The "Green" Nuclear Cabal

This is an excerpt from JEFFREY ST. CLAIR’s environmental history, Born Under a Bad Sky, published by AK Press / CounterPunch Books.

Striding into Kyoto in December of 1997 claiming to be a mighty warrior in the battle against global warming was a familiar beast, the nuclear power industry. Some of the industry’s biggest lobbyists, men such as James Curtis (a former deputy secretary of energy during the Reagan years), prowled the streets and sushi bars of this ancient city (itself running on juice from an aging nuke) angling for some positive words in the treaty for their troubled enterprise. The big reactor makers, GE, Westinghouse, and Combustion Engineering, were there too, dissing the oil and coal lobby, downplaying the long-term viability of natural gas and generally treating the eco-summit as if it were an international trade show.

On the eve of the Climate Change summit, I was slipped a copy of the nuclear industry’s Kyoto briefing book prepared by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a $100 million a year trade organization. The book was written by researchers at Bechtel, the giant construction firm that has built dozens of nuclear plants across the globe. The document touts the latest “advanced light water nuclear reactor” as the most ecologically benign engineering feat since the solar panel and argues that only realistic way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels in the next ten years is to bring on-line at least an additional 50 reactors. “Nuclear energy has been the largest single contributor to reduced air pollution in the world over the past 20 years,” the NEI’s Kyoto global warming book boasts. “And it promises to play an even greater role in the future, especially in developing countries, like India and China, which need to increase their electricity supplies to accommodate their expanding populations and economies.”

The NEI book tactfully avoids the unsavory subject of radioactive waste, but does go to some lengths to argue on behalf of China’s vigilance in the battle against nuclear proliferation. China, the NEI suggests, would never secretly export nuclear technology because it “has expressed strong concern over the possibility of nuclear-armed neighbors.” More significantly, the NEI warns that China “plans to standardize its nuclear generating technology, selecting one or two standardized reactor designs for future construction. If U.S. reactor manufacturers are barred from competing, China will not have the option of selecting the safest technology in the world, and the market will be permanently closed to U.S. suppliers.”

With China and other Asian countries planning to build more than 70 nuclear plants by 2025 years, the financial stakes are staggering. American companies, such as GE, Westinghouse and Bechtel, desperately crave those multi-billion dollar contracts. “In theory these could all be US plants,” boasted Ian Butterfield, CBS’s vice-president for international affairs. With a little help from the US government.

The NEI’s Kyoto packet includes a long list of endorsements ranging from Tom Clancy and the Pope to Hazel O’Leary and green guru James Lovelock, inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis, who is quoted as saying, “Nuclear power has an important contribution to make.” Also proudly displayed for the Kyoto conferees was a statement by Al Gore’s good friend, Rep. Bob Clement, Democrat from Tennessee, who pronounced, “With the implementation of the Clean Air Act and the administration’s increased concern about global climate change and acid rain, renewed attention has been focused on nuclear energy’s significant environmental benefits. Environmental awareness coupled with increased basic needs for electricity are becoming critical in certain regions of the country. Nuclear energy, along with a strong conservation program and energy efficiency programs, is a smart choice.”

Sadly for the credibility of the atom lobby, some of the more eye-grabbing numbers in the NEI’s report simply don’t check out. For example, the nuclear industry claims that the world’s 447 nuclear plants reduce CO2 emissions by 30 percent. But the true villain behind global warming is carbon. Existing nuclear plants save only about 5 percent of total carbon emissions, hardly much of a bargain given the costs and risks associated with nuclear power. Moreover, the nuclear lobby likes to compare its record to coal-fired plants, rather renewables such as solar, wind, and geothermal. Even when compared to coal, nuclear power fails the test if investments are made to increase the efficient use of the existing energy supply. One recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that “even under the most optimistic cost projections for future nuclear electricity, efficiency is found to be 2.5 to 10 times more cost effective for CO2-abatement. Thus, to the extent that investments in nuclear power divert funds away from efficiency, the pursuit of a nuclear response to global warming would effectively exacerbate the problem.”

