Who would have thought that nuclear energy would become sexy again?
Thanks to the growing energy supply problem and comments from the new
administration, PR people at nuclear companies are reaping the benefits,
finds Douglas Quenqua.
When PRWeek asked PR practitioners last year which industries they would
least like to represent, nuclear power ranked fourth, bested only by
tobacco, firearms and pornography.
A few short months later, nuclear energy is the story of the moment, the
prodigal son of power supply, and the once-unlucky few who speak for the
industry are saying no one has it as good as they do right now.
Case in point: April 26 marked the 15th anniversary of the Chernobyl
meltdown, the worst nuclear disaster in history. But odds are you didn't
notice. Coverage of the incident was hard to find. Meanwhile, The
Washington Post, Business Week, The New York Times and The Wall Street
Journal all ran articles that week touting nuclear power as the sudden
solution to all our energy problems, mentioning Chernobyl peripherally,
if it all.
Why the change of heart?
Those in the industry cite several factors when asked to explain the
resurrection. Typically modest and fiercely loyal to their industry,
most nuclear spokespeople claim nuclear energy is back in the media
strictly because it deserves to be. 'The fact is that the industry has
established a lengthy track record of good operations,' says one. 'The
industry has shown a good 10 to 11 years of steady and consistent
performance,' says another. One spokesperson puts it simply: 'There
hasn't been an accident in a long time.'
But other factors have undoubtedly contributed, most notably the energy
crisis in California. Suffering from rolling blackouts and sky-high
electric bills, Californians and the rest of America have turned their
attention to exploring alternate sources of power.
Jim McDonald is the communications director for Pinnacle West, operator
of the Palo Verde nuclear power plant, which, at 30 billion kilowatts a
year, is by far the largest producer of electricity in America.
A former nuclear lobbyist, McDonald previously served as a special
assistant to the House of Representatives Science Committee, where he
helped draft the Energy Policy Act of 1992, which he now blames for the
country's energy crisis. 'When the Energy Policy Act of 1992 was
enacted, it led to deregulation, which has led to this tremendous
problem in California,' he says. 'And what really brought (nuclear
energy) back into the public consciousness is this energy crisis.'
And then there's Dick Cheney. The vice president has been publicly
endorsing nuclear energy as an alternate source of power since a
Michigan speech he gave in September of 2000. But what really caught
fire was Cheney's April 8 appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, where he
declared that the United States must build 65 power plants annually, and
'some of those should be nuclear.' Since then, the media has turned its
attention to nuclear energy en masse - and with a notably flattering
Craig Nesbit, director of nuclear communications for Exelon Nuclear, the
largest operator of reactors in America, thinks the media's downright
infatuation with nuclear power is unparalleled. 'I don't think anyone's
seen anything like this since the beginning of the industry, and even
then it wasn't this great.'
Industry PR reps are working overtime to keep up with the demand for
information. Communications staffs that until recently were spending
their time pitching well-spun stories about safety are suddenly on the
receiving end of a media feeding frenzy. 'We started getting regular
inquiries from various news organizations that wanted to do stories on
the future of nuclear power about four weeks ago,' says Nesbit. 'But
once it started, it didn't just trickle in. It was suddenly the hot
topic. We were hearing from the networks, national news magazines, even
'It's gotten to the point where several news organizations have pulled
out,' Nesbit continues. 'The Industry Standard had wanted to do a story
and wanted to interview some of our executives. But when they called no
one was available. So we delayed it. And by the time we got back to
them, a Time magazine piece was in the works, and The Wall Street
Journal had just done a story. So they pulled out and said, 'Maybe we
need a different angle.' That's how widespread this is.'
Others, however, claim to have been experiencing a steady buildup in
press requests for a while. Steve Kerekes, director of communications at
the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade association for the nuclear
power industry, says: 'Some of this attention started coming last
I guess now the flavor of the work has changed, not so much the
What's going on in California has put energy issues in general back on
the radar screen for the press in a way that hasn't happened in a
Pinnacle West's McDonald says his small staff is applying its usual PR
techniques in dealing with the flood of requests: 'We practice the same
basic PR techniques that have stood the test of time: being responsive,
making information available in easy-to-understand packages. We even
give people tours of the plant. We'll bring the press into the guts of
the plant. We'll let them see the reactor.'
Nothing to the imagination
Surprisingly, McDonald says the 'transparent' approach - giving
reporters unfettered access to the plant and the reactors - has resulted
in some of the most positive coverage. 'We brought in a TV reporter who
wanted to show us changing the fuel. You have to inspect the new fuel
before you put it in, and you have to wear gloves when you touch it -
not to protect you, but to protect the fuel. So the guy's there with
this little white glove touching the fuel, and he's saying right into
the camera, 'I am wearing this glove not to protect me, but to protect
the fuel. It's so safe I can walk up and touch it.''
Vaughn Gilbert, PR manager with Westinghouse Electric Company, which
supplies technology to half of the world's 432 nuclear power plants,
says his staff is taking advantage of the situation by forging
relationships with reporters they otherwise would not have access to.
'We're getting four to six calls a week from major media, meaning CNN,
the Financial Times, Gannett, etc., as opposed to five to seven years
ago when we were happy to keep a low profile. We're being much more
aggressive when speaking to reporters now.'
As much as PR people might like to take credit for the current climate,
McDonald does otherwise. 'I could sit here and say we had this great
campaign and turned things around, but it's the news itself. It's not
us. We tried things seven years ago that we couldn't get anywhere with.
Now we have to beat the media off with a stick.'