The Nuclear Industry’s Astroturf Movement in Communities of Color

Entergy, the nation's second largest nuclear power generator, is pitting black and brown people against New York's green movement.

By Brian Palmer May 26, 2011

It was about a year ago, in July 2010, that I settled into a pleasantly sunny conference room inside the Indian Point Energy Center to hear about how nuclear power represents the safe, clean future of electricity. Fukushima was not yet a household word here in New York State, so a representative of Entergy, which runs Indian Point and is the second largest nuclear power generator in the U.S., could still brag unselfconsciously that his firm "had a vision where they thought if one company owned a whole bunch of power plants, then maybe they could run them more efficiently."

When the company’s rep finished his triumphant briefing, he turned the presentation over to the main event: Gregory Joseph, who is the African American deputy director of a nonprofit called Safe Healthy Affordable Reliable Energy, or SHARE. Throughout Indian Point’s 49-year existence it has been the subject of intense controversy in New York, as environmental and community groups have publicized its many dangers. Joseph’s own group, however, has added a new twist to that debate.

"Let’s say if you close Indian Point, where do we think that the power plants that are going to be built to replace Indian Point are going to be constructed?" Joseph asked us, a group of activists and small business owners from communities of color that it had assembled. "If anyone sits here and thinks it can be built in Chappaqua, in Hillary Clinton’s backyard, then I’ve got a bridge to sell in Brooklyn."

The remark drew a few knowing nods from my fellow guests, and Joseph warmed to his theme. "I’ve never seen Bobby Kennedy walk around 125th Street," he said, referring to Robert Kennedy Jr., chief attorney for the environmental group Riverkeeper, which is one of Indian Point’s loudest critics. "I’m sure he’s never come down when the lights go out." More nods, plus some mmm-hmms.

Joseph’s pitch for nuclear energy as environmental justice is an increasingly common twist on the industry’s effort to polish its image. The industry’s trade group, the Nuclear Energy Institute, produces a series of "fact sheets" for states with plants–Alabama, Connecticut, Michigan, Georgia, New York, Tennessee, and so on. In almost identical language, the fact sheets paint nuclear as green, and as a solution to things like urban asthma, which organizers in communities of color have fought for decades.

The industry asserts, correctly, that nuclear produces fewer greenhouse gases than any fossil fuel–coal, gas, or oil. "It’s true, in terms of its carbon impact, that it’s much better than a coal-fired power plant," says Miquela Craytor of the environmental justice group Sustainable South Bronx. But that’s not the whole story. There are a host of other burdens nuclear power places on the environment: the pollution produced by uranium mining, the eternal and unsolved problem of storing nuclear waste long term and, of course, the danger of a catastrophic accident. "They’re not really accounting for the true cost," says Craytor.

For Entergy, at least, making this case for nuclear-as-green equity has also meant manufacturing a community-based movement, and then luring leaders like those in my tour group to join. Joseph failed to mention during our tour that SHARE isn’t so much a community group concerned about 125th Street as it is an arm of Entergy’s PR department.

"You have entered a web in which corporations move money around to these front organizations," says Susan Lerner, executive director of the watchdog group Common Cause. "It makes it seem that these are community-based advocacy groups, when it’s just the corporation in another guise."

No one from SHARE, Entergy, or the firm that sponsored our visit, the Vidal Group, mentioned during the briefing how closely involved Entergy is in SHARE, which is nominally an umbrella group of Indian Point supporters. "I wish you had known, but I don’t think you were intentionally misled by anybody," Jim Steets, Entergy’s manager of external communications, later told me. "We have a relationship, there’s no doubt that we do."

But SHARE doesn’t just have a relationship with Entergy; SHARE is Entergy. Documents the nonprofit filed with the IRS list Entergy executives as SHARE officers. Government affairs manager Joanne Fernandez is recorded as "assistant treasurer." Also in the lineup: the Vidal Group’s head Alfredo Vidal, and Darren Peters, an officer at Entergy’s political action committee.