The activities of the Nuclear Energy Institute do not meet with universal approbation in the nuclear industry. The dues are onerous-the Tennessee Valley Authority is reputed to fork up no less than $10 million a year-while the results are in some cases at least, risible. Some years ago, for example, the watchdogs of the industry noted that The Simpsons, the enormously popular cartoon series, was depicting nuclear power in an unfavorable light. Bart Simpson’s father Homer works at a local nuclear plant where the reactors are held together with chewing gum and a river fed by waste water from the plant is rife with three-eyed trout and other mutations. The NEI sprang into action, sponsoring intensive briefings and tours of reassuringly shiny nuclear facilities for the Simpson’s creative team-all without any discernible effect on Homer Simpson, who continues to absent-mindedly drop radioactive fuel rods into his pocket at work and then toss them out of the car on the way home.

In many ways, the NEI’s global warming initiative is largely a replay of their attempt to profit off of acid rain legislation in the late 1980s, a campaign which miserably failed to attract much sympathy from legislators and only seemed to anger the public. But in Clintontime the NEI encountered a somewhat warmer reception in the White House and on the Hill. Indeed, the weeks before the Kyoto conclave the nuclear industry has scored series of amazing triumphs not seen since the waning days of the Reagan administration.

One reason for its renewed success may be that the NEI began putting its money into more profitable investments than its campaign to greenwash The Simpsons, namely into the coffers of the DNC and RNC. In the four years before Kyoto the NEI and its members doled out $13 million in political contributions to key senate and house members, including John Dingell ($122,700) Tom Delay ($106.500), Dick Gephardt ($104,000) Thomas Bliley ($100,000), and David Bonior ($80,075).

Another reason is that the nuclear lobby has enjoyed a long and profitable relationship with both Clinton and Gore. Al Gore, who wrote of the potential green virtues of nuclear power in his book Earth in the Balance, earned his stripes as a congressman protecting the interests of two of the nuclear industry’s most problematic enterprises, the TVA and the Oak Ridge Labs. And, of course, Bill Clinton backed the Entergy Corporation’s outrageous plan to soak Arkansas ratepayers with the cost overruns on the company’s Grand Gulf reactor which provided power to electricity consumers in Louisiana.

First came the deal to begin selling nuclear reactors to China, announced during Jiang Zemin’s 1997 visit Washington, even though Zemin brazenly vowed at the time not to abide by the so-called “full scope safeguards” spelled out in the International Atomic Energy Act. The move was apparently made over the objections of Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, who cited repeated exports by China of “dual use” technologies to Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. The CIA also weighed in against the deal, pointing out in a report to the President that “China was the single most import supplier of equipment and technology for weapons of mass destruction” worldwide. In a press conference on the deal, Mike McCurry said these nuclear reactors will be “a lot better for the planet than a bunch of dirty coal-fired plants” and will be “a great opportunity for American vendors”-that is, Westinghouse.

A day later Clinton signed an agreement to begin selling nuclear technology to Brazil and Argentina for the first time since 1978, when Jimmy Carter canceled a previous deal after repeated violations of safety guidelines and nonproliferation agreements.

In a letter to congress, Clinton vouched for the South American countries, saying they had made “a definitive break with earlier ambivalent nuclear policies.” Deputy National Security Advisor Jim Steinberg justified the nuclear pact with Brazil and Argentina as “a partnership in developing clean and reliable energy supplies for the future.” Steinberg noted that both countries had opposed binding limits on greenhouse emissions and that new nuclear plants would be one way “to take advantage of the fact that today we have technologies available for energy use which were not available at the time that the United States and other developed countries were going through their periods of development.”

