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The Nuclear Energy Institute: Devil's Advocate for Nuclear Power
by Dean M. Brooks
01 April 2004

The Nuclear Energy Institute's efforts may result in the construction of the first nuclear power plant in the United States since 1978.

It's amazing what a little shortage of electricity will do for your view of what's needed for the future.
-- Joe Colvin, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute

With the possible exception of Big Tobacco, the nuclear energy industry has lived through the greatest public relations nightmare since the beginning of the Atomic Age in the 1950's.  Disasters such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, worldwide anti-nuclear protests and coalitions, the NIMBY effect, and even such children's shows as Captain Planet, Toxic Avengers and The Simpsons, have all routinely portrayed the industry in a bad light.  No other sector of the American economy needs a well-spoken, "devil's advocate" as much as nuclear power, and the Nuclear Energy Institute fulfills that need.

As the Washington-based lobbying arm of the nuclear energy industry, the NEI states its main mission is to "ensure the formation of policies that promote the beneficial uses of nuclear energy and technologies in the United States and around the world."  These policies include helping to develop a national energy policy that promotes a diverse and reliable energy supply by educating the public and elected officials about the value of nuclear power, and rebuilding public and governmental support for nuclear initiatives. 

Since its founding in 1994, the NEI has developed over 260 corporate members from 15 countries in nuclear related businesses.  Donald Hintz, the chairman of the NEI, is also the president of Energy Corporation.  Additionally, over 4,000 industry professionals participate in NEI activities and programs year round.  These activities include acting as an industry voice by providing information to the U.S. Congress, Executive Branch agencies, federal regulators as well as international organizations and venues.    
By and large, the NEI receives funding from corporations or via private donations from individuals.  In the 2003-2004 year, NEI received a $1,000 donation from Peter Burg, the Chairman and CEO of First Energy Corp, and another $1,000 from Anthony Earley Jr, Chairman and CEO of DTE Energy.  Still, the Institute is relatively small, concentrating its resources on the campaigns of those political candidates who look favorably upon the organization's ideas.  As of its last report on February 29, 2004, the NEI had donated $48,320 to federal candidates, with 35% going to Democrats and 65% going to Republicans.  The NEI has given the lion's share of its donations to Republicans over the years.  In the 2002 election year cycle, 68% of $147,527 went to Republicans, and 32% went to Democrats.  In 2000, Republicans took 71% of $160,391 while Democrats got a scant 29%. In 1998, Democrats got slightly more, with 36% of $70,819, while the Republicans took 64%.

However, the NEI performs other functions besides distributing funds for worthy politicians.  Over the last ten years it has provided "accurate and timely information on the nuclear industry to members, policymakers, the news media, and the public."   On its website, the NEI even has a kid-friendly section called Science Club, where it explains the intricacies of nuclear power in an entertaining fashion.  The NEI also publishes informative booklets in PDF format that are available on its website. 

Despite occasional appearances in the major news media, the NEI is no Greenpeace or NRA.  This is partially due to the fact that its resources are scarce, and its members are few, consisting mainly of industry participants.  Also, because the topic of nuclear power is often overwhelmed by those who cite fears over safety issues and the storage of nuclear waste (as seen with the ongoing debate over Yucca Mountain in Nevada), the NEI prefers to quietly deliver information to government officials mostly inside the Washington beltway. The NEI does not report any kind of student organizing or widespread public education, except for the information provided on its website. Nor does it seek to become controversial in a haughty fashion (i.e. scaling Big Ben to protest the Iraq war as Greenpeace members have).

In the fight to defend nuclear power, the NEI has performed well in keeping politicians informed of the benefits of the split atom.  Overall public and governmental support for nuclear energy has begun to increase, especially after the East Coast blackout in August of 2003.  Says Democratic Senator Bob Graham of Florida, "One of the reasons that I have been a supporter of nuclear power is because we've had such a good experience in Florida, where we have three nuclear farms and they contribute about 20 percent of our total energy supply."

Perhaps the best trophy of success for the NEI, however, won't come until the construction of a brand new nuclear power plant -- something that last happened in 1978.  In 2001 the Nuclear Energy Assembly, the NEI's annual meeting, announced its Vision 2020 program, calling for the addition of 50,000 megawatts of power to the U.S. power grid by that year.  However, difficulties still persist for companies who want to build power plants.  The latest attempt was by Illinois-based Exelon Generation Co. and Virginia-based Dominion Energy, who submitted an early site permit to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in September of 2003 for possible future nuclear plants in Clinton, Illinois and North Anna, Virginia.  

One way for the NEI to better promote nuclear power is to launch an aggressive media campaign (i.e. television and radio commercials) in support of constructing new plants.  In an atmosphere of terrorism, it would certainly do no harm for the NEI to remind the public that every new power plant built reduces America's dependence on foreign oil.  This is something both President George W. Bush and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry have stressed in their speeches concerning energy, homeland security, and the economy.  Kerry even wants to make the U.S. completely self-reliant for its energy needs within ten years.  Interestingly, energy (or the lack thereof) touches nearly all aspects of life in the U.S.  The country can no longer afford to turn its back to what very well might bring a host of solutions.  Nuclear power means cheaper energy, more jobs, a safer, more reliable power grid with less chance of allowing a cascading effect as seen in the August ‘03 blackout, a cleaner environment (nuclear power plants emit no carbon dioxide), and ultimately, a freer, more independent America.    

Spokesmen of the NEI should also visit as many universities as possible not only to educate students about nuclear energy, but also to inform them of the growing employment needs in the industry.  In the aftermath of the 2003 blackout, there is no better time for the NEI to inform the country what a cold, dark, expensive future awaits its citizens in a world without adequate power.  Long the goat of the energy industry, it will not be long before nuclear power becomes the lion.

Dean M. Brooks is a junior at Loyola University Chicago majoring in political science.  He enjoys reading Ayn Rand, discussing current events, and watching the Lakers.

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