Community organizers and good-government types call this "astroturfing"–a term many have become familiar with since progressives began pointing out how much corporate money fuels the supposedly populist tea party movement. But in the intensifying debate over nuclear energy, the corporate astroturf is even more cynical: it’s exploiting longstanding concerns about environmental justice in communities of color in order to pit black and brown people against the green movement. "Entergy has successfully driven a wedge between some of the people in the social justice movement and the environmental justice movement," bemoans Manna Jo Greene, environmental director* of Clearwater.

Toxic Distortions and Lies

Indian Point sits on the Hudson River, just 24 miles from the edge of New York City. It has two operating reactors, Indian Point 2 and Indian Point 3, which are each just shy of 40 years old. (A third reactor was decommissioned in 1974.) They generate about 12 percent of New York’s electricity, according to the New York Independent System Operator, the entity that oversees the state’s electrical grid.

The plant has a history of accidents, though not catastrophic ones. New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation offered a laundry list of these in a 2007 legal filing with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission:

"persistent leak of radioactive material into groundwater … malfunctioning discharge valves, electrical problems that caused the steam generator to stop functioning, worn wiring that tripped the main generator, low water levels in steam generators, and a fire and explosion in Indian Point 3’s transformer yard."

Indian Point also happens to be in the neighborhood of the Ramapo Fault, which has caused minor earthquakes in the past. The plant is also near a major natural gas line and, of course, the 20 million humans living in the greater New York City area.

Over the decades, Entergy has dismissed nearly every concern about the plant–from citizens worried about radiation to environmentalists concerned about the risk to Hudson River fish–as existential worries. But earlier conflicts, as intense as they have been, can’t compare with the fire this time. Entergy is being walloped with new criticism and condemnation in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster. At least at the beginning of the crisis, the words "radioactivity" and "meltdown" riveted Americans. This initial response has eased as we’ve moved on to newly overwhelming crises, but a powerful, scrutinizing light remains focused on the safety of U.S. nuclear plants, including Indian Point. Complicating matters for Entergy, New York’s popular new Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a long-time opponent of the plant and called for its shutdown when he was state attorney general.

So after Fukushima, Entergy ran an ad in area papers, including the New York Times, by CEO J. Wayne Leonard to reassure residents. Leonard seized on a statement by U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, in which Chu called the plant "safe." Phew, right? Not quite. Leonard didn’t bother to include another rather crucial sentence in Chu’s comments: "We’re going to have to look at whether this reactor should remain."

In addition to this ongoing public spin, Entergy does what all corporations do to protect their bottom lines: dump money into the political process. Through Enpac, the company’s political action committee, Entergy contributes generously to politicians, spreading cash across party lines. It also supports civic organizations, including those in communities of color, and runs vigorous public-information campaigns emphasizing Indian Point’s upside–electricity, in a word–and minimizing its downside.

But Entergy’s information operations have a more insidious purpose than simply informing–or half-informing–the populace. Successful info ops divide and conquer one’s opposition, and Entergy has been hard at work doing just that.

Entergy’s Asthma Attack

In the good old says (for Entergy), the debate was still all about fish. Every minute of every day, Indian Point sucks 840,000 gallons of water from the Hudson into intakes that cool the plant’s reactors. Fish eggs, larvae, and adult fish get sucked in; many die. That’s the price we–rather, the fish–pay for our electricity in New York.

Because of this aquatic damage, New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation last April rejected Entergy’s application to renew Indian Point’s 20-year water-quality certifications unless it replaces its water-cooling system with different technology. These state permits are essential; without them the plant can’t get its all-important license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. No paper, no power–and no profit.

The DEC decision knocked Entergy for a loop. The corporation launched a legal challenge and, of course, a fresh PR blitz in response. It told unions that they’d lose their jobs if the plant closed. It told local businesses and legislators that the economy would dry up. And it told African American and Latino folks that cases of asthma, an endemic condition in our communities, would go up if the plant were shut down, because fossil-fuel burning generators would have to fire up to fill the gap.