One the eve of the Kyoto meetings, the nuclear industry secured another startling windfall, this time a promise of nearly $400 million in research and development subsidies. The key man here was one of Al Gore’s intellectual Svengalis, John P. Holdren. While a professor at Berkeley, Holdren portrayed himself as a mighty foe of nuclear weapons. His popularity among Berkeley students soared after he gave ecological backing to Carl Sagan’s scary scenarios about nuclear winter. Now Holdren is ensconced at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he presides as the John and Teresa Heinz professor of environmental policy. Yes, that Teresa Heinz, she of the $2 billion fortune, wife of John Kerry, and head of a $200 million foundation which gives money for “practical solutions to global environmental problems.” She is also a long-time board member of the nuke-happy Environmental Defense Fund.

Holdren was tapped by Gore and Clinton’s science advisor Jack Gibbons to head a task force on energy and climate policy as part of the Presidential Commission on Science and Technology. Holdren’s panel was well stocked with allies of the nuclear lobby, headlined by Bechtel’s Lawrence Papay and William Fulkerson, former associate director of the Oak Ridge National Lab and a senior fellow at the Gore-endowed Joint Institute for Energy and Environment at the University of Tennessee. Masquerading as an academic was Charles Vest, a former president of MIT and a driving force behind the American Nuclear Society’s Eagle Alliance.

Another prominent spot went to the person who must hold the all-time record for appointments to presidential commissions involving environmental matters, Virginia Weldon, chief flack for Monsanto. Weldon rarely misses an opportunity to praise irradiation as a cure for all of the dangers lurking in the US food supply.

Environmentalists were given two slots. One went to Daniel Lashof, a scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The other was reserved for one of Lashof’s biggest funders, Hal Harvey, executive director of the Energy Foundation. In 1996, both Lashof and Harvey supported the disastrous bail out of the California nuclear industry.

With this roster of advisers, it’s not surprising that the Gore-Holdren report largely parroted the line advanced by the Nuclear Energy Institute, calling for increased research and development subsidies for fusion and fission, export of US nuclear technology and the creation of a new Nuclear Energy Research Initiative to underwrite “new reactor designs with higher-efficiency, lower-cost and improved safety to compete in the global market.”

Holdren’s panel recommended that federal spending for research and development on commercial nuclear reactors be tripled from $40 million to $120 million, a bigger percentage increase than is recommended for either renewables or energy efficiency. The money is essentially a direct subsidy to help nuclear companies and utilities deal with the industries two biggest problems: radioactive waste disposal and aging reactors. “The interest is not so much in building new nukes in the US, but in finding a way to keep the old reactors up and running so that they can be relicensed,” says Auke Piersma of the Critical Mass Energy Project. “It’s a shame that people like Holdren use global warming as way to justify this handout.”

“Nuclear energy currently generates about 17 percent of the world’s electricity,” Holdren writes. “If this electricity were generated instead by coal, world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel consumption would be almost 10 percent larger than they currently are. Given the desirability of stabilizing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is important to establish fission energy as a widely viable and expandable option. World leadership in nuclear energy technologies and the underlying science is also vital to the United States from the perspective of national security, international influence and global stability.”

Incredibly, Holdren and his gang also recommended spending $280 million on fusion research, a proven waste of money in terms of energy production. Under even the most optimistic scenarios, fusion reactors will be able to generate electricity for about 50 cents per kilowatt hour, ten times more than the cost of natural gas turbines. But a boost in fusion research can go a long way toward solving a problem that has vexed the nuclear industry and the defense lobby: How to keep testing nuclear weapons technology under the restrictions of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty The answer: funnel fusion energy research money to places like the Lawrence Livermore Labs and its mammoth National Ignition Facility.

The Department of Energy didn’t sit by idly either. Ever on the lookout for any opportunity to advance the cause of nuclear power was Dr. Terry Lash, the Energy Department’s director of nuclear operations under Clinton and Gore. Lash as the man who almost single-handedly kept Hanford’s Fast Flux Breeder Reactor humming along on “hot standby” until it can once again be fired up to make tritium for H-bombs and, in some distant future, be put to the more humanitarian use of making medical isotopes. To fund the Fast Flux project, Lash diverted $40 million a year from the strapped cleanup budget for Hanford, which the DOE itself calls the most toxic site in North America.

