Manufacturing dissent: environmentalists and nuclear power in the USA

Jim Green

Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal (WSJ) published a disingenuous piece of agitprop on 16 June 2016, claiming that: "Some of the nation's most influential environmental groups are softening their longstanding opposition to nuclear power, marking a significant shift in the antinuclear movement as environmentalists' priority shifts to climate change."1

According to the WSJ:

"The Sierra Club, the country's oldest and largest environmental group, is debating whether to halt its longtime position in support of shuttering all existing nuclear-power plants earlier than required by their federal operating licenses. The environmental group's leaders see existing reactors as a bridge to renewable electricity and an alternative source of energy as the group campaigns to shut down coal and natural gas plants.

"The Environmental Defense Fund is similarly deciding to what extent it should adjust its policy, potentially lending its support to keeping open financially struggling reactors.

"In Illinois, the Natural Resources Defense Council, along with the Sierra Club and EDF, are among the advocacy groups working with Exelon and state lawmakers on a legislative deal that would reverse a decision the company made in early June to close two nuclear reactors in the next two years."

Michael Brune, Executive Director of the Sierra Club, said in response that the organization "remains in firm opposition to dangerous nuclear power", that the WSJ article "reflects wishful thinking on the part of the nuclear industry", that it is "categorically incorrect to suggest that the Sierra Club considers nuclear power a 'bridge' to clean energy" and that nuclear power "is a bridge to nowhere".2

Likewise, Henry Henderson from the Natural Resources Defense Council said the WSJ was "dead wrong on our goals, focus and motivation" and that the organization's efforts to reform energy policy "do not involve, or signal, a change in NRDC's long-held concerns about the role of nuclear energy in the country's generation mix."3

In a detailed dissection of the WSJ propaganda, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) noted that "major assertions in the Journal article turn out to be either factually inaccurate, or to omit or spin important details."4 FAIR noted that the WSJ story was framed by the story's two quoted pro-nuclear sources, Joe Dominguez from energy company Exelon, and Michael Shellenberger, co-founder of the Breakthrough Institute. The WSJ describes the Breakthrough Institute as a "progressive think tank"; FAIR is closer to the mark describing it as a "quasi-neoliberal, pro-technology environmental think tank."

Shellenberger is quoted in the WSJ saying that a trickle of environmentalists changing their minds about nuclear has become a "stampede", and in response to the FAIR article he claimed5 that environment groups are having an "internal civil war" over their position on nuclear power. Both claims are presented without a shred of evidence. Both reflect a postmodernist approach to truth-telling: tell a lie, tell it often, and hope it comes true.

Moreover, Shellenberger doesn't believe his own rhetoric about environment groups turning in support of nuclear power. On June 22 he led a bizarre pro-nuclear protest in San Francisco targeting the Sierra Club, Greenpeace and the NRDC for their anti-nuclear policies.6 Also leading the protest march were 'Mothers for Nuclear' ‒ started by two women who work in the nuclear power industry.4

The dishonesty of the corporate media and the antics of pro-nuclear lobbyists are having precious little effect. Despite Shellenberger's dedicated lobbying, Exelon announced in June that it plans to permanently shut down three reactors in Illinois: Clinton in 2017, and Quad Cities 1 and 2 in 2018. Exelon is also threatening to close two others in New York ‒ Ginna and Nine Mile Point 1 ‒ and the Three Mile Island 1 reactor in Pennsylvania is rumoured to be at risk of closure, without subsidies like those that are being proposed in the other states.

Also in June, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) announced that the two Diablo Canyon reactors will close in 2024 and 2025, leaving California nuclear free ‒ the pro-nuclear protest targeting environment groups was too little, too late. PG&E struck an agreement with environment groups including Friends of the Earth, such that the ageing reactors will be closed and replaced with renewable energy. To recap: an energy utility has struck a deal with environment groups to close reactors and replace them with renewables, while self-styled pro-nuclear environmentalists have been staging sit-ins in the offices of environment groups. Only in America!

And those are just the most recent announcements. In addition: Dominion's Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin and Entergy's Vermont Yankee have been shut down in recent years; Southern California Edison shut down the last two operating reactors at San Onofre in California in 2013; Duke Energy announced in 2013 that the Crystal River plant would never restart following a botched upgrade; Entergy's FitzPatrick plant in New York will be closed in 2017, and Entergy's Pilgrim plant in Massachusetts will be closed in 2019; Exelon's Oyster Creek plant in New Jersey will be shut down by December 2019; and Omaha Public Power District will shut down the Fort Calhoun plant in Nebraska at the end of 2016.

So much for the nuclear renaissance ... nuclear power is clearly going backwards in the US.

A long history

FAIR opined: "Instead of a story about a growing fervor for nuclear power among some environmentalists, the story is really one about a growing fervor to resurrect nuclear power among corporate and political elites, aided by a handful of mainly environmentalists-for-hire."7

But actually the above quote from FAIR wasn't in response to the recent WSJ article. It was written in 2007 in response to an earlier media beat-up about environmentalists swinging in support of nuclear power.

The recent WSJ propaganda was just the latest in a long line. In 2014, for example, the BBC falsely claimed that Friends of the Earth UK was turning in support of nuclear power.8 In 2009−10 the World Nuclear Association heavily promoted a dishonest article claiming that Greenpeace UK had changed its stance on nuclear power.9

David Roberts summed up the situation in 2013, when the Pandora's Promise propaganda film was trotting out the familiar lines that former nuclear critics and environmentalists are turning in support of nuclear power:10

"There is no budding environmentalist movement for nukes. Ever since I started paying attention to "nuclear renaissance" stories about a decade ago, there's always been this credulous, excitable bit about how enviros are starting to come around. The roster of enviros in this purportedly burgeoning movement: Stewart Brand, the Breakthrough Boys, and "Greenpeace cofounder Patrick Moore," who has been a paid shill for industry for decades (it sounds like the Pandora folks were wise enough to leave him out). More recently George Monbiot and Mark Lynas have been added to the list. This handful of converts is always cited with the implication that it's the leading edge of a vast shift, and yet ... it's always the same handful. ... In the movie, Shellenberger says, "I have a sense that this is a beautiful thing ... the beginning of a movement." I fear he has once again mistaken the contents of his navel for the zeitgeist."

Far from a stampede of pro-nuclear environmentalism, late last year James Hansen was complaining that the Climate Action Network, representing all the major environmental groups, opposes nuclear power.11













Published in Chain Reaction, national magazine of Friends of the Earth Australia, August 2016