By Michael Mariotte

Nuclear Matters doesn't matter because its fundamental argument doesn't make sense. Not to these marchers, not to the general public, not even to politicians.

Nuclear Matters doesn’t matter because its fundamental argument doesn’t make sense. Not to these marchers, not to the general public, not even to politicians.

Regular readers of GreenWorld know that we have dropped a lot of digital ink writing about Nuclear Matters, the astroturf group launched by Exelon early this year to try to make the case to save the utility’s aging and uneconomic nuclear fleet.

Exelon and the PR firm Sloane and Company that runs the public end of Nuclear Matters have assembled a seemingly potent team of paid-for spokespeople to make the utility’s case: former Senators like Evan Bayh and Judd Gregg; former DOE secretary James Abraham; and the big catch, former EPA Administrator, Obama climate czar, and current League of Conservation Voters board chair Carol Browner.

These and others in Nuclear Matters’ assembled-team of backers have been writing (or, more likely, allowing their names to be used as having written) op-eds in publications across the country, appearing at Nuclear Matters-organized (ie Sloane and Company) events such as one in New York City the week of the People’s Climate March, and otherwise spreading the news that nuclear power is so important that it shouldn’t matter how costly to ratepayers or how old and unsafe a reactor is, it should keep operating for, apparently, perpetuity.

Maybe it’s just that the message isn’t exactly compelling. Or perhaps former politicians don’t carry the kind of clout Exelon needs. After all, making the case that millions of people should pay higher electricity rates than they otherwise would need to because, well, nuclear!, can’t be an easy sell to current politicians who have to answer to voters.

But the cat is out of the bag. In a remarkable column in which he tries to argue that Nuclear Matters should matter, Forbes’ incessant nuclear industry apologist James Conca inadvertently makes the case that it doesn’t matter.

Most of the column is just a paean to Nuclear Matters and nuclear power generally, chock-full of hype and regurgitated nuclear industry talking points honed by years of constant repetition, along with staggering exaggeration of nuclear’s alleged benefits. Example: Nuclear power is “the lowest carbon-emitting industry in America.” Really? Not just the lowest carbon-emitting energy source–which itself wouldn’t be true, when fuel chains are included both solar and wind beat nuclear–but the lowest carbon-emitting industry of any kind? Many industries’ carbon emissions are only indirect–caused by their forced reliance on fossil fuels for their power–if direct emissions (including full production chain) are the gauge, as they should be, there are at least dozens of industries that would rank lower than nuclear power.

Exaggeration like that is why people–even including politicians–increasingly can see through the nuclear industry’s self-serving pablum, and why they don’t buy the argument that they should pay more for electricity than they need to because, well, nuclear.

At the end of the column, Conca reveals why Nuclear Matters doesn’t matter: he writes America needs Nuclear Matters “Because nuclear energy has no constituency. And that is very dangerous in a democracy.”

Actually, there is no reason at all to think that nuclear power’s lack of constituency is dangerous to our democracy. Bad ideas don’t necessarily maintain constituencies. And there must have been some constituency for nuclear power at one point–it’s hard to imagine that some 120+ nuclear reactors costing hundreds of billions of dollars could have been built without one. If that constituency didn’t stick around, then it may just be because that constituency reacted to the reality that nuclear power turned out to be not such a good deal for ratepayers, nor the air and water, nor public health, nor even the climate, where it is still holding back needed deployment of clean solar and wind power.

Of course, Conca’s revelation is itself an exaggeration. Nuclear power clearly maintains a powerful constituency, as even bad ideas backed with a lot of money tend to do. There always have been, and remain today, plenty of politicians who will support nuclear power without hesitation; thus we have federal legislators questioning the notion that the NRC should require utilities to implement modest safety improvements based on the lessons learned from Fukushima–even on reactors of the same design and vulnerability as those ill-fated ones on the Japanese coast.

What Conca means is that the nuclear industry doesn’t get everything it wants when it wants. That’s because clean energy groups, far worse-funded than poor, lonely Nuclear Matters and its ilk, fight like hell to stop it. And because what the Exelon/Entergy wing of the nuclear power industry wants now–guaranteed survival and profit in a competitive marketplace for as long as the utilities want–goes so far against the grain that even generally pro-nuclear politicians so far aren’t willing to leap joyfully aboard that bandwagon.

When the competitive marketplaces that exist in most of the country were set up more than a decade ago, it wasn’t to ensure that the cleanest energy sources would prevail, it was set up so that the cheapest energy sources would prevail. That the two–cheap and clean–would turn out to go hand-in-hand a dozen or so years later has come as a welcome surprise to all but those who bet all their chips on nuclear and coal. Nuclear Matters is Exelon’s effort to overturn the gaming table and hope some of those lost chips fall back in their pockets.

But, as one PR pro put it, “I can’t remember the last time I read an op-ed piece argued so ineptly that it thoroughly demolished its own premise.”

This pro went on to point out the actual underlying themes of Conca’s piece:

1. Nobody cares about preserving nuclear power. You only hear from people opposing it.
2. Nobody is speaking out about preserving nuclear power. The only ones on the Hill who speak out oppose it.
3. There is no base of voters you can win over by being in favor of nuclear power.

Ironically, for most politicians politics is about power–not the kind that comes out of a wall socket, but the real stuff: who has it and how to get more of it. This piece is intended to make the case for nuclear power needing to have more political power, but, in doing so, exposes it as utterly powerless.

Back on April 1, I wrote about the founding of Nuclear Matters, “Creation of such a group is itself a sign of the industry’s desperation–who knew a technology that is so self-evidently advantageous (at least in the minds of the industry itself, if for no one else) would need a new organization not to promote industry growth but to try to postpone its inevitable stumble into oblivion?”

That desperation has now devolved into a new level of pathos, where an organization with a very fat wallet, backed by a utility worth billions and supported by an industry collectively worth hundreds of billions, now describes itself as powerless and grasping for someone to hold out a branch of support.

Nuclear Matters doesn’t matter. And it’s not for lack of effort on Exelon’s part, nor that of the organization’s many other industry supporters. It’s because their fundamental argument is that ratepayers should pay far more for their electricity than they need to simply because some nuclear utilities bet the wrong way on the future–and refuse even now to prepare for the inevitable shutdown of reactors–and because nuclear has a myriad of advantages that only nuclear utilities seem able to perceive. The issue isn’t that these aging, uneconomic reactors are needed to keep the lights on and the beer cold. They’re not. In fact, the problem for nuclear is that the alternatives are both cheaper and cleaner. Nuclear Matters doesn’t matter because its fundamental argument simply makes no sense.

Michael Mariotte

October 14, 2014


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Filed under: Nuclear Economics, nuclear industry Tagged: Carol Browner, Exelon, Forbes, James Conca, League of Conservation Voters, Nuclear Matters, Sloane and Company

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