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Nuclear Energy: The Sixty-Year Pitch

Tony Fischer/flickr
Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant

From a dancing housewife to Homer Simpson and beyond, here are some memorable moments in the long grind to sell nuclear power to a wary public.

Third of three parts. Part 1:Last Tango for nuclear?; Part 2:Atomic Balm.

The nuclear power industry has often been its own worst enemy through its marketing.

At the height of the Cold War in 1953, President Eisenhower rolled out the “Atoms for Peace” campaign, envisioning everything from electrical generation to harnessing atomic bombs to dredging harbors and damming rivers. The following year, Atomic Energy Commission Chair Lewis Strauss upped the ante, envisioning a day when “our children will enjoy in their homes electrical energy too cheap to meter.”

Strauss was placing his bets on nuclear fusion, which, sixty years later, is still on the drawing board. And the meters are still ticking away.

Eager to invest in nukes, utilities took their cue from the AEC Chairman. The Atomic Industrial Forum, the first nuclear power trade association, led the way in messages equating nuclear power with easy living and patriotism. Utilities ran ad campaigns that promised cheap nuclear energy.

From hot times to deep freeze

Nuclear power plant construction hit its Golden Era in the 1960’s. A late Sixties video touting proposed New England nukes, “The Atom and Eve,” is a memorable example from the era: Eve is a dancing housewife, reveling in the virtues of an all-electric kitchen powered by clean, safe nuclear energy. The video’s cigarette-smoking safety engineer looks like he was plucked out of the fission edition of Mad Men, but it’s Eve’s show. She pirouettes around household appliances, caressing the refrigerator, fondling an electric range, and (viewer advisory!) at about the 8:45 mark, she pretty much makes it to third base with an electric washer-dryer combo.


The cynical atmosphere of the Seventies brought a different approach. The OPEC oil embargo of 1973 prompted a U.S. oil crisis, and it all reprised six years later. One of the few friends of the U.S. remaining in the Middle East became a posterboy – or poster Shah – for building U.S. nukes to curb dependency on Arab oil.

It wasn’t Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s only nuclear victory. In 1976, President Gerald Ford bowed to persuasion from two top aides to provide nuclear reprocessing technology to Iran. Three years later, the Shah was toppled, and Iran became America’s top enemy, both its oil and its nuke plants now a threat. The two aides, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, went on to further carve their names into Middle East history.

By the end of the decade, rising protests at nuclear plant construction sites and the near-calamity of Three Mile Island changed the game. Public mistrust grew, particularly after Nuclear Regulatory Commission staffers accused Pennsylvania officials and Three Mile Island’s operators of downplaying risks.

The almost-concurrent release of The China Syndrome, a fictional tale of a California nuclear accident and cover-up, didn’t help. The box-office hit, starring Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda, features a plant engineer delivering a serendipitous line taken from an actual 1957 Atomic Energy Commission report stating a major nuclear accident would “render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”

Showbiz takes a swing

After Three Mile Island and The China Syndrome, nukes became a pop-culture target. Less than six months after Three Mile Island’s partial meltdown the era’s rock and roll royalty convened for the “No Nukes” concerts in New York: Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash and The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, headlined. Four years later, Meryl Streep starred in a biopic about Karen Silkwood, a plutonium worker and union organizer who was contaminated in an on-the-job incident. When Silkwood died in a 1974 car wreck, supporters said she was run off the road. Police ruled it an accident, but her employers at Kerr-McGee paid her survivors nearly $1.4 million for the contamination.


Nuclear reached peak pop culture pillorying in 1990 with the debut of The Simpsons. With the loutish Homer Simpson becoming the nation’s best-known nuclear employee and the comically evil Montgomery Burns representing ownership and management (not to mention Blinky, the mutant three-eyed fish who appeared in the show’s first year), tens of millions sat down weekly to jokes at the industry’s expense.

Todd Ehlers/flickr

After the show became a hit in its first season, the industry took several Simpson’s writers and producers on a VIP tour of the San Onofre plant north of San Diego. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, executive producer Sam Simon promised to take the edge off the nuke jokes. Blinky the mutant fish disappeared from the show, but nuclear snark has remained a Simpsons hallmark for a quarter century.

Anxious Eighties 

Three Mile Island did not spawn the cancer epidemic that some activists predicted but it scared the pants off of Wall Street. Backing for new plant construction plunged into a deep freeze as existing nuclear plants aged and on-site storage of nuclear waste piled up. The industry’s re-formed communications arm, the Council on Energy Awareness, cranked out ads dissing the near-term prospects for wind and solar (including a version of “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” from the musical “Annie.”) They also vowed that safe nuclear waste storage was right around the corner. It wasn’t, and still isn’t.

