nuclear technology is the massive public relations effort backed by both the nuclear industry, and state and local governments.

One example of how the nuclear industry engineers media support was disclosed in November l991, when the Safe Energy Communication Council obtained a plan for a $9 million public relations and advertising campaign designed to “neutralize” opposition to the nation’s first high-level nuclear waste dump, which is to be built at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, l00 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

“The plan was released to us by a disgruntled utility executive who didn’t think it was the right thing to do,” said Scott Denman, director of the D.C.-based environmental group.

It was prepared for the American Nuclear Energy Council, a nuclear industry trade group, by Kent Oram, a Las Vegas advertising agent, and Ed Allison, a Washington-based lobbyist. Denman said elements of the plan have already begun, including the airing of pro-waste dump TV commercials in Nevada featuring Ron Vitto, for 30 years a Las Vegas TV sports announcer. He is shown interviewing Dr. Dale Klein, presented as a nuclear technology expert.

“One key to changing public attitudes,” the 22-page plan declared under “Communications Strategies,”

is utilization of top scientists, who specialize in radioactive waste, nuclear engineering, seismology and volcanology, as spokespeople for the campaign. Scientists can convince the public that nuclear energy is safe. Scientists also can help educate the press, both one-on-one and through advertising.

To back the in-house scientific response team, a professional media attack/response team will be deployed. Two highly respected investigative reporters and anchormen have been identified and will be able to deal with the working press as peers. The advantage of having the industry’s side of stories presented by sincere, seasoned professionals is obvious. In addition to the breadth of media experience these professionals will bring to the table among their peers, they also enjoy wide recognition and high credibility with the general public.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) will be “turned into a proactive force by training its scientists to function as an expert in-house accuracy/response team.”

“Coupled with the team of DOE scientists, the media response team will exert a positive effect on free press coverage and attitudes. As reporters become more favorable,” the plan states, “they will also start to look at the benefits package for Nevada.”

An “end product of the campaign,” it says, will be to have “the Nevada media…transformed from simple conduits for charges and counter-charges into educators.”

The plan describes the Las Vegas Sun as constituting “key opposition” to the Yucca Mountain siting. The Sun, in a November l7 editorial, said the plan is an instrument “to subvert the public will, and is virtually an assault on a sovereign state.”

Financing for the plan is to come through contributions from 50 electric utility companies from all over the U.S.–from American Electric Power of Ohio to Yankee Atomic Power in Massachusetts–their “share” based on the megawattage of their nuclear plants.

Another source of PR money for the nuclear industry is state governments. North Carolina, for example, spent $2 million between 1987 and 1991 on public relations to promote a nuclear waste dump in that state. Much of the money went to Epley Associates, a PR firm that produced a secret report for the Chem-Nuclear contracting company on where to place the dump. The 500-page report, of which 80 pages were released after a lawsuit, “doesn’t mention soil types, rock formations or other scientific data,” noted the Chapel Hill Herald-Sun, “but it does tell…which [communities] had the toughest environmentalists and newspaper reporters.”

In addition to noting the attitudes of public officials, opinion leaders and “significant subgroups,” the report also takes into consideration where reporters are less or more “cooperative.”

For example, under a section marked “CONFIDENTIAL,” the work of two journalists for the Chatham (N.C.) News and the Chatham Record is reviewed. Epley Associates reported that “after a two-day visit to Barnwell,” a Chem-Nuclear waste facility in South Carolina, the journalists’ “stories, by and large, were more positive than previous features.” Indeed, the report noted approvingly, letters to the editor accused the journalists’ stories of being an “advertisement for Chem-Nuclear.”

According to a Raleigh, N.C. News and Observer article (7/7/91), sections of the report that still have not been made public describe a Winston-Salem (N.C.)Journal reporter as “in the back pocket” of environmentalists, while Epley says that a journalist from the News and Observer “can be used.”