Westinghouse/CBS: The No. 1 Nuclear Company Wants the No. 3 Network

The prospect of CBS being taken over by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation--the biggest nuclear power plant manufacturer in the world; the No. 3 U.S. government contractor for nuclear weapons; the manager of a string of government nuclear weapons facilities, including several heavily polluted sites--is being met with sharp criticism by safe energy activists.

"We now have two of the three networks run by nuclear power interests," said Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Nuclear Information and Resource Service. (General Electric acquired NBC in 1986.) "This is frightening especially considering that NBC's coverage of the nuclear industry has deteriorated since GE took it over. CBS has done a fairly good job on nuclear issues. I hate to see that end."

"This is a direct threat to the underpinnings of our democracy," said Scott Denman, executive director of the Safe Energy Communication Council, also headquartered in D.C. "A democracy depends on an unrestricted, unfettered and complete debate on controversial issues of public importance. The control of the news media by vested interests like Westinghouse by its very nature erodes the free flow of information in our democratic society, especially now that the Fairness Doctrine is not being enforced."

Westinghouse and GE are the Coke and Pepsi of nuclear power. Some 80 percent of nuclear power plants world-wide are of Westinghouse and GE design, with Westinghouse the bigger nuclear plant manufacturer of the two. Both Westinghouse and GE are in the midst of a worldwide push to sell a new line of new, "improved" nuclear plants (Extra!, 5-6/90): In promotional material, Westinghouse touts its AP-600 design as "acceptable to the American public, a friend to the consumer, simpler to construct, operate and maintain, designed with inherently safe, passive systems, [and] affordable for the power producer."

Westinghouse is exceeded only by Lockheed Martin and McDonnell Douglas Corp. as a U.S. nuclear weapons contractor, doing nearly $3 billion annually in business, according to a report last year by Nuclear Free America (New Abolitionist, Fall/94). Among the nuclear facilities Westinghouse runs for the government are the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in the State of Washington and the Savannah River facility in South Carolina, both sites of massive nuclear contamination.

Michael H. Jordan, the chair and chief executive officer of Westinghouse, who personally arranged the $5.4 billion all-cash deal for Westinghouse to buy CBS, is a nuclear engineer. As a Navy officer, he spent six months "at the Westinghouse Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory near Pittsburgh, where he earned certifications a nuclear engineer," according to Westinghouse's biography of Jordan.

Westinghouse is not averse to using the hardest of sells in pushing its nuclear power plants. In 1988, the Philippines filed suit against Westinghouse accusing the company of bribing officials of the Marcos regime to build a nuclear plant--"on the side of a volcano, beside an earthquake fault, on the Bataan peninsula" (New York Times, 12/1/88). In 1992, Westinghouse reached an out-of-court settlement with the Philippines government on the $2.2 billion lawsuit.

Westinghouse has faced legal troubles at home as well. Ralph Nader's Critical Mass Energy Project recently obtained a 1993 letter written to the Tennessee Valley Authority in hopes of dissuading the TVA from suing Westinghouse over allegedly faulty nuclear plant steam generators, as several other utilities had. "This litigation is harmful to utilities, to Westinghouse and to the commercial nuclear power industry," Westinghouse executive John Yasinksy wrote to the TVA's president for power generation:

For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists has used the litigation as a vehicle to incorrectly imply that steam generator issues pose health and safety risks to the public. This message has been communicated to the media and the legislators.... If the current litigation process proceeds through the public trial stage, we will have created a platform for those opposed to nuclear power to unfairly attack both the safety and economics of operating nuclear power plants. The public spectacle that steam generator trials will create will further threaten the nuclear power options for the future of our nation.

Westinghouse's efforts to block media coverage of flaws that may be present in half of all U.S. nuclear reactors bodes ill for the future independence of CBS News. This letter shows that Westinghouse "is not concerned with doing the right thing," says Jim Riccio, staff attorney for the Critical Mass Energy Project. "This is not a company that should own a major television network."

Karl Grossman, a journalism professor at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, produces investigative reports for EnviroVideo.