In 1986, the Soviet nuclear complex at Chernobyl, in today’s Ukraine, re-defined the notion of nuclear disaster. Thirty-one deaths were reported immediately after the rupture of a core, steam explosions and radiation releases at Chernobyl’s Reactor Four. The radiation plume reached as far as Scandinavia, with much of it falling on neighboring Belarus. About 350,000 people were relocated from the contamination zones and Pripyat, the city built to serve the reactors, is still a ghost town today, and will be for an estimated 20,000 years.

National Archives
President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter in the Three Mile Island control room, 1979.

The World Health Organization estimated that Chernobyl-related cancer deaths will eventually reach 4,000, but that is hotly disputed, with some projections reaching six figures. Just to prove that the pro-nuclear side doesn’t have a monopoly on overreach, high-profile opponent Dr. Helen Caldicott has repeatedly cited an obscure, non-peer-reviewed estimate of up to one million eventual deaths from Chernobyl. No other study comes close to those numbers.

By 1988, with the Shah a distant memory, the Middle East became an ominous selling point instead of a success story for nukes. A Council on Energy Awareness ad showing a man paddling a barrel of oil through a Persian Gulf minefield argued for domestic nukes as a countermeasure to Saddam Hussein and the Ayatollahs he was at war with.

Nervous Nineties and beyond

In 1998, industry advertising was whacked by the Better Business Bureau, which ruled in favor of environmental groups and a windmill power producer that nuclear ads could not boast of producing “environmentally clean” power. When those claims continued, the groups won a similar ruling from the Federal Trade Commission a year later.

As the 21st Century rolled in, the industry increasingly marketed itself as a remedy to climate change concerns, with a parade of prominent citizens, some of them paid spokespeople, plugging nuclear.

Then, in 2011, came Fukushima, and the industry’s umpteenth redemption pitch was in doubt. And Japan, by reputation one of the best-prepared and most safety-conscious nation on Earth, went into damage control mode, including at least one world-class PR overreach: Tokyo Electric Power’s legal team argued in court that radiation released by the Fukushima meltdowns was no longer the company’s responsibility.

It was now “owned” by the people it fell on.

The court was not amused.


Today, the domestic nuclear industry is relying heavily on selling nuke plants as a climate change solution. They’ve also leaned heavily on a reliability pitch, citing nuke plants’ consistent operation during the 2014 Polar Vortex. During the fierce New England storms of 2015, Exelon, owner of the biggest fleet of U.S. nukes, sent out this prideful tweet:

“Extreme weather’s got nothing on #nuclear. Our plants ran continuously during the recent winter storm in New England.”

Only problems with this: Exelon doesn’t own any nuclear plants in New England. And on Jan. 27, Entergy’s Pilgrim nuke near Plymouth, Mass., went offline during a winter storm for the second time in three years.

This series is funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Family Foundation

For questions or feedback about this piece, contact Peter Dykstra at or Brian Bienkowski at

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Keith Pickering's picture
Keith Pickering on Feb 18, 2015

In your coverage of nuclear propaganda, you left out an important series of articles: your own.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 18, 2015

Peter, the FTC made no ruling on the subject of whether the nuclear industry engaged in false advertising in its claim of nuclear being “environmentally green”:

The FTC failed to rule on whether the NEI ads were commercial or political speech and thus failed to exercise jurisdiction over the case.

BBB’s decision included this interesting conclusion:

Consumers can reasonably interpret the claim to mean that electricity generated by nuclear power is produced without any negative impact on the environment.

Whether anyone actually interpreted it that way is debatable. What’s not:

Nuclear reactors are far cleaner than the major source of electricity in this country, plants that burn coal…The [nuclear] trade group argued that the industry was being held to an unreasonable standard if pollution in the entire ”life cycle” of nuclear power, including fuel preparation, was included. And it noted that no form of energy was completely harmless; windmills in Alameda County, Calif., killed more than 1,000 birds between 1992 and 1997, it said.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 18, 2015

Peter, do you know about excess CO2. What about eventual fossil fuel depletion. The science was shelved by political actions, not by technical problems – the MSR by Nixon, and the fast reactor by Clinton.

Your endless repudiation of the greatest possible clean energy source for a large (and prosperous) planetary civilization is just perplexing.

Dan Yurman's picture
Dan Yurman on Feb 18, 2015

Pilgrim was offline because the external grid, which sends electricity to the plant, went down. The plant shut down safely as a result. There was no mechanical or electrical failure at the plant as a result of the storm.  

