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Public opinion about nuclear energy has swung markedly this past year. Support for nuclear power climbed to a new high of 62% in last March’s Gallup poll.

Since the disaster in Japan, however, seven in ten Americans say they are more concerned about a nuclear disaster occurring in the United States.

Tax-exempt organizations with missions to educate the public about nuclear power could provide important information to the irresolute.  Then again, charities and the public alike could get contaminated by industrial nuclear PR.

Nonprofit organizations such as Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) have provided legitimate public education campaigns on the construction of new reactors, radioactive waste transportation, and deregulation of radioactive materials since 1978. Smaller groups such as Nuclear Resister provide information and support for imprisoned anti-nuclear activists. And 501 (c)(3) US Nuclear Energy Foundation -- whose tagline is “evangelizing Nuclear Advocacy by bringing science to citizens”— maintains that they “are not for the most part scientists or engineers but simply grassroots people with a common since [sic] approach to nuclear power advocacy.”

Other “organizations” impersonate nonprofits.

Clean and Safe Energy Coalition (CASEnergy.org), formed in 2006, purports to be “a large national grassroots coalition of allies” which champions “minorities in nuclear energy,” “jobs,” and solutions to global warming. The Coalition’s co-chair and most public spokesperson, Patrick Moore, is presented in local and national conferences, news stories, and planted opinion pieces as either a “co-founder of Greenpeace” or an “environmentalist.”   A recent Vancouver Sun article--directed at Vancouver-area “hysterical doomsayers” and written by PR consultant Pamela Groberman--provides an example.

But CASEnergy is not a nonprofit—it is the creation of the international PR firm Hill & Knowlton and the polling firm Penn Schoen & Berland.  And Patrick Moore is not a nonprofit co-founder—he is a paid nuclear industry spokesperson who has spent more time working as a PR consultant to the logging, mining, and nuclear industry than he did as an environmental activist (1971-1986).  His current charge is to increase public support at the very local level for nuclear plant siting and licensing.

CASEnergy’s nonprofit cloak not only persuades the press.  I recently called the contact number to inquire about the Coalition’s tax-exempt status.  The receptionist told me twice during the conversation that CASEnergy was a “nonprofit.”  I followed up with an e-mail and received the following formal reply:

The CASEnergy Coalition is not an organization under the 501(c) provision and does not claim any tax-exempt status.  As such, we do not file a Form 990 with the IRS.  The coalition receives its funding from the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Perhaps CASEnergy’s receptionist misled me in our initial conversation, but this was not my impression.  She seemed genuine in her belief that she worked for a nonprofit organization.

Industry has learned that when their own identity — the Nuclear Energy Institute in this case — fails to garner significant public support, they can borrow the plumes of nonprofit organizations that have often been traditional bulwarks of independent thinking and action. A beneficent-sounding name, public-interest language, and persistence with the press and local groups may indeed turn around the nuclear industry’s precarious future and bring about a nuclear “renaissance.”

Industry’s “innocence by association” with the independent sector won’t do real charities any favors, though.  Corporations often blur the inside lines of profit and public interest when they donate to charities, professional associations, and nonprofit advocacy organizations to promote sales and influence public policies. Groups like Clean and Safe Energy Coalition blur the lines between profit and public interest on the outside through industry public relations campaigns.

Is nuclear power clean and safe or dirty and dangerous?  Perhaps nonprofit public relations watchdog groups provide a conflicted public with the most important information.

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