On January 26, 1977, NBC News presented a television documentary entitled “Danger! Radioactive Waste.”
The documentary team, directed by Joan Konner, filmed the sites of these lethal wastes, many of them lethal for thousands of years to come. The serious problems and various opinions about these ghastly residues from nuclear power plants were well presented, but the program was too graphic and too specific for the atomic power industry. The atomic power lobbyists were more than outraged at this subject being aired before millions of hitherto uniformed viewers who had never been told about this “long tail” of the electric atom. The lobbyists, having been given a courteous preview screening by NBC, were ready with an awesome and questionable pressure campaign against the program.
Promptly on January 26, the Washington-based Atomic Industrial Forum (AIF) dispatched telegrams to its large corporate constituency. Another long wire went out the next day, suggesting points to make in the recommended “torrent of mail, calls and wires which the AIF wanted to flow against what its operators believed was a “sensationalized, flip, inaccurate” and emotional program.
Of course, any group in our country ha the right to mount protest, including orchestrated protest, against programs deemed objectionable. Within the constitutional rubric, this reaction is an expression of free speech.
It is the way that the AIF and its co-ideological association, the American Nuclear Society (ANS), went about it that is so troubling. For it showed a strong inclination to utilize advertising pressures on the network and improper pressures on corporate employees in the atomic industry to protest the network’s documentary.
In special bulletins, the ANS chapters around the country urged employees to send a “simple one-page letter expressing your outrage” to the presidents of Textron and Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., the commercial sponsors of the program, as well as to Dick Wald, the head of NBC News. These companies were sent an overall message which in effect cautioned them about the consequences of further sponsorship of such programs.
Meanwhile, back at the plant level, employees felt “the enormous amount of pressure,” as one Westinghouse worker phrased it, to write letters to sponsors and network using specially prepared phrases of suitable indignation.
After another prescreening of a Public Broadcasting System documentary on the costly and near catastrophic fire at TVA’s Browns Ferry atomic complex in Alabama (shown Feb. 23), Carl Goldstein of AIF said this to his mailing list:
“The anti-nuclear tilt is unmistakable…We suggest that you work with local media to call their attention to the program’s lapses. Nova’ is underwritten by grants from Exxon, National Science Foundation, Ford Foundation and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting…”
If all these power plays are designed – to produce a chilling effect on future television reports about the crumbling technology that is nuclear power, they have significantly succeeded to judge by the shaken people inside NBC, at least. Further, the corporate sponsors, always inclined to avoid controversy, may simply avoid future nuclear power programs.
It is not as if the nuclear industry is deprived of opportunities to tell its side of the story. For years, through advertisements, slick public relations, and a massive back-up propaganda effort by the federal government, the nuclear industry has misled the American people about the hazards, full costs, and poor reliability of atomic-powered electricity.
Only in the past five years has the media been researching and reporting some of the grim problems and accidents which affect the nuclear power fuel cycle, especially the radioactive waste debacle.
As the dammed nuclear power disasters break open, the industry becomes more censorious and
repressive both inside and outside it plutonium-wracked realm. No less a publication than Business Week is issuing increasingly gloomy reports on nuclear power. The magazine took note last week of the “alarming rate” of increase in the costs to finance, operate and fuel these plants.
Bad nuclear news comes almost daily now. After canceling one huge nuclear plant, Florida Power and Light Company announces that its Turkey Point nuclear plant will have to shut down for possibly two years, at a hefty cost of $380 million, to correct repeated leaks of radioactive cooling waters.
Financial institutions such as the Bank of America are circulating internal reports that are bearish on nuclear power. The financial markets were further depressed by the recent federal court decision declaring unconstitutional the federal law which provides limited liability for nuclear power plant accidents.
In a recent discussion with journalists, John O’Leary, head of the Federal Energy Administration, took note of the many reasons why utilities are backing away from new nuclear plant projects.
Information, being the currency of democracy, requires a free and continuous flow. This in turn requires that NBC and all the electronic and print media stand tall against any crude pressures to economically twist their arms through their advertisers.