Written by Julia A. Seymour
August 13, 2008
Media outlets mostly ignore easy energy solution even when brought up by candidates, despite the nation's urgent power needs.
By Julia A. Seymour
Business & Media Institute
It was 1979. Sony introduced its Walkman, the Garfield comic debuted and Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. That same year, musicians Jackson Browne, Carly Simon, Bruce Springsteen and others banded together to fight nuclear energy with No Nukes concerts as a reaction to Three Mile Island.
The Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania happened on March 28, 1979, stoking public fears of nuclear energy - though no deaths or injuries resulted from the incident.
The rock stars got their wish - not a single new nuclear power plant has been built in the United States since. But the times, they are a-changin'. Five applications for new reactors were filed in 2007 and 67 percent of Americans favor expanding nuclear power, according to one poll. Politicians are campaigning on the issue and even prominent anti-nuclear environmentalists have changed their minds because of nuclear's ability to provide energy without carbon emissions.
But while public attitudes toward nuclear options have changed since 1979, the media are still siding with Browne, Simon and John Hall, who sang a protest lullaby to nuclear power that helped put it to sleep for three decades. Now, the media's persistent silence on the energy source is speaking volumes.
The media didn't comment even when anti-nuclear activists hit the campaign trail. CBS ignored Browne and Bonnie Raitt's anti-nuclear stance as they performed on the campaign trail with John Edwards in late 2007. In contrast, the left-wing blog Huffington Post provided that context right away in a Nov. 20, 2007 piece: "The two musicians are no strangers to political activism, organizing the No Nukes concerts way back in 1979 with John Hall of Orleans (now Congressman John Hall, D-N.Y.).
"Just give me the warm power of the sun. Give me the steady flow of a waterfall. Give me the spirit of living things as they return to clay. Just give me the restless power of the wind. Give me the comforting glow of a wood fire. But please take all your atomic poison power away," went the sing-along at one of the 1979 No Nukes concerts.
Now, roughly 30 years later, nuclear energy is up for debate thanks to an election heated by energy concerns.
Presumptive Republican nominee John McCain said on August 5 that he wants to build 45 more nuclear power plants. According to CNN Money.com, "That would add significantly to the nation's current fleet of 104 active plants, which produce about 20% of the nation's power." That's far behind the roughly 80 percent used in France.
Even Democratic Sen. Barack Obama isn't completely opposed to nuclear power. He said he is open to the possibility if a number of problems can be solved "including safety, waste storage, vulnerability to terrorist attack and concerns about weapons proliferation," according to National Public Radio.
Despite that high-powered support, there was mostly silence on the part of ABC, NBC and CBS news programs on the issue of nuclear energy. Between Aug. 8, 2007, and Aug. 11, 2008, many of the network mentions of nuclear power were from politicians including McCain, Obama and their surrogates. In those cases, the prospect of a return to nuclear was typically ignored by the interviewer.
The twenty-second anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl accident that killed 31 people also prompted a few stories about nuclear energy. On CBS reporter Bill Plante didn't tell viewers that nuclear technology and safety have improved tremendously since the Soviet Union's disaster.
"Nuclear power will always have a shadow over it as long as Chernobyl is a message of concern," explained William Taylor, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, in Plant's "Evening News" story March 31.
The network coverage wasn't all bad. On a few rare occasions, network journalists focused on increased public support for nuclear power because of rising gas prices. Those stories included proponents and opponents of nuclear energy.
The Sound of (Near) Silence
It's been an energy summer for the presidential candidates, but if McCain and Obama hadn't mentioned the issue there wouldn't have been many nuclear energy stories on the networks.
Harry Smith, co-host of the CBS "Early Show," had Govs. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., and Charlie Crist, R-Fla., on August 5 to discuss the energy plans proposed by McCain and Obama.
Smith was one of the few network interviewers who brought up the nuclear issue as he asked Crist, "So it's going to be nukes and offshore drilling and that's going to solve our energy problems?" Crist responded that McCain's strategy is "all hands on deck," including nuclear. But the discussion soon turned to other matters. Sadly, that short exchange was extensive compared to a number of other programs.
ABC's political roundtable show "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" included former GOP Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge on August 3. Ridge, also the former Homeland Security Secretary, who mentioned McCain's support for nuclear power and criticized Obama's opposition. But Stephanopoulos kept his focus on offshore drilling and moved on to the topic of anthrax without delving into the nuclear energy pros and cons.
That was a pattern on the networks, happening at least five times since July 13 on CBS's "Face the Nation" August 3 and "The Early Show" July 21, NBC's "Today" July 18 and 21, and ABC's "This Week" July 13.
On rare occasions networks reporters discussed the issue. "World News" reported on August 9 that "there appears to be more open minds when it comes to nuclear energy, but there is a great divide both in political party and gender."