Lash also promoted nuclear power’s global mission, fervently lobbying inside the DOE for nuclear trade pacts with China, India, Argentina and Brazil. “Lash was a shrewd and incredibly calculating operator,” a senior DOE staffer told me. “He’d employ any argument for the cause of nuclear power. He pressed for sales of reactors to Brazil and China, saying that it was vital to combat the greenhouse effect.”

Lash also played a key role in stuffing the annual clean air budgets with lavish handouts to the nuclear industry. Sources say Lash originally pushed for a $50 million “clean air” subsidy to utilities laden with nuclear plants, but the figure was eventually scaled back to $30 million by deficit hawks at the Office of Management and Budget.

Longtime anti-nuke activists remember Lash from his days as a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council in the 1970s, when the group touted itself as a fierce foe of nuclear power and raised millions off the Three Mile Island disaster. During his tenure there, Lash co-wrote a book for NRDC on nuclear waste. Lash’s co-author was none other than John Bryson, a co-founder of the group. Bryson went on to become the CEO of Edison International (formerly Southern California Edison), which operates the San Onofre nuclear plant. In 1997, Bryson was fresh off an amazing victory, where he and his pals convinced the California legislature to stick ratepayers and taxpayers with $26 billion in “stranded costs” to make his company’s nuke’s “more competitive in the deregulated electricity market.”

One last goal remained for the nuclear lobby: split the environmental community on nuclear power. There was every reason for optimism. Nuclear energy had divided the greens in the past, most spectacularly in 1969 when David Brower publicly attacked fellow Sierra Club leaders who helped Pacific Gas & Electric pick the Nippomo Dunes as the site for the company’s Diablo Canyon reactor. This principled stance led to Brower’s ouster as the Club’s executive director. In 1990 scientists from the EDF and NRDC joined a onto a statement saying that nuclear power had an essential role to play in curbing air pollution.

As Al Gore packed his day pack for his whirlwind trip to Kyoto, a full-page ad appeared in the Wall Street Journal that must have warmed the hearts of the men at the NEI. Under the headline, “A Business Climate Challenge: America Needs to Get Serious About Climate Change,” 60 corporate executives, led by Nike, Mitsubishi, CalEnergy, Pacific Energy, Mitchell Energy, and Ted Turner endorsed the need for a strong climate change treaty. The ad was also signed by Enron and Bechtel, two companies with interests in nuclear power. The companies had been rounded up by three environmental groups, World Wildlife Fund, Ozone Action and NRDC. “The idea for this really came from the Clinton administration,” Brandon MacGillis tells me. “They said if we wanted to see a good treaty we needed to show that property owners and Republican business leaders cared about global warming.”

Using a grant from the Ford Foundation, money from Ozone Action and contributions from Nike and Mitchell Energy, the groups began asking corporate leaders to sign on the ad. “We asked everyone we could think of,” MacGillis says. MacGillis admits that they environmental reputation of the companies wasn’t a factor. “Sure some wanted onto the ad purely for economic or pr reasons,” MacGillis confessed. “But other companies really think they can make a difference. Nike, for example, believes that by improving air quality in its factories it can increase productivity.” (This is a staggering admission. Up till then, Nike has rigorously claimed it has no control over the operations of its Asian factories.)

As all of this was going on, a coalition of environmental groups, spearheaded by Critical Mass Energy Project, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, drafted a letter to Clinton and Gore on the subject of nuclear power. The letter harshly denounced the Holdren report, DOE’s budget for nuclear power and all “proposals to use nuclear power to reduce greenhouse emissions.” More than forty groups signed the letter. One major group refused: NRDC.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at:


Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3