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Astroturf pro-nuclear group raises ire of environmental watchdog
By Maxine Joselow, E&E News
April 19, 2017

Want to advocate for nuclear power? There's an app for that.

Generation Atomic, a nuclear power advocacy group, launched an app
earlier this month called Atomic Action. The mobile app is meant for
door-to-door canvassing: When canvassers knock on doors, they can open
the app and show people information about jobs in the nuclear industry
and its carbon-free generation.

But the app isn't without controversy. While Generation Atomic paints
itself as a grass-roots organization whose main goal is to save nuclear
jobs, environmental watchdogs have accused it of being an industry front
group aimed at shaping public opinion and influencing policy debates
around nuclear power.

To back up their claims, critics point to Generation Atomic's funding
sources and its board of directors, which includes business strategists
who work in the nuclear industry. Generation Atomic received $5,000
checks from three nuclear power companies, according to the group: U.S.-
based NuScale Power LLC, French nuclear giant Areva Inc. and Canadian
salt reactor developer Terrestrial Energy.

Lenka Kollar, director of business strategy at NuScale, sits on
Generation Atomic's board of directors. So does Canon Bryan, chief
financial officer at Terrestrial Energy.

"The nuclear industry has a track record of creating front groups, and
this sounds like it's another one," said Elliott Negin, a senior writer
at the Union of Concerned Scientists, who has emerged as an outspoken
critic of Generation Atomic. "They're fake grass-roots groups. I used to
call them AstroTurf groups because AstroTurf is fake grass."

Disputing the ethics

Generation Atomic's co-founders and business partners don't see anything
wrong with its ties to the nuclear industry.

Taylor Stevenson, Generation Atomic's co-founder and organizing
director, said the affiliation with three nuclear companies doesn't cut
against the message.

"One of the things that we thought a lot about in the beginning was
whether or not we wanted to take money from industry," Stevenson said.
"We certainly felt that if we were talking about the importance of the
industry to the community, we needed to not exclude the industry from
supporting our work. So the answer is that anyone who's willing to
support our work, we'll take money from."

Bryan, from Terrestrial Energy, agreed with this sentiment.

"Certainly, anti-nuclear advocates have drawn a lot of attention toward
this idea that pro-nuclear advocates are somehow paid for by corporate
interests," Bryan said. "I don't know how much of that is true.

"But even if it were true, who cares?" he said. "The renewables industry
has advocates that are corporate in nature, that have aligned interests.
I don't see the harm in having aligned interests with an advocacy
organization, especially if it's a nonprofit."

But Negin believes Generation Atomic is acting unethically by not
disclosing in a more public way that some of its startup funding came
from the industry. Taking their app door to door to advocate for nuclear
jobs buries that information, he said.

"What bothers me most is that these people who are saying they represent
Generation Atomic are not going to say, 'Oh, by the way, we're funded by
the nuclear industry,'" Negin said. "They're presenting themselves as a
neutral, fact-based public interest group when they're not."

The third time?

This wouldn't be the first time that the nuclear industry has created an
organization to build public support for nuclear power. In 2006, the
Nuclear Energy Institute created the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, a
campaign aimed at encouraging members of Congress to support building
new nuclear reactors.

NEI hired the public relations firm Hill + Knowlton Strategies to launch
a multimillion-dollar campaign for the coalition. The firm tapped former
U.S. EPA Administrator Christine Todd Whitman and Greenpeace co-founder
Patrick Moore as its spokespeople.

To a casual observer, the coalition may have seemed like a genuine
grass-roots organization. On its website, Hill + Knowlton neglected at
the time to mention that the coalition was funded by the industry and
that Whitman and Moore were paid spokespeople.

For their own part, several news outlets failed to catch on.
Organizations including The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle
and CBS News "all referred to Moore as either a Greenpeace founder or an
environmentalist, without mentioning that he is also a paid spokesman
for the nuclear industry," the Columbia Journalism Review staff wrote in
a 2006 editorial.

The next time came in 2014, when nuclear giant Exelon Corp. launched the
grass-roots organization Nuclear Matters. For spokespeople, Exelon hired
three former senators: Evan Bayh, an Indiana Democrat; Judd Gregg, a New
Hampshire Republican; and Spencer Abraham, a Michigan Republican and a
former secretary of the Department of Energy.

Nuclear Matters was seen by critics as one of Washington's "de facto
nuclear industry front groups," The New York Times reported at the time.

'Fading into the sunset'

In the end, Generation Atomic may highlight the challenges facing the
U.S. nuclear industry. Amid low natural gas prices and flat or declining
electricity demand growth, many existing plants are seeking state
subsidies to stay open.

A major pitfall for the industry came last month, when Westinghouse
Electric Co., which is building the nation's first new reactors in 30
years, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection (Energywire, March
29). The fate of Westinghouse's four reactors under construction remains

Earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) reached a deal to
close the aging Indian Point nuclear plant less than 30 miles north of
New York City (Greenwire, January 9). The governor had railed against
the plant as a potential safety risk for years, citing the existence of
earthquake threats, faulty equipment and evacuation hazards.

On the jobs front, the U.S. nuclear industry employed 68,000 people in
2016, according to a DOE report. In comparison, wind employed more than
101,000 people, while solar employed nearly 374,000 people.

Despite these developments, Generation Atomic's co-founders maintain
that nuclear power creates jobs and benefits the economy. "If a nuclear
plant shuts down, you're looking at a massive exodus of tax dollars in
communities," said Eric Meyer, Generation Atomic's co-founder and
executive director. "Communities are completely wrecked. Property values
decline. Tax rates increase incredibly."

But M. V. Ramana, a nuclear energy expert at the University of British
Columbia, said Generation Atomic's claims about job creation can be seen
as a last-ditch attempt to build support for nuclear at the state level,
as the list of financial problems gets longer.

"I think the nuclear industry is very gradually fading into the sunset,"
Ramana said. "It's not going to go away without a fight.

"It's a very powerful industry, and they have a lot of levers that they
can try to use to get them bailed out and subsidized," he continued.
"But I think the writing on the wall is clear, that nuclear power has
proven to be a fairly expensive and risky way of creating electricity."


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