By Michael Mariotte

NEI to Wall Street: Nothing to learn from here; let's move along now.

NEI to Wall Street: Nothing to learn from here; let’s move along now.

Pity those poor, sensitive souls at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) and Exelon’s Nuclear Matters astroturf group. It seems that some people don’t like them, and aren’t afraid to say so. And it’s hurting their feelings.

That’s the message NEI CEO Marvin Fertel sent to Wall Street this week during its annual briefing to the investment community.

As reported by Hannah Northey for E&E News (unfortunately, behind a paywall), when an investment analyst asked about the biggest challenges the nuclear industry faces, Fertel complained that Nuclear Matters’ Carol Browner, who was EPA Administrator under President Clinton, “has gotten ‘nasty’ emails from her colleagues in the environmental community for leading a pro-nuclear campaign focused on fighting climate change…”

Just imagine the horror of receiving a “nasty” e-mail from a former environmentalist colleague who you’ve turned your back on by selling out to a dirty, polluting industry.

Carol Browner. Photo from wikimedia commons.

Although, as we’ve reported before, while Browner is well-connected with the environmental movement (she’s still chair of the board of League of Conservation Voters, which continues to diminish their credibility), a fairly lengthy search failed to turn up a single anti-nuclear quote from her ever despite the fact that as a Nuclear Matters/Exelon spokesperson, Browner plays up her supposed anti-nuclear past.

You’d think that those of us who have been working on nuclear issues for decades might recall Browner’s anti-nuke activism. If it had existed, that is.

I wonder if this post qualifies as a “nasty” attack?

Fertel wasn’t done whining though. According to Northey, he told Wall Street that “…up to 67 percent of Americans support nuclear power…” We’re not sure what was in his cup of coffee that morning, but the polls we’ve seen, like this one, show a radically different picture. The pollster, Harvard Government Professor Stephen Ansolabehere, has been conducting this poll for twelve years now. As he put it in December, “Americans want to move away from coal, oil and nuclear power and toward wind and solar.” In fact, 90% want more solar and wind, and 80% want a lot more solar and wind.

The poll was actually begun in 2001, when a group of MIT engineers–including now DOE secretary Ernest Moniz–wanted to get public opinion on the concept they supported: using nuclear power to fight climate change. They didn’t get the results they wanted, to put it mildly. Public opinion said “no” to that concept then, and it continues to say “no” to nuclear power and coal now.

But Fertel wasn’t done. He blamed the problem on, who else, us anti-nuclear groups. As Northey reports, “‘I think there are anti-nuclear groups–and I look at them the same way as I look at companies, they’re a business,” Fertel said. “Some of them are very idealistic, but fundamentally they’re trying to raise funds.’”

Yes, that’s why we’re anti-nuclear, because we just want to raise a lot of money from all those incredibly wealthy anti-nukers out there to pay for our south Pacific vacations and the new Teslas in our driveways. We wish. It’s true we have to raise funds to survive and do our work. But as anyone who has taken even a cursory look at our, or any other anti-nuclear group’s finances, knows–we ain’t in it for the money.

Fertel wouldn’t know about that: NEI is paid for by its actually wealthy members–nuclear power utilities and suppliers. And if NEI’s bills are too steep, those members can just go out and raise prices and electric rates on all of us to pay those bills. Not that they need to raise rates, they have plenty of money to begin with.

NEI CEO Marvin Fertel. Photo from Senate Environment Committee.

NEI CEO Marvin Fertel. Photo from Senate Environment Committee.

Fertel still wasn’t through whining. At some point during the call, he got down to the real messages NEI and Nuclear Matters are trying to sell to anyone who will listen. And that’s two kinds of regulatory relief.

One kind is relief from that awful Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which despite backing down on its most important new safety requirements based on the lessons learned from Fukushima, hasn’t yet backed down from all of them. Northey quotes Fertel: “The companies that operate nuclear plants must devote resources to comply with these requirements, some of which do little to enhance safety,” he said, adding that companies with finite resources may have to defer activities tied to reliability and safety.

In other words, NEI is saying that some nuclear utilities–those saddled with uneconomic reactors that may be forced to shut down because of their losses–want to decide for themselves which safety rules they’ll implement, and may just ignore the NRC entirely if they don’t want to pay for safety improvements. So much for the idea that the nuclear power industry cares one iota about your health and safety.

The other kind of relief is the same mantra that NEI and Nuclear Matters have been intoning for the past year or more: a recognition by someone, anyone with authority–state legislatures, the PJM grid, FERC, whoever–that nuclear power is inherently valuable and thus the marketplace needs to be “reformed” so that people have to be forced to pay more for their electricity–just because it’s nuclear.

The nation’s aging, increasingly uneconomic fleet of reactors–particularly Exelon’s and Entergy’s reactors–aren’t being valued properly, if you listen to NEI. The reality is that these reactors simply can’t compete with the alternatives anymore. Even many paid-for existing reactors generate electricity at a higher cost than wind, natural gas and both utility-scale and rooftop solar power now.

The NEI sees these reactors as “assets” that deserve special compensation. But the rest of the world increasingly sees them as albatrosses, as obsolete relics of the 20th century grid. And, after all, it’s not like even the best reactors can run forever. Sooner or later, every reactor will close, and then they will be liabilities, not assets. The problem for the nuclear industry is that that day has come sooner than they wanted. But the public shouldn’t be forced to pay for nuclear utilities’ bad business decisions–and a growing number of legislators and regulators are beginning to understand that.

The NEI sees these reactors as “baseload” power plants, essential to ensuring a reliable supply of electricity. Increasingly, the rest of the world sees the entire concept of “baseload” power as another obsolete relic of the 20th century grid. In fact, just yesterday, the American Wind Energy Association published a study showing how wind power is actually more reliable than the kind of large nuclear and coal plants that ruled the electric roost in the 20th century. The study demolished the entire myth of the necessity of traditional “baseload” power.

If you want to get a sense of all that NEI and Nuclear Matters want, here is a report on the Wall Street conference call from the industry’s World Nuclear News.

The article is full of optimism for nuclear power, and that’s surely the message Fertel was trying to get across–as he does every year on these calls. But stooping to complaining about “nasty” e-mails (note: if there were any such e-mails, they didn’t come from us) doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in Fertel’s message. In fact, the NEI’s incessant whining is a pretty clear indication that Browner’s arguments that nuclear power is necessary to fight climate change, Fertel’s claim that poorly-funded anti-nuke groups are only in it for the money, and NEI’s arguments that the entire electricity marketplace needs to be adjusted to favor nuclear power over clean energy, are gaining no traction on Wall Street, and likely not anywhere else either.

Michael Mariotte

February 13, 2015


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Filed under: Nuclear Economics, nuclear industry Tagged: Carol Browner, Marvin Fertel, NEI, Nuclear Matters

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