The response from environmental groups to Entergy’s claims about the dangers of temporarily shutting down reactors to build the new cooling system is summed up in a word: Rubbish.

"I have never heard anyone suggest that diesel-fueled power plants would be the only source of power to fill in for Indian Point during a retrofit," says Phillip Musegaas, Hudson River program director for the environmental group Riverkeeper. "If that were the case, there would be huge pollution impacts every time Indian Point shut down to refuel."

Musegaas is referring to the fact that each of the plant’s reactors shuts down for 24 to 28 days, every 18 to 24 months. "The dirty ‘peaker’ power plants in New York City only run during the peak summer season, and they already run, even with Indian Point feeding power into the grid," he says.

In other words, Indian Point’s existence has had no impact on the still raging asthma epidemics in New York’s urban neighborhoods. Sadly, that’s owing to any number of environmental hazards that are disproportionately clumped in places like Harlem, such as air pollution from bus depots and truck exhaust.

And there’s something else Entergy isn’t telling us: Indian Point is contracted to provide less power to the New York City area in 2011 and 2012, according to the state regulatory agency. "The company is spending millions of dollars on an extensive campaign to convince the public that the region would suffer if the nuclear plants at Indian Point were shut and its 2,100 megawatts were withdrawn," reports energy industry reporter Roger Witherspoon. But in reality, it’s already selling a good dose of its juice elsewhere. We can’t be sure where, because that’s proprietary information.

Entergy’s assertions, misleading though they may be, have found support among some community leaders who have accepted the corporation’s claims at face value.

Hazel Dukes, head of the New York NAACP, has written to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on Entergy and Indian Point’s behalf. Philip Banks, president of One Hundred Black Men, submitted testimony at a public hearing supporting the plant. Melvin Burruss, president of African American Men of Westchester, also testified for Indian Point, as did Frank Garcia, now chairman of the New York Statewide Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce.

"There’s dozens of other groups that have been influenced, because they’re only getting half the story," says Clearwater’s Greene.

Support goes both ways, though. One Hundred Black Men received a $25,000 grant for programming in early April, and Entergy is listed as a "Bronze Sponsor" on One Hundred Black Men’s website. It also received a $15,000 donation from Entergy in 2008. (One Hundred Black Men did not return calls seeking comment.) African American Men of Westchester got $5,000 from the company in 2006, according to IRS filings. (Lists of the group’s donors after 2007 are not available publicly.) Entergy also sponsors some of the group’s events.

And SHARE has funded and co-sponsored many NAACP events in the state. Brooklyn NAACP is listed as a SHARE member organization. The Brooklyn NAACP, which sent a representative on the Indian Point tour with me, declined to comment for this article.

African American Men of Westchester’s president Melvin Burruss said there is no quid pro quo for his testimony in support of Indian Point. "We don’t do it because they fund us. We’re doing it because we believe it," Burruss said. "We’re supported by a lot of organizations," including Verizon and Cablevision. Burruss also pointed out that he lives near the plant.

Despite all of these efforts, the political fall out from the Fukushima disaster still poses broad problems for Entergy. At least one former Indian Point backer in communities of color says his organization is now rethinking its position.

"Because of the negativity in Japan, we have not made a decision to support them," Frank Garcia of the New York Statewide Coalition of Hispanic Chambers of Commerce told me. "We’re not supporting Indian Point at this time. The Chamber is not for or against until we sit down with them. Before we were, but not now. We’re neutral," Garcia said.

Garcia added that his group would be dealing directly with Entergy from now on, not SHARE. "We feel they’re using organizations."

Brian Palmer is a regular contributor to and a veteran journalist and filmmaker. His documentary, "Full Disclosure," follows members of the First Battalion/Second Marine Regiment during two of their deployments in Iraq. It airs on the Documentary Channel on Tuesday, May 31, at 8 p.m. eastern.

*This post previously identified Green’s title incorrectly.