The U.S. nuclear power industry -- which had seemed poised for major growth -- is now in crisis mode as it seeks to allay fears of a Japanese-sized disaster with an aggressive public-relations campaign.
Power companies are running print ads, sending letters to plant neighbors, posting continual updates on their websites and making frequent media appearances. They are pushing back against anti-nuclear activists, who are calling for the closure of reactors across the U.S in light of the tsunami-induced catastrophe at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant in Japan.
The criticism, amplified by the extensive TV coverage of the unfolding events overseas, is posing perhaps the industry's greatest public-relations challenge since the Three Mile Island nuclear incident some three decades ago. The nuclear industry has "spent 25 years-plus trying to define nuclear energy as a safe alternative to fossil fuel and the impact of an incident like this could literally eradicate all those years of hard work," said Adam Mendelsohn, a partner with Mercury, a political- and corporate-public-relations firm whose practices include crisis management and communications. "The nuclear renaissance was in pretty high gear," said Lake Barrett, a nuclear engineer and former U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission official. This is a "setback, that's for sure."
Entergy Corp., owner of the Indian Point nuclear plant some 40 miles north of New York City, today began running ads in the New York Times, New York Post, Newsday and other newspapers declaring that "this facility is safe -- designed with a margin of safety beyond the strongest earthquake anticipated in the region." The plant is in the crosshairs because it sits at the intersection of two active seismic zones, although officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have deemed the site as safe, according to a report in the Times.
Still, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a longtime critic of the plant, has called for a safety review and has said he wants the plant shut down. (The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission today said it would make Indian Point "its first and top priority" in a fresh review of seismic risk at 27 nuclear plants nationwide, according to the governor's office.) Entergy's ads feature a letter from Entergy Chairman-CEO J. Wayne Leonard, who says he welcomes Mr. Cuomo's review but calls out other opponents for using the crisis in Japan to "escalate the fears of the public in order to further their longstanding goals of closing Indian Point."
Entergy will run the ads indefinitely, said spokesman Jim Steets. The company's public-relations firm is Burson-Marsteller.
Excelon, which operates 10 nuclear plants in Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, is sending reassuring letters to plant neighbors that echo a company statement saying that all the facilities "are able to withstand and safely shut down in very strong earthquakes." Meanwhile, the Nuclear Energy Institute -- a trade group whose members operate 104 reactors nationwide -- is posting YouTube videos in which officials pledge to undertake detailed inspections and make safety modifications if necessary.
The group also set up a dedicated Twitter feed (@neiupdates) whose frequent updates include links to favorable news coverage, including an editorial on a BBC website by a Cambridge University scientist who states that even in the "worst case ... the direct health consequences of the nuclear accident would be very small compared with the thousands already killed by the earthquake and tsunami."
Anti-nuclear activists, whose budgets are much smaller than the big energy companies, are relying on free media appearances and a letter-writing campaign to push for the shutdown of 23 U.S. reactors they say are identical to the ones involved in the Japan disaster. "The design flaws that have contributed to this calamity exits in these U.S. reactors," Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, said on a recent appearance on a Voice of America radio show. The group, which advocates against construction of new reactors, is displaying a photo of the smoking Japanese plant on its website along with a call for individual donations of $20. But even as both sides ramp up their messaging, the events on the ground will shape the debate and determine winners and losers, said one public-relations expert. "It's fine to run ads and talk about it but I think it's ... tinkering around the edges. The real question is, what happens in Japan," Mr. Mendelsohn said.
Japanese officials said Tuesday they had restored power to the control room of one of the damaged reactors -- a key step -- but were still struggling to make repairs to other reactors, according to a CNN report.
As of now public opinion in the U.S seems mixed. Some 40% of voters favor the building of nuclear plants in the U.S., the lowest support in about three years, according to a poll released last week by Rasmussen Reports (38% are opposed and 23% undecided). But a CBS News poll released this week showed that 53% of respondents were "no more fearful of a similar catastrophe in the U.S. than they were prior to the ongoing issues at Fukushima."
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