PR spin and the power/weapons symbiosis

Spin Doctor Strangelove, or How We Learned to Love the Bomb

by John C. Stauber and Sheldon Rampton
PR Watch
Volume 2, No. 4
Fourth Quarter 1995

The symbiotic relationship between nuclear power and the PR industry began during World War II, when the U.S. effort to develop the atom bomb was still a top-secret war program code-named the Manhattan Project.

As “the Bomb” neared completion, the US turned to an elite group of public relations practitioners known as the “Wisemen.” With government security men guarding the doors, the Wisemen met with Major General Leslie Groves, chief of the Manhattan Project, at the University Club in New York City. Groves briefed them on the project and asked for advice on how to handle PR for the first bomb tests in New Mexico.

At their suggestion, the War Department invited New York Times reporter Bill Lawrence to observe the tests and to be the “pool reporter” relaying information from the bombings of Japan to other reporters the Army had assembled in Manila.

A Sacred Monopoly

The end of the war left the US with a new set of public relations concerns related to the bomb. The US held a monopoly on nuclear weapons and needed to assure people that it would use this awesome power in a responsible way. President Truman pledged to keep the bomb a “sacred trust” on behalf of all mankind. To oversee this trust, he proposed establishing a commission of Navy and Army officers to control and develop future nuclear technology.

Public opinion, however, was deeply affected by the bomb’s awesome destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the horrifying prospect of nuclear war provoked sharp debate and opposition to military control of nuclear weapons.
To answer these fears, the US formed a civilian Atomic Energy Commission, headed by physicist David Lilienthal. Previously, Lilienthal had served as chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and his role in the development of government-owned hydroelectric works had won him as a reputation as a champion of the public interest against private monopolies. To dramatize the transfer of the bomb from military to civilian control, the AEC Public Relations Department arranged for a newspaper to photograph General Groves handing “the secret” of the bomb to Chairman Lilienthal.

Lilienthal’s image as a civilian and a liberal made him an ideal spokesman for the military’s campaign to accelerate research and production of nuclear weapons. In testimony to Congress, he advocated “arming this country atomically in such a way as to erect a great deterrent to aggression in the world; that we should establish unquestioned and unmistakable leadership; and in this way thus buy time for reason to prevail.”

The myth of the bomb as a “secret weapon” quickly evaporated, however, as the Soviet Union developed bombs of its own. By 1952, both countries had graduated from A-bombs to H-bombs, yielding more than 15,000 times the destructive power of the explosion that obliterated Hiroshima. As US-Soviet hostilities hardened, the public was left to consider the horrifying potential that atomic power had unleashed–the prospect that the next “world war” would involve bombs capable of destroying whole cities in a war that even then people realized no one would win.

Atoms for Peace

In 1953, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered his now-famous “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations. Using a swords-into-plowshares approach borrowed from the Bible, he pledged that “peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here–now, today,” ready to “provide abundant electrical energy in the power-starved areas of the world. . . . The US pledges . . . to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma–to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”

Eisenhower’s speech marked the beginning of a public relations campaign to transform the image of nuclear technology. Previously, its sole proven use had been for the purpose of designing destructive weapons. Now the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) promised that nuclear generators would make electricity “too cheap to meter.” The government’s monopoly on ownership of nuclear materials was abolished, and private companies were invited to participate in the commercial development of atomic energy. The US promised to share atomic energy technology with underdeveloped nations. The atom’s image as a magical source of unlimited energy was promoted using educational films, brochures and experts who promised that a lump of uranium the size of a pea could unleash enough energy to drive a car to the moon and back.

Less than a year following his “Atoms for Peace” speech, Eisenhower appeared on national television to personally lead a publicity stunt on Labor Day of 1954. Waving a “magic wand,” he electronically signalled a radio-controlled bulldozer to begin breaking ground at the small Pennsylvania town of Shippingport, marking the start of construction on the country’s first commercial nuclear power plant.

Once again, however, image and reality were worlds apart. Although scientists had already demonstrated the possibility of using nuclear reactors to generate electricity, the technology had little support among US utility companies, who saw nuclear generators as expensive and unnecessary. In fact, the cost per kilowatt of electricity generated by the Shippingport reactor was ten times higher than the prevailing cost of power; federal subsidies were necessary to make it commercially competitive with conventional coal-powered reactors. The true purpose of Shippingport was symbolic; it sent a message that the atom could be harnessed for peaceful uses.

In 1950, David Lilienthal had resigned as AEC chairman. He became increasingly disillusioned with the “many instances of the way in which public relations techniques–the not-so-hidden persuader–have been used to promote the appropriation of funds for the peaceful Atom.” He criticized the “elaborate ritual” of providing nuclear technology to underdeveloped countries: “Even as a propaganda move it was self-defeating and naïve. A great many of these countries need and could use doctors and medicine, storage batteries, plows and fertilizers and seed–and good elementary scientific instruction. Only the desire to prove somehow that atoms were for peace could justify the absurdity of a separate program, not in the foreign aid part of the State Department but in the AEC.”

