Storing Nuclear Waste: the Nukem PR Strategy

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This article was first published as "Temporary Storage of Permanent Waste: the Nukem Strategy" 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.

The government's inability to develop a permanent storage site for nuclear waste has forced utility companies to fall back on a "temporary" plan--storing spent fuel locally in the yards of power plants across the country. A strategy for dealing with this latest embarrassment is outlined in an industry-published article titled, "The Public Relations Behind Nuclear Waste."

It begins: "So . . . the necessity of keeping spent fuel in dry casks and in the yards of power plants is adding yet one more blemish on the face of the nuclear industry, is it? Not when good PR is used. Many utilities across the United States are finding that public relations campaigns, when launched well in advance of dry cask installation, are turning potentially negative situations into positive ones. . . . Make no mistake about it. All the public relations in the world will never cause the public to greet radioactive waste with open arms. But for those utilities running out of pool space, a smart PR program will make them better equipped to temper the tempest and to get the public thinking about waste in a more scientific way."

The article appeared in the March 1995 issue of the Nukem Market Report, published by Nukem, Inc., of Stamford, Connecticut. Described by the New York Times as "unfortunately named," Nukem, Inc., is a subsidiary of the German corporation, Nukem GmbH. Apparently in German, the name doesn't carry quite the same negative connotations as it does in English. Evidently aware that its name is a bit of a PR problem, the American subsidiary has tried various typographical strategies to encourage people to place the emphasis on the second syllable when pronouncing Nukem--sometimes spelling it, for example, with the "k" or the last three letters capitalized, i.e., "NuKem" or "NuKEM."

Nukem GmbH designs and operates waste treatment systems for the chemical and nuclear power industries. In December 1987, the company's nuclear shipping unit temporarily lost its license after it was disclosed that some 2,000 barrels of nuclear waste had been illegally shipped into West Germany from Belgium and stored without proper identification. The company was investigated following charges by German politician Volker Hauff that Nukem had sold fissionable materials to Libya and Pakistan in violation of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The charges were never proven, but the scandal led to the suspension of top Nukem executives Karl-Gerhard Hackstein and Peter Jelinek-Fink.

According to the Nukem Market Report, "honesty, openness and cooperation" are the PR tools with which utility companies can persuade "their next-door neighbors, local government and business leaders, and environmentalists" to tolerate nuclear waste. As an example of "openness," it advises utility companies to conduct plant tours, meet with local elected officials, and communicate their point of view to plant employees, since "neighbors tend to ask plant workers for the 'inside scoop' on what's really going on."

The Nukem strategy also attempts to enlist "moderate" anti-nuclear groups in support of selected goals of local power companies. In Michigan, for example, the Consumers Power Company "made a presentation to the moderate group, West Michigan Environmental Action Council" and succeeded in persuading the council to focus "more on getting the material out of the state of Michigan and to Yucca Mountain . . . rather than bemoaning the fact that 'The waste is here.' "

As an example of "cooperation," Nukem praises the Baltimore Gas & Electric Company for paying its employees to "donate" one hour each week of public service activities in their community. "As a result, BG&E employees serve in senior positions in local volunteer fire companies and have 'adopted' a total of three elementary schools for mentoring and tutoring programs. Over 100 employees are coordinating about 50 charities, including the United Way, Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, and March of Dimes fundraising drives."

By cultivating a caring, community-minded image, BG&E has been able to limit opposition to its dry cask proposal. The key, says BG&E Public Information Officer Karl Neddenien, is to build this image early: "As long as ten years before a utility even thinks about a dry storage facility, it had better have developed a good community image."

These innocuous-sounding activities are state-of-the-art PR, reflecting the industry's sophisticated understanding of the techniques necessary to sway public opinion in today's cynical world. During the 50 years since the detonation of the first atom bomb, public opinion has steadily become more suspicious of nuclear power, despite the work of the powerful, well-funded nuclear lobby.

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