The Future of Energy

Spinning the Atom

Environmentalists are key to the nukes industry's PR push.

Patrick Moore sits in a dark mahogany booth at the Off the Record bar across from the White House. Clad in a conservative navy blue suit, he blends comfortably with the crowd of lobbyists and politicians—a far cry from his former identity as a scruffy-faced Greenpeace leader battling nuclear power. Now, between sips of pinot grigio, he's offering up dubious factoids: Nuclear waste is safe enough to store in a backyard swimming pool, the areas around the plants are "as clean as nature preserves," and Three Mile Island was a success story because no radiation was emitted. He dismisses anti-nuke arguments as "illogical imaginary fears."

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Moore may be the most adamant of the nuclear revival's environmental converts; he pushes his agenda in interviews like this one, in op-eds for papers like the Washington Post and Boston Globe, in presentations from Detroit to South Africa, and in private meetings with D.C. legislators. At the bar, he's so revved that it's hard to get a word in edgewise. It's also hard to take him at face value, given that he's a paid spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute (nei), the industry's trade and lobbying powerhouse.

In 2006, aiming to promote a "nuclear renaissance," the nei enlisted public-relations giant Hill & Knowlton, which, back in Atoms for Peace days, commanded Big Tobacco's siege on the science linking smoking to cancer. Hill & Knowlton in turn hired Moore and former Environmental Protection Agency chief Christine Todd Whitman as its public front. On April 24, 2006, two days before the 20th anniversary of the Chernobyl meltdown, it launched the Clean and Safe Energy (casenergy) Coalition to spread the nuclear gospel, with Moore and Whitman at the helm.

The industry has attempted this sort of thing before. In 1998, the Better Business Bureau censured as false advertising an nei ad campaign promoting nuclear power as environmentally clean. In 2004, the nei hired Potomac Communications Group to ghostwrite op-eds supporting storage of nuclear waste at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. Even Moore in his Greenpeace days warned of "very high-powered public relations organizations" on the industry payroll. "One can no more trust them to tell the truth about nuclear power than about which brand of toothpaste [to buy]," he wrote in 1976.

Moore and Whitman's early reputations—George W. Bush named Whitman his first epa chief as a sort of compromise with the green community—would make them ideal industry boosters were it not for their histories of selling green credibility to corporate pariahs. For 17 years, largely through his consulting firm Greenspirit Strategies, Moore has advocated for logging, mining, chemical, biotech, and plastics industries. His former peers now call him an "eco-Judas."

Whitman left the epa in 2004 and launched her own consulting group, which helps companies such as Chevron, Citgo, and chemical manufacturer fmc "overcome obstacles" in their dealings with government agencies, including the epa. (fmc alone has generated 87 Superfund sites and at least 33 epa enforcement citations.) When employees of New Jersey's environmental protection department were surveyed in 1997, during Whitman's gubernatorial tenure, two-thirds of respondents said business interests had excessive influence over their department's permitting, policy, and enforcement decisions.

Although Hill & Knowlton coordinates the coalition's activities, Moore and Whitman stress that their opinions are their own—to suggest otherwise, a casenergy rep cautions, "borders on slander." Moore concedes that the PR firm provides him with briefing papers, but "I approve of every single op-ed, letter to the editor, and utterance that is attributed to me," he says. "I read it, help write it, and approve it."

And yet, it's hard to reconcile casenergy's fission-for-the-planet arguments with Moore's denunciations of the scientific proof of climate change—"It is a risk, not a certainty," he clarifies, calling emissions reduction "an insurance policy"—or with Whitman's false post-9/11 declaration that airborne toxins from ground zero posed no risks to Big Apple residents. Among their coalition's 1,500 members are nuclear energy companies, industry groups, and trade unions that stand to profit from an industry resurgence, as well as politicians and groups like the Science and Environmental Policy Project, which opposes the global warming "myth."

Among their other duties, Moore, Whitman, and fellow coalition members have kept busy with "town meetings" set up by Hill & Knowlton to convince cities like Detroit and Cedar Rapids to host nuclear plants. The firm invites chamber of commerce folks, local politicians, and union leaders, bolstering the presentations with nei-funded polls. The pollster is Bisconti Research, whose president, Ann Bisconti, has served as a board member for the American Nuclear Society and as a vice president of the nei, and whose client list includes a who's who of nuclear interests. Sample survey question (agree or disagree): "We should take advantage of all low-carbon energy sources, including nuclear, hydro and renewable energy, to produce the electricity we need while limiting greenhouse gas emissions."

Moore and Whitman also hook up with legislators such as New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici, a Republican sponsor of the 2005 Energy Policy Act. (See "Fossil Fools") Moore claims they needn't register as lobbyists because they don't lobby; they educate.

Regarding their close ties, Hill & Knowlton, casenergy, and the nei are unapologetic. Scott Peterson, the trade group's spokesman, says, "We've been transparent from the start." But only if asked directly: From April 2006 through March 2007, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, just 12 percent of the 302 news stories that mentioned Moore in relation to nuclear power noted his nei connection. Peterson says it's not the industry's fault that reporters are lazy, but the NEI's website identifies Moore and Whitman simply as "environmentalists," and they introduce themselves in public as Greenpeace cofounder and former epa chief. Moore's presentations even include a slide show about his Greenpeace days. At a Progressive Policy Institute forum in February, Moore sounded irked when asked about his industry ties. "I don't see how being a successful environmentalist working for the things you believe in can diminish your credibility," he later said.

Moore's credibility among environmentalists, however, could hardly be worse. "How can a bunch of seemingly smart, reasonable people be saying this stuff that's scientifically and politically unfounded? It boggles my mind," says Julia Bovey of the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Moore and Whitman say they've seen the light," adds Jim Riccio, Greenpeace's nuclear-policy analyst. "Unfortunately, I think they're not interested in the green of the movement but of the dollar."

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