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Tuesday, March 3, 2015

VIDEO: The sixty-year pitch.

Third of three parts. Part 1: Last Tango for nuclear?; Part 2: Atomic Balm.

Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, Tony Fischer/flickr
The nuclear power industry has often been its own worst enemy through its marketing.

At the height of the Cold War in 1953, President Eisenhower rolled out the “Atoms for Peace” campaign, envisioning everything from electrical generation to harnessing atomic bombs to dredging harbors and damming rivers. 

The following year, Atomic Energy Commission Chair Lewis Strauss upped the ante, envisioning a day when “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.”

Strauss was placing his bets on nuclear fusion, which, sixty years later, is still on the drawing board. And the meters are still ticking away.

Eager to invest in nukes, utilities took their cue from the AEC Chairman. The Atomic Industrial Forum, the first nuclear power trade association, led the way in messages equating nuclear power with easy living and patriotism. Utilities ran ad campaigns that promised cheap nuclear energy.

From hot times to deep freeze

Nuclear power plant construction hit its Golden Era in the 1960’s. A late Sixties video touting proposed New England nukes, "The Atom and Eve," is a memorable example from the era: Eve is a dancing housewife, reveling in the virtues of an all-electric kitchen powered by clean, safe nuclear energy. 

The video’s cigarette-smoking safety engineer looks like he was plucked out of the fission edition of Mad Men, but it's Eve's show. She pirouettes around household appliances, caressing the refrigerator, fondling an electric range, and (viewer advisory!) at about the 8:45 mark, she pretty much makes it to third base with an electric washer-dryer combo.

The cynical atmosphere of the Seventies brought a different approach. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 prompted a U.S. oil crisis, and it all reprised six years later. One of the few friends of the U.S. remaining in the Middle East became a posterboy – or poster Shah – for building U.S. nukes to curb dependency on Arab oil.
It wasn’t Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s only nuclear victory. In 1976, President Gerald Ford bowed to persuasion from two top aides to provide nuclear reprocessing technology to Iran. Three years later, the Shah was toppled, and Iran became America’s top enemy, both its oil and its nuke plants now a threat. The two aides, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, went on to further carve their names into Middle East history.

By the end of the decade, rising protests at nuclear plant construction sites and the near-calamity of Three Mile Island changed the game. Public mistrust grew, particularly after Nuclear Regulatory Commission staffers accused Pennsylvania officials and Three Mile Island’s operators of downplaying risks.

The almost-concurrent release of The China Syndrome, a fictional tale of a California nuclear accident and cover-up, didn’t help. The box-office hit, starring Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda, features a plant engineer delivering a serendipitous line taken from an actual 1957 Atomic Energy Commission report stating a major nuclear accident would “render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”

 Showbiz takes a swing
After Three Mile Island and The China Syndrome, nukes became a pop-culture target. Less than six months after Three Mile Island’s partial meltdown the era’s rock and roll royalty convened for the “No Nukes” concerts in New York: Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash and The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, headlined. 

Four years later, Meryl Streep starred in a biopic about Karen Silkwood, a plutonium worker and union organizer who was contaminated in an on-the-job incident. When Silkwood died in a 1974 car wreck, supporters said she was run off the road. Police ruled it an accident, but her employers at Kerr-McGee paid her survivors nearly $1.4 million for the contamination.

Nuclear reached peak pop culture pillorying in 1990 with the debut of The Simpsons. With the loutish Homer Simpson becoming the nation’s best-known nuclear employee and the comically evil Montgomery Burns representing ownership and management (not to mention Blinky, the mutant three-eyed fish who appeared in the show’s first year), tens of millions sat down weekly to jokes at the industry’s expense.

After the show became a hit in its first season, the industry took several Simpson’s writers and producers on a VIP tour of the San Onofre plant north of San Diego. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, executive producer Sam Simon promised to take the edge off the nuke jokes. Blinky the mutant fish disappeared from the show, but nuclear snark has remained a Simpsons hallmark for a quarter century.

 Anxious Eighties 
Three Mile Island did not spawn the cancer epidemic that some activists predicted but it scared the pants off of Wall Street. Backing for new plant construction plunged into a deep freeze as existing nuclear plants aged and on-site storage of nuclear waste piled up. 

The industry’s re-formed communications arm, the Council on Energy Awareness, cranked out ads dissing the near-term prospects for wind and solar (including a version of “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie.”) 

They also vowed that safe nuclear waste storage was right around the corner. It wasn’t, and still isn’t.

In 1986, the Soviet nuclear complex at Chernobyl, in today’s Ukraine, re-defined the notion of nuclear disaster. Thirty-one deaths were reported immediately after the rupture of a core, steam explosions and radiation releases at Chernobyl’s Reactor Four. 

The radiation plume reached as far as Scandinavia, with much of it falling on neighboring Belarus. About 350,000 people were relocated from the contamination zones and Pripyat, the city built to serve the reactors, is still a ghost town today, and will be for an estimated 20,000 years.

The World Health Organization estimated that Chernobyl-related cancer deaths will eventually reach 4,000, but that is hotly disputed, with some projections reaching six figures. 

Just to prove that the pro-nuclear side doesn’t have a monopoly on overreach, high-profile opponent Dr. Helen Caldicott has repeatedly cited an obscure, non-peer-reviewed estimate of up to one million eventual deaths from Chernobyl. No other study comes close to those numbers.

By 1988, with the Shah a distant memory, the Middle East became an ominous selling point instead of a success story for nukes. A Council on Energy Awareness ad showing a man paddling a barrel of oil through a Persian Gulf minefield argued for domestic nukes as a countermeasure to Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollahs he was at war with.

 Nervous Nineties and beyond
In 1998, industry advertising was whacked by the Better Business Bureau, which ruled in favor of environmental groups and a windmill power producer that nuclear ads could not boast of producing “environmentally clean” power. When those claims continued, the groups won a similar ruling from the Federal Trade Commission a year later.

As the 21st Century rolled in, the industry increasingly marketed itself as a remedy to climate change concerns, with a parade of prominent citizens, some of them paid spokespeople, plugging nuclear.

Then, in 2011, came Fukushima, and the industry’s umpteenth redemption pitch was in doubt. And Japan, by reputation one of the best-prepared and most safety-conscious nation on Earth, went into damage control mode, including at least one world-class PR overreach: Tokyo Electric Power’s legal team argued in court that radiation released by the Fukushima meltdowns was no longer the company’s responsibility.

The court was not amused.

Today, the domestic nuclear industry is relying heavily on selling nuke plants as a climate change solution. They’ve also leaned heavily on a reliability pitch, citing nuke plants’ consistent operation during the 2014 Polar Vortex. 

During the fierce New England storms of 2015, Exelon, owner of the biggest fleet of U.S. nukes, sent out this prideful tweet:
“Extreme weather’s got nothing on #nuclear. Our plants ran continuously during the recent winter storm in New England.”
Only problems with this: Exelon doesn’t own any nuclear plants in New England. And on Jan. 27, Entergy’s Pilgrim nuke near Plymouth, Mass., went offline during a winter storm for the second time in three years. EDITOR'S NOTE: we could also add the non-stop string of safety problems at our own local nuke, the Millstone Power Station just 20 miles west of Charlestown.

This series is funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Family Foundation

Read part one: Last Tango for Nuclear?; and part two: Atomic Balm

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Peter Dykstra at or Brian Bienkowski at