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 18, 2015

Chernobyl, in today’s Ukraine, re-defined the notion of nuclear disaster. Thirty-one deaths were reported immediately …

The World Health Organization estimated that Chernobyl-related cancer deaths will eventually reach 4,000

Then we need to re-define disaster again.  The World Health Organization “estimates there were 3.7 million deaths in 2012 from urban and rural sources worldwide“; here they are referring to outdoor air pollution from burning fossil fuels and biomass. 

That’s a real disaster, and the continued dominance of these pollution sources is given substantial support by anti-nuclear propaganda (such as the above article) and the work of the Rockefeller Family foundation (using money that originated with John D. Rockefeller of Standard Oil).

Tim Havel's picture
Tim Havel on Feb 19, 2015

Statistics, smazistics. It only matters if you’re the one that dies. And by the way, nobody is celebrating those who died from ozone etc. But the gist of this article is right-on: The nuclear industry is its own worst enemy. If it had spent a couple of decades on R&D, rather than prematurely rolling out systems designed to produce nuclear bombs and power submarines, we’d probably be getting half our electricity today from safe and nearly waste-free fisson reactors. The fact that that was not done merely serves to prove that the human race is just plain too stupid to be trusted with nuclear power (to say nothing of bombs).

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 19, 2015

Tim, perhaps you could explain that to the families of the  ~13,000 Americans who die from breathing the arsenic, carcinogenic particulates, and mercury found in coal emissions every year. I would be surprised if it didn’t matter to them.

We’re getting about 20% of our electricity from safe nuclear energy. Not just safe, but the safest form of energy, bar none.

You’ll never hear that from Petroleum, Coal, nor their clueless friend Renewables.

Tim Havel's picture
Tim Havel on Feb 22, 2015
Tim Havel's picture
Tim Havel on Feb 20, 2015

Your comment only shows you didn’t read mine. I said just the opposite. Humans!

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Feb 20, 2015

@Peter Dykstra

This series is funded by a grant from the Rockefeller Family Foundation.

I wonder how many others recognize how long the Rockefellers have been investing in work that casts doubt on radiation and the ability of radioactive materials to compete with their primary source of wealth and power?

My research has uncovered strategic atomic misinformation investments as early as 1927 when the Rockefeller Foundation funded Hermann Muller’s efforts to prove that x-rays cause mutations in fruit flies.

I’m not saying that the Rockefellers pay people to say something they don’t believe in. I’m saying that the Rockefellers — and their hydrocarbon associates — often give money to support people who are saying things they want the public to hear. They have also been known to use their influence with the press to make sure that stories about the people who are raising concerns about radiation and nuclear energy get more attention than they might actually deserve.

Case in point – on the day that the National Academy of Sciences issued its first report on the Biological Effects of Atomic Radiation the Rockefeller Foundation tapped a member of its board of trustees to make sure that the report was adequately covered. That man, Arthur Sulzberger, was the publisher of the New York Times.

Surprise, surprise, the story not only received an above-the-line, front page headline, but there were about 5 other articles plus a 3 page long, full text version of the Genetics Committee report. That is the report that helped to establishe the “no safe dose” of radiation mantra.

Eager to invest in nukes, utilities took their cue from the AEC Chairman.

By the way, most utilities were definitely NOT eager to invest in nuclear energy. They did not know enough about the technology and did not believe that it was well-proven enough to depend on for economical electric power generation.

Lewis Strauss, who started his working career as a traveling shoe salesman, had to put the hard sell onto them, often introducing the threat that the government would support public ownership of nuclear plants if the private utilties wouldn’t invest. At the time, there were few things that investor owned utilties feared more than “public power.”

Of course, once they decided to invest, they started to spend a little to promote their investments.

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Feb 20, 2015

@Peter Dykstra

You wrote:

The World Health Organization estimated that Chernobyl-related cancer deaths will eventually reach 4,000, but that is hotly disputed, with some projections reaching six figures.

That is not what the WHO estimate says ( 

He explains that there have been 4000 cases of thyroid cancer, mainly in children, but that except for nine deaths, all of them have recovered. “Otherwise, the team of international experts found no evidence for any increases in the incidence of leukemia and cancer among affected residents.

The international experts have estimated that radiation could cause up to about 4000 eventual deaths among the higher-exposed Chernobyl populations, i.e., emergency workers from 1986-1987, evacuees and residents of the most contaminated areas. This number contains both the known radiation-induced cancer and leukaemia deaths and a statistical prediction, based on estimates of the radiation doses received by these populations.”

There is an enormous difference between “could cause up to about 4.000 eventual deaths” and “will eventually reach 4,000.” Your statement also ignores the low end of the range of estimates, which is actually less than ZERO. There are a number of well designed studies that indicate that exposure to the levels of radiation that were released by the Chernobyl accident up-regulate the immune system enough to provide some overall beneficial results.