NBC "Nightly News" took a deeper look on July 19 that mentioned France's reliance on nuclear power and Greenpeace co-founder Patrick Moore's support for nuclear energy. The report even included a spokesman from the Nuclear Energy Institute who said "nuclear plants today are very safe, and the new nuclear power plants will be even safer." The same story by Tom Costello also ran on July 4 "Today."
That "Nightly News" story was one of the few exceptions to the past year's coverage of nuclear energy. However, there was no shortage of stories promoting "alternative" energy sources like wind and solar power, or touting hybrid cars and compact fluorescent light bulbs without detailing their flaws.
Erin Burnett was unique on June 22 when she went so far as to promote nuclear energy, along with other "alternative fuels," saying that U.S. "could dramatically increase" its use of nuclear power. But Burnett's push for nuclear energy was an anomaly among network reports.
Runnin' on Empty
The Energy Information Administration estimates that world energy consumption will increase 50 percent from 2005 to 2030. Electricity usage in particular "is projected to grow more than twice as fast as committed resources over the next 10 years," according to the North American Electric Reliability Corp.
That means the U.S. needs energy solutions and many of those options are staunchly opposed by liberal politicians and environmentalists. Expanded oil drilling faces political roadblocks, the ire of environmentalists and media attacks. Eco-groups also attack coal for being "dirty," and well-known global warming alarmist James Hansen has called for its complete phase-out by 2030 unless carbon capture and sequestration takes place. By that logic, environmentalists should be championing nuclear power, but not all of them are.
The energy Fortune magazine called "most maligned of power sources" is now supported by about 44 percent of Americans - the most in 28 years according to an ABC News/Planet Green/Stanford University poll conducted July 28.
Another poll reported by NBC "Today" July 4 found even more support for nuclear power. Sixty-seven percent favor building nuclear power plants, according to NBC.
"The nuclear industry says it's one of the cleanest, cheapest ways to produce power," Tom Costello said on the July 19 "Nightly News." Costello's positive report was one of the few in the last year.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, "nuclear energy is the only electricity source that can generate electricity 24/7 reliably, efficiently and with no greenhouse-gas emissions."
Patrick Moore, an environmentalist who helped found Greenpeace, was once an opponent of nuclear power. Now he is pro-nuke. "We were wrong and I think it was a mistake," Moore said on CBS "Up to the Minute" March 17.
"It's not a question of lesser of evils, it's which energy generating technology is most in tune with climate change and energy security policies," said Moore.
Power to the People
Nuclear technology has also come a long way since Three Mile Island happened and Jane Fonda spread fear of nuclear power in "The China Syndrome." "The latest designs for proposed plants are smaller, cheaper and more efficient than reactors of the past," according the February 27 Popular Mechanics. The plants are also safer - although they have a high upfront cost of roughly $4 billion each.
Nuclear energy also has advantages over coal, wind and solar, according to Exelon CEO John Rowe.
"Coal with carbon sequestration looks more like 20 years away than 15," Rowe said in Popular Mechanics. "Wind and solar are still more expensive than nuclear."
Wind and solar problem also face the problem of inconsistency, according to Duke Energy spokesman Tom Shiel, who told the Business & Media Institute the technology to store power from those sources isn't available yet.
Despite that, nuclear energy still faces rock 'n' roll opposition. Singers Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt and Graham Nash are still performing No Nuke anthems from the '70s. In a recent video on Nukefree.org, Browne claimed that nuclear isn't safe or clean. Greenpeace also opposes nuclear energy expansion, claiming in a 2007 briefing that "[e]very dollar spent on nuclear power is a dollar stolen from the real solutions to climate change."
"They confuse nuclear weapons with nuclear energy, claim non-existent dangers, and misrepresent nuclear power's economics," explained Jack Spencer, the Research Fellow in Nuclear Energy at The Heritage Foundation.
The musicians and Greenpeace still want "the warm power of the sun" and "restless power of the wind." So do the news media.
In one example, NBC Chief Environmental Correspondent Anne Thompson touted a Nevada solar plant on March 13, despite the high price tag.
"The Electric Research Power Institute says this kind of solar power is two to four times more expensive than electricity from natural gas or coal," said Thompson. But that didn't dissuade Thompson who promoted a carbon cap that would make coal more costly in order to make solar more competitive. She ignored the nuclear option entirely.
CBS "Evening News" took a trip to an "ecological fantasy island" on March 8, 2007. On the Danish island of Samso homemade fuels power vehicles, straw is grown and burned for heat, and solar panels and wind turbines generate the rest of the power.
Mark Phillips' report ignored geographic differences between the island and other places when he said, "If this can work here, maybe it can work anywhere."
At least as far back at 2005, CBS promoted "a solution to high energy prices" that "may be as plain as daylight." But that Nov. 10, 2005 report about Barry and Anita Mathis' low power bills ignored the cost of installing the solar panels. Half of the Mathis' costs were covered by other taxpayers in the state of California. There was no mention of nuclear energy in that report.