Nation's energy policy should not be dictaed by high-paid lobbyists

Posted: Thursday, May 24, 2001

In the late 1880s, electric power's infancy, Thomas Edison waged a propaganda war to discredit the alternating current, or AC, pioneered by inventor Nicola Tesla. Edison, who had developed and invested heavily in direct current -- DC -- tried to show the "dangers" of alternating current by hiring a professor to travel the country, electrocuting animals large and small with an AC generator. The campaign culminated in the execution of convicted murderer William Kemmler, put to death on Aug. 6, 1890, in the first electric chair, powered by alternating current.

Edison might have succeeded in planting negative associations with AC in many people's minds, but alternating current eventually won out and within a few years was lighting New York state from Niagara Falls to New York City. With this little history lesson in mind, and with the Bush administration pushing its new energy plan, one wonders: Will nuclear power make a similar triumph over its high public negatives?

Like alternating current, nuclear power has long suffered from popular perceptions linking it to an agent of death; in this case, nuclear weapons. Unlike AC, however, the lion's share of nuclear power's bad press is deserved.

It was, after all, Three Mile Island, not Hiroshima or the Cold War, that stopped the growth of America's nuclear-power industry. No new plants have been constructed in this country since a minor malfunction on March 28, 1979, led to the nation's worst commercial nuclear accident. And the outright disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 turned worldwide sentiment further against what once looked like a potentially promising energy source.

Although much of Europe and Asia still rely heavily on nuclear power, it seemed all but dead in this country. Until March of this year, that is, when nuclear-industry lobbyists succeeded in placing it back on the national energy agenda. That's when Vice President Dick Cheney, at work on President Bush's energy policy, began mentioning nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels.

The outcry to the "N" word has been swift -- but has it been knee-jerk? Undoubtedly, some of it has: Nuclear power, despite the problem of nuclear-waste disposal, is certainly cleaner for the atmosphere than electricity generated through, say, coal. And it does not produce the greenhouse gases that most scientists agree pose the most significant threat to our planet right now -- global warming. Sure, no one wants to live near a nuclear plant, but isn't this just another case of the NIMBY -- Not In My Back Yard -- factor?

The Bush administration wants the American public to choose: If you don't want more drilling for oil, if you don't want to depend on foreign oil, and if you don't want expensive energy, the administration seems to be saying, maybe you should consider nuclear power.

The problem, as many have pointed out in the past few weeks, is that this might not be a real choice. For one thing, most greenhouse pollution right now comes from automobile emissions, not electricity generation. For another, not much foreign oil -- or any oil, for that matter -- is used to generate electricity. Going nuclear will make little if any change in our dependence on OPEC.

Those who question President Bush's energy policy say that he is fostering a false sense of crisis to push through the wish lists of lobbyists from the oil, gas and coal industries. Should one now add the nuclear industry to that list? Alternating current ultimately succeeded because it had the better technology, not the better lobby. After too many years of government-by-lobbyist from both sides of the aisle, one hopes that it will not dictate our energy policy.

Dan Rather works for CBS News.

HEAD:Nation's energy policy should not be dictated by high-paid lobbyists

In the late 1880s, electric power's infancy, Thomas Edison waged a propaganda war to discredit the alternating current, or AC, pioneered by inventor Nicola Tesla. Edison, who had developed and invested heavily in direct current -- DC -- tried to show the "dangers" of alternating current by hiring a professor to travel the country, electrocuting animals large and small with an AC generator. The campaign culminated in the execution of convicted murderer William Kemmler, put to death on Aug. 6, 1890, in the first electric chair, powered by alternating current.

Edison might have succeeded in planting negative associations with AC in many people's minds, but alternating current eventually won out and within a few years was lighting New York state from Niagara Falls to New York City. With this little history lesson in mind, and with the Bush administration pushing its new energy plan, one wonders: Will nuclear power make a similar triumph over its high public negatives?

Like alternating current, nuclear power has long suffered from popular perceptions linking it to an agent of death; in this case, nuclear weapons. Unlike AC, however, the lion's share of nuclear power's bad press is deserved.

It was, after all, Three Mile Island, not Hiroshima or the Cold War, that stopped the growth of America's nuclear-power industry. No new plants have been constructed in this country since a minor malfunction on March 28, 1979, led to the nation's worst commercial nuclear accident. And the outright disaster at Chernobyl in 1986 turned worldwide sentiment further against what once looked like a potentially promising energy source.

Although much of Europe and Asia still rely heavily on nuclear power, it seemed all but dead in this country. Until March of this year, that is, when nuclear-industry lobbyists succeeded in placing it back on the national energy agenda. That's when Vice President Dick Cheney, at work on President Bush's energy policy, began mentioning nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels.

The outcry to the "N" word has been swift -- but has it been knee-jerk? Undoubtedly, some of it has: Nuclear power, despite the problem of nuclear-waste disposal, is certainly cleaner for the atmosphere than electricity generated through, say, coal. And it does not produce the greenhouse gases that most scientists agree pose the most significant threat to our planet right now -- global warming. Sure, no one wants to live near a nuclear plant, but isn't this just another case of the NIMBY -- Not In My Back Yard -- factor?

The Bush administration wants the American public to choose: If you don't want more drilling for oil, if you don't want to depend on foreign oil, and if you don't want expensive energy, the administration seems to be saying, maybe you should consider nuclear power.

The problem, as many have pointed out in the past few weeks, is that this might not be a real choice. For one thing, most greenhouse pollution right now comes from automobile emissions, not electricity generation. For another, not much foreign oil -- or any oil, for that matter -- is used to generate electricity. Going nuclear will make little if any change in our dependence on OPEC.

Those who question President Bush's energy policy say that he is fostering a false sense of crisis to push through the wish lists of lobbyists from the oil, gas and coal industries. Should one now add the nuclear industry to that list? Alternating current ultimately succeeded because it had the better technology, not the better lobby. After too many years of government-by-lobbyist from both sides of the aisle, one hopes that it will not dictate our energy policy.

Dan Rather works for CBS News.



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