Lobbyists step up efforts to reassure on nuclear energy

By Theo Emery and Donovan Slack
Globe Staff / March 17, 2011

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WASHINGTON — The nuclear power industry has mounted a concerted lobbying push on Capitol Hill this week to reassure members of Congress who are concerned about the Japanese nuclear plant disaster and potential for a similar incident in the United States.

The effort is part of the industry’s response to a crisis that has spurred calls for a moratorium on nuclear power permits and raised questions about financial incentives the industry has secured during the quest for energy sources that do not contribute to global climate change.

The industry’s success at explaining the technical issues and addressing concerns of elected officials and the American public could prove pivotal to the future of nuclear power, which is beginning to enjoy renewed support more than three decades after the Three Mile Island accident essentially killed new plant construction in the United States.

The industry boosted its cam paign donations and lobbying activities in recent years and has enjoyed greater influence in Washington, muscle that has been on display since last week’s earthquake and tsunami threw reactors on the Japanese coast into a state of emergency.

“They have a very powerful lobbying force, which is being felt on the Hill right now,’’ said Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat and a longtime critic of the industry who has called for a timeout on permits for plants in earthquake zones, one of the few members of Congress calling for a halt.

Since the weekend, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s trade organization, and its members have dispatched representatives to conduct large-scale briefings and have prepared fact sheets for lawmakers about safety threats in Japan. The group has been firing off e-mail updates, some countering the most foreboding elements of news coverage.

A representative sat in a hearing room yesterday as lawmakers peppered federal officials with questions about nuclear safety.

Leslie Kass, the institute’s senior director of business policy and programs, confirmed that the organization is undertaking an “above average’’ information blitz to answer questions and help lawmakers wade through the torrent of news — some conflicting — coming out of Japan.

“It’s obvious that people need information. Some of them are seeking us out. We’re making it convenient for them to come and get the information, because it’s important for policy makers to have facts,’’ she said.

The effort has appeared to help the industry avoid sharp political shifts in Washington. The Obama administration and most Republicans and Democrats in Congress have refrained from calling for a slowdown on permits. In Germany, Switzerland, and China, by contrast, officials have suspended new approvals.

In recent years, the industry’s representatives have been regular visitors to members of Congress and their staffs, as are lobbyists for other energy interests seeking to protect or win new profits as the nation debates its energy future. There are 104 commercial reactors operating at 64 plants across the United States, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. They generate roughly 20 percent of the country’s electricity. The NRC has not issued a license for a new reactor in more than 30 years, but there are 18 applications for new reactors pending.

The Nuclear Energy Institute’s political action committee has more than doubled its campaign contributions during the past decade, from $157,000 in 2001 and 2002, to $470,000 in 2009 and 2010, spreading its money among Democrats and Republicans alike. Separately, political action committees associated with the 14 companies seeking to build the new reactors have spent $8 million on political contributions and related expenses since 2008, according to a Globe analysis of data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

The nuclear energy industry’s contributions represent a fraction of the contributions by the electric utilities sector overall, which gave a total of $18.9 million to campaigns since 2008. The oil and gas industry contributed $27.6 million since 2008.

In addition, the Nuclear Energy Institute also spent more on lobbyists in recent years, with costs rising from an average of $1.1 million annually between 2000 and 2005 to an annual average of $1.76 million between 2006 and 2010.

Kass said that the group’s more aggressive agenda coincided with increased attention to energy on Capitol Hill. “I think as energy policy has come to the forefront, obviously we’re right there in the mix. Much of the Democrats’ energy policy was based on clean energy in the last Congress, and many of the Democrats looked at the analysis and were suddenly far more interested in nuclear energy, whereas maybe before they had been agnostic or unaware,’’ she said.

Few Democrats have joined Markey in his calls for a moratorium on permits. Senator John F. Kerry, who proposed a climate change bill last year that contained incentives for nuclear power, said this week: “I don’t think we should be rushing to judgment’’ on nuclear power.

President Obama said Tuesday he is still confident in the safety of nuclear energy, although he has directed a review of the country’s approach to regulation and oversight.

Energy Secretary Steven Chu said during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing yesterday that the administration is pushing forward with proposals for loan guarantees for construction of nuclear power plants.

US Representative Joe Barton, a Texas Republican who questioned Chu about the program, said incentives for nuclear power construction are important, to protect private investors.

The GOP budget bill cutting some $61 billion in spending that passed in the House last month, but which died in the Senate, stripped out loan guarantees to develop renewable energy sources but left in place $18.5 billion in such guarantees for the nuclear industry.

“It’s a clear indication that the nuclear industry is very powerful in D.C., and that the renewable industry — which is smaller companies that aren’t as politically savvy — has a very hard time holding on to what they have gotten,’’ said Richard Caperton, an energy policy analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress.

Barton, who sent staff to the institute’s briefings, said it’s a “myth’’ that the industry’s power can sway lawmakers.

“It’s more that we each come with certain preconceived philosophies and ideas, and the industry groups tend to reinforce what we already believe,’’ he said. top stories on Twitter

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