“Once a bright hope shared by all mankind,
including myself, the rash proliferation of
nuclear power plants is now one of the
ugliest clouds hanging over America.”
–Dr. David Lilienthal, physicist, Nobel Prize Winner, first chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission

By 1962, nuclear power was still more expensive than energy generated by conventional means, but the AEC and private companies such as Westinghouse, Union Carbide and General Electric had spent billions of dollars in research and development, and they were anxious to see a return on their investment. With great fanfare, GE announced in 1962 that it had contracted to build a nuclear plant at Oyster Creek, New Jersey, for $91 million, entirely without federal subsidy.

In reality, however, the Oyster Creek reactor was a “loss leader.” General Electric built it at a bargain-basement price, accepting a loss on the deal so it could position itself to dominate the reactor market. The ploy worked. The mystique of high-tech atomic power proved hypnotic, and orders for new reactors began rolling in from utility companies convinced that they needed nuclear power to remain on the cutting edge of “America’s energy future.”

As the orders came in, GE discreetly jacked up its prices, until utility companies were actually paying more for the privilege of “buying into the future” than if they had stayed with conventional generators.

Damage Control

As the rhetoric of power “too cheap to meter” faded, the AEC and nuclear advocates spoke instead of someday producing atomic electricity that would be “competitive in cost” to coal, gas or hydroelectric power. This goal was never achieved in practice. But even if nuclear power could be produced at a competitive price, the technology had another major problem: safety.

At a conventional power plant, an accident or sabotage might kill a few dozen people–a couple of hundred in a worst-case scenario. By contrast, a 1957 study by the Brookhaven National Laboratory estimated that a “worst case” accident at a small, 150-megawatt nuclear reactor 30 miles upwind of a major city would kill 3,400 people, injure another 43,000, and cause $7 billion in property damage. An accident at a larger, 1,000-megawatt reactor could kill as many as 45,000 people, cause property damage of nearly $300 billion, and radioactively contaminate an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania.

These estimates stunned the AEC steering committee which had commissioned the study. In an internal memorandum, steering committee member S. Allan Lough wrote that “Great care should be exercised . . . to avoid establishing and/or reinforcing the popular notion that reactors are unsafe. Though this is a public information or promotional problem that the AEC now faces with less than desirable success, I feel that by calculating the consequences of hypothetical accidents, the AEC should not place itself in the position of making the location of reactors near urban areas nearly indefensible.”

The steering committee decided to withhold publication of the Brookhaven study, and when word of its existence leaked out, the AEC responded by saying only that it had never been completed.

In fact, the industry had already seen a series of catastrophic incidents, most of which were successfully kept out of the press.

As the years unrolled, new accidents kept happening:
* In Kyshtym in the Soviet Union, a massive radioactive explosion at a high-level waste dump in 1957 rendered an area of over 70 square miles permanently uninhabitable.
* At the SL-1 test reactor in Idaho, an exploding fuel rod killed three reactor operators and saturated the reactor building with radiation. Three weeks after the January 3, 1961, accident, the hands and heads of the three victims were still so hot with radiation that they had to be severed from their bodies and buried separately as radioactive waste.
* On October 5, 1966, a partial meltdown at the 300-megawatt Enrico Fermi I fast-breeder reactor at Monroe, Michigan prompted utility officials to seriously consider the possibility of trying to evacuate Detroit, 40 miles to the north. News of the accident was successfully withheld from the public until the early 1970s, when John G. Fuller, one of the engineers who witnessed the meltdown, published a book titled We Almost Lost Detroit.
* In 1975, fire damaged electric cables and safety systems at the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry complex in Alabama. The fire triggered near panic in the plant’s control room and started a process that could, if allowed to continue, have led to a meltdown.

Containment Failure

Despite aggressive publicity efforts, the “peaceful atom” was never able to overcome its association with the nuclear weapons industry. The movement against nuclear power originated with the campaign against above-ground bomb testing, which educated citizens about the health and environmental dangers posed by radiation. Environmental concerns also fed the first local opposition to the building of nuclear power stations, when the Sierra Club in 1961 opposed construction of the Bodega Head plant near San Francisco on a site that was not only part of a local nature reserve, but also on an earthquake fault.

The activism of the 1960s led naturally to growing protests linking nuclear power to nuclear bombs, and by the late 1970s, “no-nuke” groups were active throughout the United States, lobbying and developing information programs which criticized the nuclear industry on environmental, scientific and economic grounds.

In response, electrical utilities stepped up their PR campaigns. A 1978 survey of business-funded educational materials in US public schools showed that “more than any industry group, the electric utilities provide extensive multi-media materials on energy issues. . . . These energy education efforts notably target the elementary grade levels through the use of films, comic books, cartoon graphics or simple phrasing. This emphasis on the lower grades seems aimed at cultivating a future constituency in support of the electric power industry in general and nuclear power in particular.”

