Gasping nuclear industry in desperate need of a PR overhaul

Published Feb. 8, 2014

A meltdown is under way in the nation's nuclear power industry that has nothing to do with radioactive fuel rods or core reactors.

It's a PR meltdown. And it's endangering nuclear's future in the United States.

While insisting it is a key player in the fight against global warming and an important provider of future electricity in this country, the insular industry keeps sticking its public relations foot in its mouth.

Nuclear has failed to sell America on the few good things it can bring to the country's energy and environmental table.

Nuclear's biggest friend, the debt-ridden federal government, remains wary of offering extensive loan guarantees to an industry unable to control runaway nuclear plant construction costs.

Wall Street, once the go-to place for financing big energy projects, won't touch nuclear plant financing in an energy market now dominated by cheaper and plentiful natural gas.

Worst of all, some state legislatures empowered utility monopolies like Duke Energy in Florida to charge their own captive customers to pay in advance for proposed nuclear projects. The nuclear industry wants more states to adopt such rules.

Now Duke's Florida customers are outraged. They are on the hook via higher electricity rates to pay more than $1.5 billion in advance fees for a once-proposed nuclear plant in Levy County that has now been shelved and will never produce a single watt of electricity. On top of that, the same customers will face $265 million in higher rates to cover a separate advance fee to cover costs tied to the shuttered Crystal River plant.

That leaves the nuclear power industry's three top potential allies — government, bankers and consumers — unhappy. That is a public relations disaster.

Nuclear's legitimate arguments now fall on deaf ears when the industry claims it can produce electricity 24/7 with low emissions, reduce a reliance on high-polluting coal and ease a rapidly rising dependence on low-cost natural gas.

What was supposed to be the industry's latest publicity coup — the 2013 documentary film Pandora's Promise, about longtime anti-nuke environmentalists turned pro-nuke missionaries — has generated little positive impact on public opinion so far. Japan's Fukushima nuclear disaster did not help.

While crowing that this country should embrace a nuclear renaissance, the nuclear industry instead is watching its stable of 100-plus aging nuclear reactors across the nation start to falter. Already, as many as 38 reactors in 23 states are at risk of early retirements, with 12 of those facing the greatest risk of being shut down.

The Department of Energy is even reviewing one scenario under which a third of the country's reactors would be shuttered. So said DOE assistant secretary for nuclear energy Pete Lyons this past week during a nuclear energy conference in Washington, D.C.

"This is a trend we are clearly very, very concerned about," Lyons said.

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The few new nuclear plant projects now under construction in this country are testaments more to runaway costs and delays than examples of a nuclear rebirth. The nuclear plant under way at Southern Co.'s Vogtle site in Georgia is seeking to help cover costs under a waning federal loan guarantee program. At the V.C. Summer site in South Carolina, utilities behind the project are trying to find more power companies to spread the costs and risks of the nuclear plant.

Former Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers, never one to avoid a candid comment in interviews, recently warned of the consequences of not building more nuclear plants. "It's going to have a significant impact on our carbon footprint because 70 percent of our carbon-free electricity today comes from nuclear," he told EnergyBiz magazine last month.

"There will be companies in the industry putting solar on rooftops, deploying energy-saving technologies within the home and supplying 40 percent or more of the electricity utilities historically provided to that home."

Unless, of course, the nuclear power industry can figure out how to tell a better story. One that's actually believable.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at