Jul 1 1991

Time’s Nuclear Non-Choice

Time magazine’s April 29 cover story asked the question: “Nuclear Power: Do We Have a Choice?”–and answered it in the negative.

Time mirrored the arguments of the nuclear industry and nuclear enthusiasts in the Bush administration–without investigating their validity. For instance, Time cited an April report by the  National Academy of Sciences on the greenhouse effect, also ballyhooed by nuclear proponents. “The National Academy of Sciences called this month for the swift development of a new generation of nuclear plants to help fight the greenhouse gas effect,” trumpeted Time.

“Some of the adjectives don’t seem to be there–such as the word ‘swift’–in the report,” Rob Coppock, staff director of the study, told Extra!

In fact, stressed Coppock, the notion of “a new generation of nuclear plants is way down at the bottom” in the report of how to deal with global warming, following calls for increasing energy efficiency in housing, transportation and industry.

Only portions of two paragraphs in the lengthy report concern nuclear power. One declares that “nuclear reactor designs capable of meeting fail-safe criteria and satisfying public concerns have not been demonstrated,” and, further, “focused research and development work on a variety of alternative energy supply sources could change the situation involving nuclear power.

The report “was not intended to be pro-nuclear, said Coppock, speaking of a “difference” of opinion on nuclear power among those on the committee which adopted it. Interestingly, the chair for the past four years of the National Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Medicine in sponsoring the report, was John S. Welch, Jr., chair and chief executive officer of General Electric, a giant in the nuclear industry.

Time cited the French nuclear power program: “France, which generates 75 percent of its electricity from the atom–more than any other nation–has used a standard reactor since the mid-1970s.” Omitted were two big problems for the French nuclear program: The central utility that runs it “is not $46 billion in debt and in deep financial trouble,” notes Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Washington-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service, “and standard plants….also have meant the standardization of design flaws.”

Time declared that the “resistance [to nuclear power] stems from fear.” Scott Denman, director of the Safe Energy Communication Council, said if Time wanted to examine the role of fear in the nuclear power debate, it might have reported on “the nuclear industry advertising program to revive nuclear power that is based on fear. It uses pictures of Khadaffi, Khomeni and other tyrants to try to whip up hysteria against foreign oil dependence.” Only 3 percent of U.S. electricity is generated with imported oil, and that fraction, bought largely from Venezuela, is  a by-product of gasoline refining. The ad Denman referred to–sponsered by the U.S. Council for Energy Awareness, a nuclear industry-funded group–appeared in the pro-nuclear issue of Time. (The Council also served as a source for one of the article’s charts.)

Time devoted a sidebar to “How to Build a Safer Nuclear Reactor,” claiming that “one design, the so-called modular high temperature gas-cooled reactor, has even won grudging support from the Union of Concerned Scientists.” This alleged “support” comes from Robert Pollard, formerly with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who is the senior nuclear safety engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. Pollard said he told the Time writers that the gas-cooled reactor “has the most potential…. But I stressed that no reactor is what is being termed inherently safe; they are all inherently dangerous.”

Time concluded: “Nukes worry the public far more than they worry scientists who have studied their technology.” While this is a false generalization about what all scientists believe, Denmam noted that the most important scientist involved in nuclear technology, Albert Einstein, said that “we must carry the facts on atomic energy to the village squares. He did not say that the decisions should be made in the corporate-funded scientific research tanks. The point is: The citizens of our country are the ones to accept or reject nuclear power, and poll after poll has clearly shown that most people are against nuclear power and for renewable energy options and energy efficiency.”

The title of the Time story was what it was all about, said Denman. “What Time is saying is that we don’t have a choice on nuclear power. We’re saying that nothing could be further from the truth. And all the Madison Avenue tub-thumping and Capitol Hill grandstanding is not going to revive nuclear power.”

Time did acknowledge that reviving nuclear power “will  surely be one of the most daunting public relations assignments of the century.” Time is doing its part.

Karl Grossman, a journalism professor at SUNY College at Old Westbury, has written two books on nuclear energy Power Crazy and Cover Up.