Nuking the Messengers

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This article was first published as "Nuking the Messengers" in PR Watch, Volume 2, No. 4, Fourth Quarter 1995. It original article was authored by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton and is used here with permission. As with all SourceWatch articles, feel free to edit and revise.

Ratings mania

High-level waste from every nuclear power plant in the country is set to hit the nation's highways two years from now, headed for a Nevada storage dump that will probably never be built. Almost no one in the United States even knows the plan is in the works. On December 13, the day Congress was scheduled to vote on the plan, a reporter for National Public Radio in Utah was shocked to learn for the first time that the plan existed, and that 92% of the waste is slated to travel by truck or train through her state.

No wonder the U.S. Department of Energy is keeping close tabs on the news media.

In Nevada, the one state in the union where the nuclear disposal plan is a topic of frequent debate, journalists expressed both anger and amusement at the recent disclosure that they were rated among the most negative reporters in the country in a DOE-funded PR study aimed at identifying friends and enemies of the department and of Energy Secretary Hazel O'Leary.

To perform the rating, DOE turned to CARMA International, a private PR firm offering "computer aided research and media analysis." CARMA pored over thousands of stories, compiling a numerical ranking for each based on the number of times a DOE-supplied list of "positive" and "negative" messages appeared. Positive messages included statements such as "the risk of public exposure from stored plutonium is extremely low." Negative messages included "little progress is being made to clean up plutonium storage sites" and "DOE's budget should be cut substantially."

If a reporter's stories contained too many "negative" themes, explained DOE press secretary Barbara Semedo, it meant that "we weren't getting our message across, that we needed to work on this person a little."

CARMA's computerized ranking system rated the Las Vegas Sun the most negative paper in the country, while the second most negative ranking went to the other Vegas daily, the Review Journal.

"It's like being named on Nixon's enemy list," said Sun reporter Mary Manning. "If I hadn't been included, I'd have felt snubbed."

Wasting Nevada

Nevada's nuclear war began in 1986, when DOE announced that it was considering Nevada, Texas and Washington state as possible disposal sites for the country's high-level nuclear waste. The governors of all three states responded immediately with lawsuits challenging the decision. In 1987, House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Texas) and Senate Majority Leader Tom Foley (D-Washington) pushed legislation through Congress eliminating their states from consideration, leaving Yucca Mountain, Nevada as the only remaining candidate.

According to the Nuclear Waste Policy Act passed by Congress in 1982, US nuclear power plants pay a tax in exchange for which DOE is committed to accept and dispose of their waste beginning in 1998. In practice, delays and cost overruns have made it impossible to build a permanent waste repository by this deadline. Currently the most optimistic projections envision completion of the feasibility study for Yucca Mountain by the year 2006. The estimated cost of the study alone has soared nearly 100-fold, from $80 million to over $6 billion.

Meanwhile, US nuclear plants are running out of on-site storage space and are becoming increasingly alarmed at the prospect that they will get stuck with the full bill for disposal of their waste. Utility companies are pressing Congress to take the waste off their hands sooner rather than later.

Prior to becoming Energy Secretary, Hazel O'Leary was one of the utility executives who lobbied Congress. As vice president of Minnesota-based Northern States Power Company, one of the nation's major nuclear utilities, O'Leary told Congress in 1992 that companies needed fast relief from the waste disposal problem so they could afford to build new reactors. "It is not reasonable to assume that responsible business people will risk billions of dollars of customers' money to invest in new nuclear plants when there is no place to store spent fuel," she argued. "Together we must assure that a permanent facility or a temporary facility is developed."

The new plan, based on this imperative, is laid out in legislation sponsored by Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho) and Representative Fred Upton (R-Michigan). It slashes funding for the feasibility study at Yucca Mountain, but directs DOE to begin shipping waste there anyway beginning in 1998 as originally scheduled. Instead of burial below ground, the waste will be stacked in above-ground silos.

"They're calling it a temporary repository, but obviously the main goal is to ship it to Nevada and pretend that the problem has been solved," says Judy Treichel, who directs the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force, a public interest organization promoting citizen involvement in nuclear waste decisions.

