ANALYSIS: Nuclear Energy - Rebel to savior, nuclear gains themedia's favor

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

Business Week.'

'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.'

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