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Rory O'Connor Headshot

Stop the Nukespeak and Tell the Truth About Nuclear Technology

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Nearly twenty years ago I co-wrote Nukespeak, a cultural history of the selling of nuclear technology for both peaceful and military purposes.

My co-authors and I dedicated the book to George Orwell, whose literary creation of 'newspeak' in the classic novel 1984 illustrated the power to control reality through the adroit manipulation of language. The euphemisms, obfuscations and omissions employed by nuclear boosters throughout both industry and government -- what one writer has called the "linguistic cosmetics" used "to avoid communicating uncomfortable or threatening thoughts so that the nuclear industry can control the images and perceptions of nuclear power" -- were so clearly reminiscent of Orwellian thought control that the homage seemed, if anything, perhaps a little too obvious.

Thus, in Nukespeak, proponents speak of "health effects" when they really mean "cancer." Accidents such as the infamous one at Three Mile Island are merely "anomalies," "significant events" or "abnormal occurrences" -- and when they recur, they are re-dubbed "normal abnormalities." Radioactive substances such as Strontium-90 are measured in "sunshine units," and when deadly plutonium somehow goes missing, it's simply a "MUF - material unaccounted for." "Boundless energy" to save us from "freezing in the dark" would be "too cheap to meter" -- if we only went nuclear.

Most of this universal nuclear language was created by such early government boosters as the Atomic Energy Commission -- acting in concert with industry forces -- as part of a conscious selling strategy that eliminated "scare words" and replaced them with "palatable synonyms." Nuclear "acceptance campaigns" featuring "truth squads" were created so as to create a "pro-energy climate" to "stabilize people's attitudes." And where government and industry experts weren't enough, a compliant and complicit media was co-opted and enlisted in the sales effort.

Sound familiar? Flash forward two decades -- to Barack Obama's announcement of billions of dollars in new loan guarantees for a supposedly new generation of nuclear power plants. (This despite the fact that nuclear reactors have already received more preferential treatment than any other source of electricity, and that investments in nuclear plants are deemed too risky by private industry. Obama's new budget dedicates more than $50 billion to nuclear loan guarantees -- which means that we taxpayers could be left on the hook for a massive bailout, and that the companies ready to profit from new reactors, including NBC parent General Electric, are some of the wealthiest corporations in the country.)

Once again government and industry shills are ignoring reality and lying to us -- and once again the media is aiding and abetting them, as detailed in this Action Alert from the ever-estimable Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR).

Entitled "Network Nukes Boosters," the FAIR report critiques "incomplete and unbalanced reports" by ABC World News and NBC Nightly News following Obama's recent announcement of $8 billion in new loan guarantees for a nuclear power plant in Georgia.

ABC's Jake Tapper stressed industry claims about job creation for this new plant ("3,500 on-site construction jobs and 800 permanent operations jobs") and the amount of energy the plant will generate -- enough "for 550,000 homes, 2,200 megawatts worth of electricity that would offset about 30 million barrels of oil." Tapper barely mentioned nuclear opponents in his piece, but managed to squeeze in quotes from two anonymous Georgia residents saying their town needs the jobs, as well as one from nuclear industry lobbyist Patrick Moore, introducing him with his past credentials: "Back then, he was an anti-nuclear power activist and a founder of Greenpeace. Today, he lobbies for nuclear energy." After Moore claimed that "nuclear industry is generally one of the safest industries we have," Tapper concluded that "he's not the only one who's changed his mind." (Moore's former Greenpeace ties make him a media favorite, but he wasn't actually a founder, just an early activist and it's worth noting that, as PR Watch pointed out, "Moore has now spent more time working as a PR consultant to the logging, mining, biotech, nuclear and other industries...than he did as an environmental activist.")

The NBC report wasn't much better: three sources were quoted supporting the nuclear plan, but only one critic. As FAIR noted,

" In attempting to discuss safety concerns, NBC mentioned Chernobyl and the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island (Extra!, 7/8/93). Neither network mentioned the current problems with nuclear reactors; the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, for example, is leaking radioactive tritium into the groundwater, a safety hazard that is being documented at other nuclear sites around the country (Associated Press, 2/2/10; Greenpeace Blog, 1/28/10).

NBC also has bigger issues: its parent company General Electric is a major player in the industry, and has done business with the company planning to build the Georgia plant (southerncompany.com) -- a major fact NBC neglected to mention in its report.

While both reports mentioned that the Georgia plant would be the first built in the U.S. in three decades, neither gave much of an explanation as to why this would be the case. But as nuclear power critics have documented for years, the plants have proven to be financial disasters, with severe cost overruns and a general reluctance among investors to foot the bill for projects that are unlikely to be profitable (Greenpeace, 10/15/08). Obama's pledge of multi-billion dollar loan guarantees should have caused reporters to wonder why the industry, after decades of experience, needs so much government assistance in the first place."

If the mainstream media can't convince you of the need for nukes, maybe that new-fangled "social media" can! Obama's Energy Secretary Steven Chu, recently "shared" his enthusiasm "for solar and wind power" on Facebook, while also warning that "no single technology will provide all of the answers."

Translation? "If we want to make a serious dent in carbon dioxide emissions -- not to mention having cleaner air and cleaner water -- then nuclear power has to be on the table." After all, chided Chu, "the sun isn't always shining, and the wind isn't always blowing" -- and "nuclear power can provide large amounts of carbon-free power that is always available."

Secretary Chu conveniently doesn't mention the highly toxic radioactive waste piling up across the country, which no one has yet figured out what to do with and lasts for hundreds of thousands of years. Instead, the Energy Secretary says nuclear power isn't part of the problem -- it's part of the solution!

"As you'll see, we need nuclear power as part of a comprehensive solution: investing in energy efficiency, wind, solar, geothermal, carbon capture, energy storage, electric vehicles, and more," wrote Chu. "In doing so, we are sparking a new industrial revolution that will create millions of new jobs here in the United States and lay the foundation for America's long-term economic prosperity. Those are some of my thoughts. I look forward to reading more of yours. What do you think?"

Here's what I think -- something Barack Obama also apparently used to think before he was elected president:

"Before an expansion... is considered, key issues must be addressed including: security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation."

As Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica recently opined in the Huffington Post, "President Obama should heed candidate Obama's advice."

And the media should reject the use of industry rhetoric, stop using nukespeak talking points, and start telling us the truth about nuclear power!