Big Greens and Nuclear Power Embraces: What the WSJ Got Right

by Dan Fischer

Writing for the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), Miranda Spencer leveled strong charges against a June 16th Wall Street Journal article by reporter Amy Harder. Harder’s original article reported that some of America’s largest environmental groups were softening their traditional opposition to nuclear power and that this change was “lowering one of the biggest political hurdles facing the nuclear power industry.”

Miranda Spencer’s June 24th response for FAIR, “WSJ Fakes a Green Shift Toward Nuclear Power,” argues that the alleged shift amounts to little more than the WSJ editors’ wishful thinking: “In publishing this piece as edited, perhaps it is telling a story it wishes were true.”

However, Spencer and her publisher FAIR engage in more than their own share of wishful thinking. They fail to point their critical lens at the quick-to-compromise “Big Green” groups, who have long been constrained by funding from elite donors and foundations. In the words of environmental historian Mark Dowie, the Big Greens “carefully avoid challenging the power structures and relationships that have the most profound environmental impacts.”

Sometimes the Big Greens will say they oppose nuclear power. Other times, they’ll tell audiences they’re open to the technology. In either case, beneath the rhetoric they’ll enthusiastically campaign for pro-nuclear policies and pro-nuclear candidates. They’ll stay virtually silent when new nuclear reactors open.

In other words, there is an awful lot that the Wall Street Journal got right.

It’s easy to understand why FAIR, a self-described “progressive” organization, would want to defend the integrity of the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Environmental Defense Fund against a newspaper owned by the arch-Republican Rupert Murdoch. However,grassroots anti-nuclear activists would be wise to watch the major environmental organizations just as critically as they would read the Wall Street Journal.

We’re not opposed to nuclear energy”

Consider the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and their president Fred Krupp. The WSJ reported that the EDF is “deciding to what extent it should adjust its policy, potentially lending its support to keeping open financially struggling reactors.” Writing for FAIR, Spencer dismisses this“vague assertion” but counters it with an even vaguer assertion that the EDF “is not exactly a nuclear booster.” Spencer’s sole piece of evidence is the irrelevant fact that a single, short EDF blog post about climate solutions didn’t happen to mention nuclear power.

Actually, the EDF is quite open to nuclear power. In a December 2015 discussion on PBS News Hour, EDF president Fred Krupp insisted, “First of all,we’re not opposed to nuclear energy.” Throughout the segment, Krupp did not mention a single concern about nuclear power plants’ safety risks or environmental impacts. In an earlier MSNBC interview, Krupp said, “Well, nuclear power is a carbon-free source of energy so it should be on the table, absolutely. The concerns right now are cost.” The EDF’s economist Jamie Fine has further spelled it out on the group’s website: “EDF is not an anti-nuclear organization.”

Then there is the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Spencer quotes NRDC’s blog affirming “NRDC’s long-held concerns” about nuclear power, leaving the impression that the NRDC has a principled opposition to the technology.

In reality, the NRDC supports keeping a large number of nuclear reactors open. As Ben Adler reports for Grist, the NRDC “supports relicensing plants in situations where it’s safer and the plants can’t yet be replaced by renewable energy, and it calls for rejecting those — such as Indian Point in Westchester, N.Y. — that are uniquely dangerous.” Notice Adler’s word choice and the implication that the NRDC is only rushing to close “uniquely” dangerous facilities and actively “supports” keeping others open. There are serious flaws with the NRDC’s reasoning, which will be explored at the end of this article.

According to a statement quoted by Spencer, the Sierra Club “remains opposed to dangerous nuclear power.” Contradicting this assertion, however, the WSJ reports the Sierra Club’s leaders “see existing reactors as a bridge to renewable electricity and an alternative source of energy.”

It’s unlikely that the WSJ is lying about what Sierra Club representatives said. As Noam Chomsky explains in Understanding Power, “take the Wall Street Journal, the prototypical business press: the editorial pages are just comical tantrums, but the news coverage is often quite interesting and well done, they have some of the best reporting in the country, in fact. And I think the reason for that is pretty clear….people in the business world have to have a realistic picture of what’s happening in the world if they’re going to make sane decisions about their money” (New Press, 2002, 28).Chomsky would know; FAIR’s website justifiably recommends Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent as “a probing expose of biased reporting.”

The WSJ piece goes on to directly quotes Sierra Club’s executive director Michael Brune: “We’re actively debating the timeline in which nuclear plants should be decommissioned as we reduce our reliance on coal and gas in the electric sector.” In other words, Brune himself directly admits there are at least some elements in the Sierra Club leadership that want nuclear plants to stay open for a while.

The Big Greens’ wishy-washiness on nuclear energy may be partly explained by their reliance on the elite foundations and donors. Nuclear power supporter Michael Bloomberg has given the Sierra Club some $80 million since 2011. That’s almost an entire year’s budget for the organization.Politico reported in 2012, “Michael Bloomberg thinks [that…] nuclear energy, isn’t so bad.” Bloomberg’s company owns Nuclear Matters, a public relations group that preaches “the clear benefits” of nuclear energy.