"In reality," Treichel says, "the only beneficiaries from this approach will be the utility companies. Taxpayers take over responsibility for their waste so they can go on producing more. Rather than solving the problem of nuclear waste, it actually makes the problem worse."

Oprah O'Leary?

Upon taking office as Energy Secretary, O'Leary vowed to move fast on "resolving" the storage problem, arguing that the federal government has a "moral obligation" to take the nuclear waste off the hands of utility companies by 1998.

During her tenure, O'Leary has placed an unusually strong emphasis on public relations. "She's all showbiz," said one longtime DOE official, speaking anonymously. Her high profile and polished public presence even prompted the Nation to nickname her "Oprah O'Leary."

According to Douglas Elmers, who served as DOE's press secretary in the last years of the Reagan Administration, this emphasis on public relations was aimed at repairing the Department's negative image, a legacy of the years when its predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, routinely lied about its nuclear activities in the name of national security.

"Far more than her predecessors," Elmers said, O'Leary "came to the realization that if you don't have the public on your side, or the media on your side, for that matter, you're going to have a very difficult time getting the cleanup going."

Early in her tenure, O'Leary won praise for her willingness to disclose information about the Atomic Energy Commission's radiation experiments on unwitting human subjects. To revamp her department's image and downplay its past association with military uses of nuclear power, she ordered DOE's Washington offices to remove photographs of battleships and nuclear weapons facilities, replacing them with pictures of successes in wind- and solar-powered electricity. The politically-correct facelift also included the hiring of several environmentalists to key jobs and the naming of seven women and five blacks among her first 15 top-level appointments.

But environmentalists have criticized O'Leary's approach to the waste problem, accusing her of moving too hastily to accommodate the utilities. In 1994, for example, she rejected calls for a blue-ribbon commission to review the Yucca Mountain program. An independent review, she said, would further delay studies of the mountain and "would be insane against this lingering, ever-lengthening timetable."

"We're very pleased," said Edwin Theisen, O'Leary's former boss at Northern States Power, praising her handling of the waste issue. "Just knowing Hazel as well as I do, if she can't get it done, it's not going to happen."

Makeover Meltdown

After the CARMA story broke, O'Leary attempted to distance herself from the decision to hire an outside media tracking service, claiming that she "knew little abut the details of the system that was planned." In fact, computerized media tracking was one of the recommendations in a 28-page "communications plan" developed for O'Leary by Audrey Hoffer, a PR consultant hired by DOE in 1993.

The plan outlined a strategy for transforming O'Leary from the "best kept secret in the Clinton administration" into a "household name," and advised systematic monitoring of when DOE or O'Leary are covered, "by which publication outlets . . . and if the tone is generally positive or negative. We need to know precisely by day, week and month who has reported on . . . the secretary."

CARMA made its own attempt at spin control after the story broke, conducting a quick analysis of how the flap itself was treated by the media and issuing the results in a news release. Although CARMA's analysis showed that 77% of media reports on the incident were "unfavorable," it argued that "coverage was not overwhelmingly negative," pointing out that CARMA itself "earned a 40 favorability rating" on a scale of 0 to 100.

CARMA also said O'Leary had put a positive spin on the incident with her statement that there had been "no enemies list, no gumshoes, no investigation," but the Las Vegas Sun's Mary Manning remained unconvinced.

"If private companies want to hire a PR firm to monitor the media, that's one thing," Manning said, "but this is the government. If they start making lists of reporters they don't like so they can 'work on us a little,' we have to worry about the fact that they control the police, the FBI, the CIA and the IRS."

The incident was disturbing for another reason to Judy Treichel at the Nevada Nuclear Waste Task Force. Treichel said she was shocked to read newspaper accounts stating that, in addition to CARMA International, the Department of Energy employs 125 internal public relations staffers.

"That's more DOE people than they have working on the high-level waste program," Treichel said. "It tells you something about what their real priorities are."

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