One of the claims of the nuclear industry is that it is subject to constant criticism from the media. But a five-month sample of clippings gathered by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission indicates that the majority of editorials, columns and news stories on nuclear power in U.S. newspapers are supportive of nuclear power.
Extra! conducted a survey of the NRC’s clippings from February to June 1991 in conjunction with Don’t Waste U.S., a D.C.-based group opposed to nuclear waste that regularly monitors the NRC’s documents. “I see an onslaught from points all over the country pushing nuclear power,” says Carol Oldershaw, co-editor of Atoms & Waste, the group’s newsletter.
Since 1975, the NRC has been collecting newspaper reports about nuclear power, including news and opinion pieces. Frank Ingram, public relations officer of the NRC, told Extra! that the editorials, columns and news stories are selected in a largely “random” fashion. Asked what newspapers the NRC tells its clipping service to monitor, Ingram said, “We do not specify specific media, other than the general category of national newspapers and newspapers around nuclear power plant sites.”
The Extra!/Don’t Waste U.S. survey found that 52 percent of the sampling of 148 pieces were one-sided in support of nuclear power; 14 percent were critical of nuclear power; 34 percent were neutral or included both pro- and anti-nuclear viewpoints. The publications with highly supportive pieces on nuclear power included many major newspapers; the critical pieces were found mainly in smaller papers.
News articles were considered supportive of nuclear power if they included praise for the technology with no balancing or critical perspective. An example: An article headlined, “Design Could Spur Nuclear Comeback; Prototype Adds Safety, Efficiency” (Chicago Tribune, 3/10/91) began, “A safe, economical and environmentally sound nuclear power plant designed at Argonne National Laboratory will make its debut this fall as a working, electric power-producing model.” One thousand words later, it had not mentioned any of the criticism that the Union of Concerned Scientists and other nuclear opponents have been leveling at the planned “new generation” of U.S. nuclear plants.
Some news articles (27 percent) presented pro-nuclear arguments with no response from an anti-nuclear perspective. No news articles found in the survey featured anti-nuclear views without a pro-nuclear rebuttal.
Editorials were much more one-sided, with 41 out of 50 (72 percent) supporting nuclear power. Many of the pro-nuclear editorials were emphatic, such as “Expand Nuclear Power” in the San Diego Union on March 24. “A revival of the nuclear power industry is essential to a comprehensive national energy strategy,” the newspaper said. In “Nuclear Power, Vital Need,” the Spartanburg (S.C.) Herald-Journal (3/26/91) stated: “Development of nuclear power’s immeasurable capability to provide vital energy should be welcomed and encouraged. Let’s get on with it.”
Or as the Memphis Commercial-Appeal stated in an editorial, “Nuclear Resurgence?” on May 24: “We must shake off the legacy of the anti-nuclear campaign of the 1970s and 1980s. That hysteria was orchestrated by radical environmentalists whose true agenda was not simply anti-nuclear but anti-progress and anti-technology…. If our country is to remain prosperous, environmentally wholesome and economically competitive, the nuclear option will not be denied.”
Even the fifth anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear plant accident didn’t phase the pro-nuclear editorialists. An editorial in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune on April 25 concluded, “Despite Chernobyl, nuclear energy is the green alternative.” The Houston Post (4/26/91) commemorated the anniversary by urging: “Let’s not learn the wrong lesson from Chernobyl and rule nukes out of our future.”
Editorials critical of nuclear power, only 16 percent of all editorials, tended to be moderate. “Proceed With Caution,” the Knoxville News-Sentinel declared on March 24. “Before the new generation of nuclear plants begins to emerge, there is much to consider…. The nuclear industry has the burden of proving the plants are safe.”
Opinion columns were also lopsidedly pro-nuclear. Out of 33 columns found in the survey, 22 (56 percent) took a pro-nuclear stance.
Scott Denman, director of the Safe Energy Communication Council based in Washington, commented: “The nuclear industry is out there spending tens of millions of dollars to convince reporters and editors and columnists and talk show hosts that its perspective is the only perspective worth writing about.”
Karl Grossman, a journalism professor at SUNY College at Old Westbury, writes regularly on nuclear issues for Extra!.