Nuclear Industry Tends to Its Image in Washington

Posted March 19, 2011 at 2:25pm

In Japan, the public is fleeing the sites of the damaged nuclear power plants. But in the United States, energy companies such as Exelon Corp. are urging lawmakers on break this week to pay a visit to their local nuclear power plant.

As the operator of the most nuclear power plants in the United States, Chicago-based Exelon has a tremendous stake in the effect of the disaster in Japan on Capitol Hill, where some lawmakers already are calling for a re-examination of the expansion of nuclear power.

The company and others in the industry have launched an informational blitz aimed at reassuring Members that power plants here are safe and can withstand disasters. 

“Anytime there is an event like this, those who oppose the nuclear industry are reinvigorated,” said David Brown, senior vice president for federal government affairs and public policy at Exelon. “And that means that we need to educate folks on the issues at hand.”

Brown said that Exelon, which owns 17 reactors, representing one-fifth of the nuclear industry’s national power capacity, has always welcomed lawmaker visits to its plants. But he said that with current developments in Japan, there is “an urgency to getting them there.”

On Friday, Rep. Bobby Rush (Ill.), the top Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Power, toured Exelon’s Dresden nuclear power plant in Illinois. The General Electric-made reactors at Dresden are similar to ones in Japan.

Rush, who said he requested the tour, said he was assured there were a number of upgrades to the Illinois facility that made it safer than its Japanese counterparts, such as having back-up generators. “The regulatory regime in terms of oversight is more aggressive in the U.S” than in Japan, he said.

Rush also said he worried that there was “too much neighborliness and coziness” between the Nuclear Regulatory Commission inspectors and the industry.

The Congressman said he expected that his committee would be holding field hearings at a number of the nuclear plants in the coming months.

Critics interpret the lobbying flurry as a sign of how concerned the industry is about the effect of the Japanese disaster in Washington, D.C., and the states.

“Their actions indicate how afraid they are that the door will slam on the nuclear renaissance,” said David Hamilton, director of global warming and energy programs at the Sierra Club, which has long opposed nuclear power.

“To describe their actions as anything but frantic doesn’t do it justice,” Hamilton said. 

Last week, as the Japanese nuclear reactor story dominated the news, industry officials swung into action on Capitol Hill.

Exelon Chief Operating Officer Charles Pardee came to Washington for three days to meet with lawmakers and staff.

Meanwhile, the Nuclear Energy Institute, which represents those companies and other entities involved in the nuclear power industry, held a series of briefings on Capitol Hill that included 50 lawmakers. The institute’s membership includes U.S. companies involved in energy generation as well as Japanese entities including the Federation of Electric Power Companies of Japan and the Tokyo Electric Power Co., which owns the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant.

The setback occurred as lawmakers of both parties as well as President Barack Obama had embraced nuclear power as an alternative to more oil and gas drilling. 

In his 2012 budget proposal, Obama called for an additional $36 billion in federal loan guarantees to help companies build nuclear power plants.

In a House hearing last week, Energy Secretary Steven Chu told lawmakers that the president still supports building more nuclear plants even as the U.S. applied lessons learned from the Japanese disaster.

While a number of Republicans have also remained steadfastly supportive of the nuclear industry, some key Democrats are calling for a pause in such construction and more investigations. Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee Chairman Tom Carper (Del.) last week sent a letter to the NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko requesting that the agency conduct an investigation of all nuclear facilities in the country to see whether they could withstand catastrophic conditions.

Industry officials are bracing for more Congressional probes and obstacles to building new nuclear plants.

Alex Flint, the senior vice president for government affairs at the Nuclear Energy Institute, acknowledged that the Japanese situation “certainly will complicate already very complicated efforts” to pass energy legislation. Flint said his group had been having discussions with Boxer as well as Senate Energy and Natural Resources Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.).

The nuclear energy industry is just the latest in a series of sectors forced to go into damage control after serious accidents or mistakes threatened their standing with the public and their agenda on Capitol Hill. Last year executives from Toyota, Goldman Sachs and BP all were subject to Congressional grilling over their practices.

After the oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, BP launched a public relations offensive and hired a number of top consultants in town to help them deal with the damage.

It is not yet clear whether the nuclear energy companies will undertake a similar media and lobbying effort. But the industry, which includes utilities and manufacturers, already has an extensive lobbying network.

The Nuclear Energy Institute last year spent almost $1.7 million on federal lobbying in 2010. Its roster of outside lobbyists includes Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates, whose principals include former Rep. Robert Walker (R-Pa.), who was chairman of the Science Committee. This year the trade group added to the team Raffaniello & Associates and the DS2 Group.

Flint, the chief in-house lobbyist for the institute, was a former staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

Exelon, which spent about $3.7 million last year on lobbying, recently beefed up its lobbying team, hiring the Glover Park Group and the DS2 Group.

One energy lobbyist said the industry must do more than defend its current operations. Patrick Von Bargen, who heads the energy practice at Quinn Gillespie & Associates, said the industry should work with Congress to see which remedial actions need to be taken rather than “immediately swinging into defensive mode.”

“In addition to the public relations effort, it would behoove the industry to be full partners in the review” of nuclear power, he said.