Rod Adams, Publisher, Atomic Insights

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 20, 2015

It’s the political and scare interventions which put a damper on R&D. Humans messed up a little at 3MI but no one died. Cool, huh? That should have compelled people to build en mass!

By not expanding nuclear, we will realize the path of fossil fueled depletion into an overheated biosphere (more scare, but true, isn’t it?).

The goal is the quickest way to get to almost zero FF’s. France did good decades ago! It’s not like a few solar panels and wind spinners will power everybody at high standards.

Hops Gegangen's picture
Hops Gegangen on Feb 20, 2015


Didn’t the Rockefeller Foundation famously divested all fossil fuel holdings a couple months or so ago?


Rod Adams's picture
Rod Adams on Feb 20, 2015

Please ignore above. Editing function won’t let me properly edit/delete.

Robert Bernal's picture
Robert Bernal on Feb 20, 2015

I’m kinda an amature and I believe I will debunk your arguments for very important reasons *

Nuclear power is intrinsically cheap – minus the costs of regulations because it requires little mass per unit of energy delivered and has high capacity factor.

The R&D of new designs that would have solved present problems of costs and regulatory expense was terminated before the commercial development stage – on the merit of political reasons, not technical. “New” designs like a MSR, if built and exchanged with the gen 2 LWRs in question, would have prevented the very few past mishaps, due to their completely different operating principles. Research is, however, obviously essential.

Wastes are a non problem – unless you count in political processes (which also impeded the development of the closed cycle, which creates much less wastes).

Changes, though barely perceptable (but already measured) are caused from excess CO2 – nuclear is the most powerful non CO2 emitting source.

There are no other large low carbon sources with nuclear’s high capacity factor and energy density (necessary for overall high EROEI) – and which would require less storage in a non FF world (I’m not saying we can’t scale up RE, though).

Research and development of various advanced meltdown proof reactors is necessary – then scale up the reactor design with the least proliferation inherently built in. In otherwords, make it so that it’ll be easier for terrorists to go the conventional route.

* Prosperity for 10 billion people and the biosphere is every reason to scale up nuclear – thus, it should be given the equal amount of carbon credit as other renewable energy sources (as per unit of energy produced, not just nameplate rating).

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 20, 2015

it [the nuclear industry] had spent a couple of decades on R&D…”

Huh? I’m a space enthusiasts as well as a clean energy enthusiast, and I can tell you that R&D leads nowhere without someone installing/deploying it in real-world applications.  “Better” is the worst energy of “good”.

Besides, the 1960s era coal-fired plants were much dirtier than the ones we have now, and would have killed hundreds of thousands more Americans than the nuclear plants that replaced them.

Nathan Wilson's picture
Nathan Wilson on Feb 20, 2015

Phillip, you have not cited any sources or told us why you believe as you do.  Unfortunately, the world is a complicated place, and if we try to understand it without the use of science, we’ll likely fail, and worse yet, we’ll be vulnerable to lobbying and manipulation by emcumbants like the fossil fuel industry.

Believing something in your heart does not make it true.  Bring evidence or stay at home.

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on Feb 24, 2015

Nonsense.    Median LCA emissions, which the relevant metric for global CO2 emissions.  Not min, not max figures, in which that Ecologist piece indulges.

coal 820gCo2/kWh

gas CC 490gCO2/kWh

nuclear 12gCO2/kWh pg 10, pg 37-41


Joris van Dorp's picture
Joris van Dorp on Mar 2, 2015

One of the most recent independent (?) analyses of nuclear power external costs is the following:

The figure on page 37 reveals that nuclear is as clean as wind energy, and far cleaner than solar energy.

The (stealth anti-nuclear) authors of this study had to go to extremes in order to manipulate the external cost of nuclear to as high as they could get away with. They therefore included a generous helping of ‘nuclear accident costs’ in their external cost assumption. And – quite ridiculously – they included a truly huge cost for ‘depletion of energy resources’ for nuclear power. This ‘depletion of energy resources’ makes up the largest part of the external cost of nuclear power, according to these authors.

Apparently, the authors of the paper didn’t know that nuclear fission fuel is inexhaustible, meaning that the cost of burning uranium in terms of resource depletion cost is zero.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Mar 2, 2015

Joris, thanks for looking into that – my patience is limited with fact-checking these “independent” analyses.

The root problem, of course, is they aren’t independent at all. In this case, Ecofys is in the same boat as Forrester Research, the Brattle Group, and other corporations which are paid to come up with “research” which verifies a pre-ordained conclusion.

Can we really expect an objective characterization of nuclear from a group whose tagline is “Sustainable Energy for Everyone”?

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