NEW YORK - When residents in Illinois voiced outrage two years ago upon learning that the
Obama scolded Exelon and federal regulators for inaction and introduced a bill to require all plant owners to notify state and local authorities immediately of even small leaks. He has boasted of it on the campaign trail, telling a crowd in Iowa in December that it was "the only nuclear legislation that I've passed."
"I just did that last year," he said, to murmurs of approval.
A close look at the path his legislation took tells a very different story. While he initially fought to advance his bill, even holding up a presidential nomination to try to force a hearing on it, Obama rewrote it to reflect changes sought by Senate Republicans, Exelon, and nuclear regulators.
Those revisions propelled the bill through a crucial committee. But contrary to Obama's comments in Iowa, it died amid parliamentary wrangling in the full Senate despite removal of language mandating prompt reporting.
Instead, the new bill simply offered guidance to regulators, whom it charged with addressing the issue of unreported leaks.
"Senator Obama's staff was sending us copies of the bill to review, and we could see it weakening with each successive draft," said Joe Cosgrove, a park district director in Will County, Ill., where low-level radioactive runoff had turned up in groundwater.
The history of the bill shows Obama navigating a home-state controversy that pitted two important constituencies against each other and tested his skills as a legislative infighter. On one side were neighbors of several nuclear plants upset that low-level radioactive leaks had gone unreported for years; on the other was Exelon, the country's largest nuclear plant operator and one of Obama's largest sources of campaign money.
Since 2003, executives and employees of Exelon, which is based in Illinois, have contributed at least $227,000 to Obama's campaigns for the US Senate and for president. Two top Exelon officials, Frank M. Clark, executive vice president, and John W. Rogers Jr., a director, are among his largest fund-raisers.
Another Obama donor, John W. Rowe, chairman of Exelon, is also chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power industry's lobbying group. Exelon's support for Obama far exceeds its support for any other presidential candidate.
In addition, Obama's chief strategist, David Axelrod, has worked as a consultant to Exelon. A spokeswoman for Exelon said Axelrod's company had helped an Exelon subsidiary, Commonwealth Edison, with communications strategy periodically since 2002, but had no involvement in the radioactive leak controversy or other nuclear issues.
The Obama campaign said in written responses to questions that Obama "never discussed this issue or this bill" with Axelrod. The campaign acknowledged Exelon executives had met with Obama's staff about the bill, as had concerned residents, environmentalists, and regulators. It said the revisions resulted not from any influence by Exelon, but as a response to a roadblock put up by Republicans, who then controlled the Senate.
"If Senator Obama had listened to industry demands, he wouldn't have repeatedly criticized Exelon in the press, introduced the bill, and then fought for months to get action on it," the campaign said. "Since he has over a decade of legislative experience, Senator Obama knows that it's very difficult to pass a perfect bill."
Asked why Obama had cited it as an accomplishment while campaigning for president, the campaign noted that after the senator introduced his bill, nuclear plants started making such reports on a voluntary basis. The campaign did not directly address the question of why Obama had told Iowa voters that the legislation had passed.
Nuclear safety advocates are divided on whether Obama's efforts yielded any lasting benefits. David A. Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists agreed that "it took the introduction of the bill in the first place to get a reaction from the industry."
"But of course because it is all voluntary," Lochbaum said.
Others say turning the whole matter over to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, as Obama's revised bill would have done, played into the hands of the nuclear power industry, which they say has little to fear from the regulators.
Paul Gunter, an activist based in Maryland who assisted neighbors of the Exelon plants, said he was "disappointed in Senator Obama's lack of follow-through," which he said weakened the original bill. "The new legislation falls short" by failing to provide for mandatory reporting, said Gunter, whose group, Beyond Nuclear, opposes nuclear energy.