Nevada Bets against Nuclear Waste

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This article was first published as "Showdown In Glitter Gulch: Nevada Bets Against Nuclear Waste" 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.

Nevada Bets Against Nuclear Waste

The radioactive waste from nuclear power plants contains the deadliest substances known. It consists mostly of spent fuel which, although it is no longer suitable for generating power, will remain radioactive and lethal for over 100,000 years. At the government's Hanford, Washington, test reactor in the late 1940s, engineers used remote-controlled machinery to remove radioactive waste, put it into heavy containers, and bury it in the ground near Hanford. This crude method has remained the basic model for disposal ever since, despite promises by experts that "science will find a way" to dispose of it safely.

Since the late 1950s, deep underground geologic disposal has been proposed as a means to isolate the used highly radioactive fuel for the thousands of years necessary. Several exploratory efforts to locate repository sites in salt beds buried deep beneath Ohio, Michigan and New York were halted when state and local officials discovered the work being done by the Atomic Energy Commission and objected. By the 1980s, growing quantities of nuclear waste had become the ultimate hot potato. Everyone, including critics of the industry, agreed that the stuff needed to be stored somewhere, but nobody wanted it anywhere near where they lived.

In 1986, the Department of Energy announced that it had narrowed the locations under consideration to three sites in Nevada, Texas and Washington state. The governors of all three states responded immediately with lawsuits challenging the decision. In 1987, Texas and Washington were eliminated from consideration, leaving Yucca Mountain, Nevada, as the only remaining candidate. Located about 100 miles north of Las Vegas, Yucca Mountain is a barren ridge of compressed volcanic ash.

Government scientists stated that nuclear waste could be buried there in underground tunnels with minimal risks to public health or the environment, but Nevada residents remained unconvinced. Surveys showed that Nevadans opposed the Yucca Mountain repository by a 4-to-1 margin.

The "Nevada Initiative"

In January 1991, the American Nuclear Energy Council (ANEC) began funding the "Nevada Initiative" in an effort to change public opinion. Designers of the Nevada Initiative included Kent Oram, a key advisor to Nevada Governor Bob Miller; Ed Allison, a longtime Nevada Republican political operative; and Don Williams, a political campaign consultant and lobbyist who had worked for numerous state politicians from both parties. Using military jargon, the plan proposed a series of TV ads to provide "air cover" for the repository plan. Local reporters were to be hired to present the "industry's side of the story" to their peers. Kent Oram trained scientists from the Department of Energy to act as a "scientific truth response team" to reply to critics of the repository. The goal of the campaign, according to the plan, was to "reduce the public's concerns over safety. Once public sentiment swings, the next phase of the campaign will focus on the merits of nuclear energy. . . . With our 'campaign committee' of Nevada political insiders, our strategic response teams, the advertising program and the polls that will provide us a road map along the way, we believe that as each move is made, one or more of the targeted adversaries will begin to surface, move our way, fight us and then, eventually dialogue with the industry. It is through this strategic game of chess that the campaign will ultimately prevail and move to checkmate anti-nuclear forces in Nevada."

The planners warned, however, that the campaign "has a formidable goal. It took Nevadans a lifetime to build up fears and resentments regarding nuclear energy. Countering the amount of free press against nuclear, such as accidents at Three-Mile Island and Chernobyl, hazardous leaks and various other plant problems, along with science fiction movies, would literally cost tens of millions of dollars in terms of column inches and air time in Nevada alone. Across the country, the cost would run into the billions."

In October 1991, the Nevada Initiative began its first massive barrage of "air cover" ads. Narrated by Ron Vitto, a popular former sportscaster, the ads attempted to demonstrate the safety of transporting high level nuclear waste. One advertisement showed a truck and trailer bearing a cask of nuclear waste being rammed at high speed by a train to show that nuclear waste casks could safely survive such a collision. Other ads featured DOE scientists explaining that nuclear waste would not explode, or claiming that living near a nuclear power plant would not cause cancer.

"Nevada political officials at all levels have been extremely aggressive in opposition to the project," explained a letter dated October 25, 1991, from Florida Power President Allen J. Keesler to other members of the Edison Electric Institute, a US association of electrical utility companies. "They have effectively frustrated DOE's efforts to move forward. . . . Sustained progress on the Yucca Mountain program can only be achieved by developing a cooperative environment in Nevada." To fund the PR campaign, Keesler asked each utility engaged in nuclear energy production to pay a "special assessment . . . collected through a special billing included with EEI's dues." Keesler's letter closed by reminding recipients that "this document is Confidential. You can understand the sensitivity associated with it becoming public."