The educational cartoon books included titles such as The Atom, Electricity, and You, distributed by the Commonwealth Edison Company; For A Mature Audience Only, published by Westinghouse; and Mickey Mouse and Goofy Explore Energy, produced by Exxon.

The PR campaign attempted to portray nuclear power as not only safe, but environmentally cleaner than other power sources. In The Story of Electricity, published in 1975 by the Florida Power and Light Corporation, comic-book characters promised that “nuclear plants are clean, odorless and generate electricity economically . . . and most important, help conserve fossil fuels!”

Another comic book titled The Battle for Survival–The War Against Environmental Pollution, published by Virginia Electric & Power, claimed that “nuclear generating stations are just about the cleanest and most desirable neighbor that any community can have . . . and our power company is a leader in constructing these new plants!”

Spinning Out of Control

Despite decades of efforts to generate favorable publicity, the nuclear industry was strikingly unprepared to handle the image crisis that erupted in Pennsylvania on March 28, 1979, when control systems failed at the Three-Mile Island facility. According to Robert Dilenschneider, the Hill & Knowlton PR executive who was brought in to manage the crisis, “the miscommunication at Three-Mile Island was the most monumental I have ever witnessed in business, and itself caused a crisis of epic proportions.”

By way of bad luck, public alarm was heightened by the ominously coincidental similarity of events at Three-Mile Island to the plot of a recently-released Hollywood movie, The China Syndrome, which portrayed a utility company more concerned with corporate profits and coverups than with serious safety problems. Metropolitan Edison, the company managing Three-Mile Island for parent company General Public Utilities, seemed to be reading from the same script as the film in its initial response to the discovery that its reactor was overheating.

The first rule of effective public relations in a crisis is to announce the bad news as completely and quickly as possible. Metropolitan Edison broke this rule in the first day of the crisis by attempting to evade the facts and downplay the extent of radiation released from the ailing reactor. Worse yet, Met Ed’s public-relations staff gave out contradictory and inaccurate information.

“There have been no recordings of any significant levels of radiation, and none are expected outside the plant,” said Met Ed’s chief spokesman, Don Curry. Shortly after this statement was released, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Resources sent a helicopter over the plant with a geiger counter and detected radiation. Company officials backpedaled and said they didn’t know how much radiation had been released. Later that afternoon, they changed their position again and said the release was minor.

Company vice-president Jack Herbein became the perfect target for skeptical journalists, talking in technical jargon and losing his temper with reporters. When someone asked what might happen if the hydrogen bubble inside the reactor came in contact with a spark, he answered that the result could be “spontaneous energetic disassembly” of the reactor. When a reporter asked him to explain the difference between “spontaneous energetic disassembly” and an explosion, he angrily refused to answer further questions.

Alarmed by the utility company’s refusal or inability to explain what was happening inside the plant, Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh suggested that pregnant women and children leave an area within a five-mile radius of the plant. Panic followed. Forty-nine percent of the population living within fifteen miles of the plant–144,000 people–packed up and fled. “The photographs in the press were appalling,” Dilenschneider recalled. “They resembled refugee lines in World War II. People were living off bottled water and canned food. There was an exodus. They packed their cars and their campers with everything they could, and jammed the highways: babies bundled in blankets, kids with scarves wrapped across their faces to limit their exposure to the ‘radiation,’ and pregnant women in sheer panic about the future they might be facing.”

Following the accident, opinion polls registered a sharp drop in public support for nuclear power, and the nuclear industry responded with a multi-million-dollar media blitz. Teams of utility executives spread across the country to hold press conferences and appear on TV talk shows. Pro-nuclear advertisements were placed in magazines aimed at women readers. Videotapes of experts discussing technical aspects of nuclear power were distributed free to TV stations, and information packets were sent to the print media. An industry-funded Nuclear Energy Education Day was organized on October 18, 1979, with over 1,000 sponsored events, including a brunch for congressional wives in Washington and a joggers’ mass relay race in California. When Jane Fonda and Tom Hayden went on an anti-nuclear speaking tour, the industry sent out two nuclear engineers as a “truth squad” to follow them and refute their arguments.

In reality, however, the nuclear power industry was in decline even before Three-Mile Island. Between 1970 and 1980, the price for building a new reactor had quintupled. The nuclear industry complained that legal challenges and delays from anti-nuclear citizens were responsible for many of the cost increases. Rising costs led utility companies to cancel their plans to build new reactors. The last order for a nuclear power plant was placed in 1978. In 1984 at least half a dozen nuclear power plants under construction were cancelled as the industry realized that it was cheaper to let them sit unused and incomplete than to try to finish and operate them. The 1985 meltdown of the Russian nuclear plant at Chernobyl, which spewed radioactive contamination over Europe and around the globe, seemed to mark the final nail in the coffin of an already dying technology, born of hype and deception.