Under the Influence: Money and Power in Politics

Nuclear Energy Is Safe (Say Industry-Backed Legislators)

(Credit: John O Dyer/ Flickr)Despite the recent disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, the nuclear industry still enjoys plenty of support back home, with legislators in both houses of Congress insisting that U.S. power plants are safe.

But how much of that support is based on hard facts and how much on financial influence?

The nuclear industry as a whole has spent over $46 million on lobbying from 1998 through 2010, according to the Sunlight Foundation. Roughly $18 million of that has come from the industry's leading trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, which, in addition to lobbying the people who write the laws on energy, has given them money, employed their former and future staffers, and honored them with leadership awards.

"Because the [nuclear] industry has been so stagnant for so long...that creates a limited amount of knowledge in this particular field," said Allison Fisher of Public Citizen, a non-profit that opposes nuclear energy. "It's dwindling, and it creates even more opportunity for revolving door issues."

Senate Energy and Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., counts himself as a nuclear energy supporter. He said that the Japan disaster hasn't changed too many opinions on Capitol Hill.

"Most [Senate] members, I believe, recognize the importance that nuclear energy provides in our energy mix," Bingaman told ABC News on March 15.

But Bingaman has also received some of his most generous donations from people with a vested interest in nuclear power.

According to the Sunlight Foundation, the Los Alamos National Laboratory has given Bingaman $49,408 throughout his career, making the birthplace of the atomic bomb his No. 1 donor.
Another of his top contributors, with $38,520, is Exelon Corp, the country's largest owner and operator of nuclear power plants. And in 2006, Bingaman received a leadership award from the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and a winner of that same leadership award, also did some cheerleading for the nuclear industry after the Japan disaster. Barton told the Dallas Morning News last week that nuclear plants in the United States are 100-percent safe.

As of 2010, Barton has received more campaign contributions from the Nuclear Energy Institute than any other politician — $31,454.

Duke Energy Corporation, though not strictly a purveyor of nuclear, does operate three major plants in the Carolinas and has kept itself in the revolving-door loop. (Most recently, the company made headlines when it offered Democrats a $10 million loan for their 2012 national convention. Environmental groups cried foul, because Duke Energy is the nation's third largest coal-burning utility, creating the appearance of a double standard for a Democratic administration that champions green energy.)

One of the top recipients of Duke Energy's campaign contributions is Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., with $86,000. Burr, like Bingaman, is also a member of the Energy & Natural Resources Committee.

Some of Burr's staff members have also benefited from Duke Energy money. Brian D. Vanderbloemen was Burr's legislative assistant before going to work for Duke Energy in 2007.

Lobbyist John Kane went through the revolving door the other way. He was the Senior Vice President of Governmental Affairs for the Nuclear Energy Institute for eight years before he had a brief run on Burr's staff.

Last June, Burr and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., introduced an environmentally focused bill that Burr said would "help move us forward in using cleaner, domestic energy." Called "The Next Generation Security Act," the bill touts the benefits of natural gas and, you guessed it, nuclear energy.

Burr is hardly the only politician whose staffers have been through the nuclear-energy revolving door.

Pete Domenici, former senator of New Mexico and member of the Senate Energy and Appropriations committees, has been an outspoken nuclear energy supporter throughout his career. The New York Times recently highlighted the key role his promotion of nuclear power has played in both the Bush and Obama administrations. One of his former staffers, Peter Lyons, is a nuclear scientist who once worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Another former staffer, Alex Flint, eventually replaced Kane as Senior V.P. for the Nuclear Energy Institute. Domenici also received his share of awards from NEI.

Another outspoken proponent of nuclear energy, Republican Rep. Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania wrote a column in The Hill in 2009, proclaiming, "Our green energy future is a nuclear future." Around the same time, his former Legislative Director of eight years, Julie Hershey Carr, was lobbying on behalf of NEI.

But more specifically, many of the politicians who are now defending nuclear energy in light of public concerns sparked by Japan's crisis are also some of the biggest recipients of industry money.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., announced recently that Duke Energy's three reactors in the Carolinas are much safer than the ones in Japan. "I have a lot a faith in the nuclear industry," he said. Graham received $68,707 from the industry, which is more than almost any other politician.

Charles Schumer D-N.Y., said on "Meet The Press" following Japan's crisis that he's still willing to look at nuclear energy as an option for the United States. Schumer's former communications director Izzy Klein was later a lobbyist for Duke Energy at the Podesta Group.

Not every politician with financial or lobbying ties to the nuclear industry is a fan. Klein, the same lobbyist Schumer once employed, for instance, was also at one time the political director for Democratic Rep. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, who publicly voiced his suspicions of the nuclear industry following the Japan crisis.

But as the nation begins to take a hard look at the safety of our nuclear power plants, it's worth asking — how much are our elected officials, who are ultimately responsible for nuclear policy, under the influence?

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