Endorsements and Silence

Back in 2010, the EDF, NRDC and Sierra Club all campaigned vigorously for the American Power Act, a pro-nuclear climate action bill in the US Senate. Two hundred grassroots groups signed a letter opposing the bill and calling it a “bailout of the nuclear power industry” and “ineffective at addressing the climate crisis.” The Act mandated minuscule cuts in carbon emissions but then undid these cuts with enormous loopholes in the form of a fraud-prone mechanism called “carbon offsetting.”

Many of the Big Greens championed the American Power Act despite acknowledging its potential to revive the nuclear power industry. The NRDC admitted the bill contained “excessive subsidies for constructing new nuclear power plants” and “weakening changes” to nuclear regulation.

The bill never passed, and since then, efforts to implement federal climate policy have shifted from the legislature to the executive branch. Since then, the Big Greens have been gearing to put in charge the nuclear power cheerleader Hillary Clinton. According to her policy director, Clinton thinks “nuclear energy has an important role to play in our clean-energy future.”

The League of Conservation Voters endorsed Clinton in November 2015. The NRDC endorsed Clinton in May, and the Sierra Club endorsed her in June. These groups all misleadingly portrayed Clinton as an unabashed environmental leader. The Sierra Club’s Michael Brune, for instance, claimed Clinton “will be the strong environmental champion that we need.” Brune made no mention of Clinton’s support for nuclear power and fracking, her taking $4.5 million from fossil fuel interests, or her prior support for the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

The Sierra Club would likely risk its funding from the Democracy Alliance and other mainstream foundations if it were to endorse an actual environmentalist such as Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Still, it would have been possible for Brune to back Clinton as the lesser evil without misleading the public about her record.

In June, Tennessee’s Watts Bar nuclear plant opened a new nuclear reactor. It was the country’s first new nuclear reactor to open in two decades. The Sierra Club did not seem very concerned.

“In the environmental community, though, reaction to the new reactor appears fairly muted,” reported Chris Mooney of the Washington Post.According to Mooney, the Sierra Club’s representative Jonathan Levenshus “did not critique [the new reactor] in particular on safety or other grounds; he was simply pessimistic about the future of nuclear power in general.”

As Harder reported in the WSJ story, the Sierra Club, EDF, and NRDC were negotiating with power company Exelon Corporation about Illinois energy legislation. Exelon had proposed a deal which would reverse their June decision to close two reactors. (Since then, the company submitted a plan to move forward with closing the reactors.)

The NRDC had at best a very soft opposition to Exelon’s proposal. In an NRDC blog post described by Spencer as “debunking” the WSJ story, the NRDC’s midwest program director hinted the organization would have accepted keeping the nuclear reactors temporarily open as part of an “orderly and just transition.” More tellingly, the post linked to an analysis by the NRDC’s midwestern policy director Nick Magrisso. Despitecriticizing the possible inclusion of a nuclear reactor bailout, Magrisso praised the overall legislation as a “forward-looking energy policy.” It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to see that the NRDC was willing to compromise on the issue.

The flawed reasoning of compromise

So what, one might ask. The nuclear industry seems to be in trouble anyway. Only a handful of new nuclear reactors are under construction. Recently the operators of California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant announced they will shut down the plant next decade, with encouragement from the Big Greens criticized above. This announcement prompted Harvey Wasserman to pronounce the “end of an atomic era.”

But the nail is not in the coffin yet, and the Big Greens aren’t going to put it there themselves.

Some might think the NRDC and similar groups have a point in saying it would be better to keep some nuclear plants open than to burn more fossil fuels. But this reasoning relies on a false choice. Nuclear power plants produce only a tenth of the world’s electricity and a fifth of the United States’. This capacity could be rapidly replaced with a combination of conservation and already-existing clean power sources (see the Energy Justice Network’s “Solutions” page).

Every single existing nuclear reactor is dangerous and, in the words of Karl Grossman, a “pre-deployed Weapon of Mass Destruction,” since they are prime terrorist targets.

Every existing reactor also entails the risk of an accidental meltdown like the one at Fukushima in 2011. Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) have estimated the Fukushima disaster will ultimately be responsible for as many as 66,000 cancers, half of them fatal.

PSR advocates rapidly shutting down all nuclear plants. So does Naoto Kan, who was Japan’s prime minister when the Fukushima meltdown persuaded him to stop supporting nuclear technology. Kan told Democracy Now!, “It’s impossible to totally prevent any kind of accident or disaster happening at the nuclear plants.”

All the proposals for long-term nuclear waste storage are on lands used by and sacred to indigenous peoples. The government has long been considering sending nuclear waste to earthquake-prone Yucca Mountain. Not only does the site leak, but it is sacred to the Western Shoshone people, who make up some of nuclear power’s strongest opponents. Since the NRDC is apparently willing to back the creation of additional nuclear waste, one wonders where they want this waste to be sent, if not to vulnerable Western Shoshone land.

The WSJ story indicates that the nuclear industry is in trouble. “Roughly a dozen nuclear reactors have either shut down or are set to shut down in the coming years, according to the Nuclear Energy Institute.” To finish the job, however, grassroots environmentalists will need to be willing to pressure and criticize the foundation-funded “nonprofit-industrial complex,” including the Big Greens and, for that matter, FAIR.

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