In November, three weeks into the advertising campaign, industry-funded pollsters conducted a survey and reported that although 72.4% of Nevada residents had seen the ads, the results were "not encouraging":

Fewer than 15 percent of the respondents who had seen the ads said the ads made them more supportive of the repository, while 32 percent said the messages made them less supportive. Despite the barrage of pro-repository messages, almost three-quarters of the respondents (73.8%) said they would oppose the repository if they were to vote on whether it should be built--almost exactly the same proportion as before the ad campaign. . . . Almost half (48.5%) of the respondents who had seen the advertisements said they did not believe the ads, . . . while 3.3 percent felt insulted . . . and 11.8 percent disagreed with the ads for a variety of reasons. . . . These three categories of negative comments make up 63.6 percent of the recorded responses.

A few weeks later, the campaign hit another, even worse snag. One of the nuclear utility executives who had received Allen Keesler's "confidential" letter decided to leak it to anti-nuclear forces, along with other key documents detailing the industry's PR strategy. The documents proved highly embarrassing. In televised testimony before the Nevada Commission on Nuclear Projects, ANEC vice-president Ed Davis had claimed that the purpose of the advertising campaign was strictly "to inform and educate the public."

Newspapers and television coverage contrasted his statement with the campaign's internal documents, which talked of bringing pressure on the state of Nevada to cooperate with the program, and hiring local reporters to present the "industry's side of the stories" and "convince the public that nuclear energy is safe."

Nevadans reacted with outrage. Newspapers and television coverage featured scathing attacks by state officials that continued for weeks. Nevada Senator Richard Bryan demanded an explanation from Energy Secretary James Watkins regarding the role of his department in the PR campaign. Governor Bob Miller wrote the governors of other states with nuclear power plants, challenging the propriety of using utility ratepayer funds to persuade Nevadans that they ought to accept nuclear wastes that no other state wanted.

The PR campaign's death throes are captured in a report titled "The Nevada Initiative: A Risk Communication Fiasco" by James Flynn, Paul Slovic and C.K. Mertz, employees of an opinion polling firm named Decision Research:

Perhaps the most devastating rejoinders to the ANEC campaign came from a pair of Las Vegas disk jockeys who began to parody each of the new TV ads. The main character in their satiric skits bore the mock name "Ron Ditto," whose simple-minded pronouncements were heaped with ridicule: "Hi! This is Ron Ditto, your formerly respected sportscaster, trading in your respect for much-needed dollars."
Local businesses joined in. A TV advertisement showed the disk jockeys in a huge pair of overalls as a two-headed mutant, "Yucca Mountain Man," in a commercial for a Las Vegas auto dealership. A restaurant extolled the quality of the tomatoes in its salad bar by putting one through the same tests that nuclear waste casks were subjected to in the ANEC ads: After the tomato survives being run into a cement wall, hit by a speeding train and dropped from a high tower, "You can be sure that it's one high-quality tomato."
The ANEC campaign, faced with disbelief, ridicule, and little measurable influence on public opinion, was discontinued. . . . By that time, the campaign's credibility had been damaged considerably. A survey conducted in June 1992 by researchers from Arizona State University and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas showed that after seeing the ads only 3.3 percent of respondents reported an increased level of trust in the repository program while almost 41 percent were less trusting and the remainder were unchanged.

In April 1991 former Secretary of Energy James Watkins created a task force to "analyze the critical institutional question of how the Department of Energy (DOE) might strengthen public trust and confidence in the civilian radioactive waste management program." After two years of public meetings and hearing formal presentations from more than 100 organization representatives, the task force concluded that "distrust [in DOE's activities] is not irrational." Moreover, "this distrust will continue for a long time, will require sustained commitments from successive Secretaries of Energy to overcome, and will demand that DOE act in ways that are unnecessary for organizations that have sustained trust and confidence."

During the task force hearings, participants made repeated references to the public relations tactics of the nuclear industry. DOE found itself in the unfortunate position of being blamed for these activities as well as their own. The huge sums of money paid to PRoperatives of the nuclear industry had left a legacy that was not only unsuccessful in molding public opinion, but permanently harmful to the industry's image.

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