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Nuclear spin South African style May 21, 2007

Posted by Andreas in Environment, Nuclear Power, South Africa, Sustainable Living.

I recently came across two really good articles (here and here) about how the nuclear power industry in the United States is conducting a massive public relations campaign to make atomic energy palatable.

The industry spends millions of dollars on “media outreach”, lobbying federal officials and in helping to establish and fund pro-nuclear groups such as the Vermont Energy Partnership, the New York Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance, the Massachusetts Affordable Reliable Electricity Alliance and the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition.

The Clean and Safe Energy Coalition employs Patrick Moore as one of its co-chairs. As a co-founder of Greenpeace (he left the organisation in 1986), Moore is frequently quoted in the press and by pro-nuclear pundits as an environmentalist who has come to his senses and now supports nuclear energy as a green solution to global warming. The fact that his salary is paid by the atomic energy industry is less commonly mentioned.

All of this is interesting in itself and moreover relevant to South Africans, since in this global media village any big-bucks American spin will certainly have an impact in this country as well, but I didn’t really think that we had our very own, home-grown pro-nuclear PR spinsters.

Then I found an article touting the virtues of nuclear power in general and the Pebble Bed Modular Reactor in particular, in Edition 3 (January-June 2007) of Greenprint, an impressive-looking, SA glossy produced by Greenprint Environmental Publications, “the original publishers of Earthyear Magazine, winner of fifteen awards”. You can download it as a pdf here, or, more tellingly straight off the PBMR website here.

The article was written by Mike Freedman, the founding partner of a local public relations outfit called Freedthinkers. “Ahh, greenwash on the cheap, SA-style”, was my first reaction, feeling a little cheated. “At least the Americans are getting an ex-greenie with some sort of credentials. All we get is an actual, undiluted PR dude with a background in copy writing and advertising. Booh!”

The Freedthinkers website list the SA government and its Department of Trade and Industry (dti) among its clientèle. Now, the SA government, Eskom and the dti (through its Industrial Development Corporation) also happen to be the main investors in Pebble Bed Modular Reactor (Pty) Ltd. and all of these taken together basically represent the biggest part of this countries nuclear industry. This didn’t look like a particularly well-disguised PR paper trail…

The article itself is standard pro-nuclear fare, quoting extensively from James Lovelock, another greenie who’s come to see the absolute necessity of nuclear power, and from Patrick Moore himself.

The argument basically goes as follows: renewable energy sources are great but flawed and can not do the job on their own. Nuclear power is the only alternative and is primarily plagued by unfounded myths and public misconceptions. All that is required is a massive PR effort by people like Mike Freedman himself to convince the public: “It will take the most skilled in the communications industry plus a few billion dollars in the war-chest”.

Almost more interesting than the article itself, are two large glossy posters included with the magazine. They bear no branding other than the Greenprint logo and are “designed to assist secondary school students, particularly at matric level, to understand the facts about energy generation in the 21st century.”

The first poster is entitled “Energy – Bright Ideas for South Africa” and compares the various energy options (coal, hydro, wind, solar, ocean, biofuels and nuclear/PBMR). Tellingly, the nuclear section includes by far the longest list of advantages, while the only disadvantage is “Negative public perception, based on inaccurate, outdated information.”

Similarly, a comparison table consistently gives nuclear the best possible score (5 out of 5) for every aspect (cost, safety, electrical reliability, future fuel supply, siting restrictions, greenhouse gases, waste) with the exception of “Public Perception” for which it scores a 1 out of 5 (lower than all of the other energy sources). Pro-nuclear freelance writer Andrew Kenny is acknowledged as the source of the information in the table.

The second poster focuses specifically on PBMR technology.

The entire effort (the article plus the two posters) appears to present an unbiased look at our future energy options. In reality it is heavily slanted towards nuclear power.

I wrote an email to Mr Freedman and he send a prompt and very friendly reply:

Dear Andreas,

I write in my private capacity.  I am not a representative of government, neither do I inform them of what I write.

I/we are not involved in the educational posters you refer to – the first time I saw them was in Greenprint.

The work we did for the dti had nothing to do with Eskom & PBMR.

I am not in love with nuclear energy – I simply do not see, in the time we have available, any other way to save the world from imminent catastrophe.

I assume you have read ‘Revenge of Gaia’ by James Lovelock.  It has profoundly influenced me – not you?

George Monbiot’s ‘Heat’ does give a non-nuclear way to avoid global warming – too much of it is untested tho, and I do not want to play Russian roulette with the fate of humanity.

I appreciate you asking the questions – my own belief is that outside hard news, over 50% of what we see in newspapers has come from one pr company or another.

However, this piece came from my own quest for the least harmful way forward.

go well,


Hmm. I guess I’ll just have to take his word for it, for now…


1. Carolize Jansen - May 23, 2007

Very interesting! Reading between the lines is often so much more interesting than the lines themselves.
This quick resort to ‘it is a mere perception’ to counter all criticism occurs fairly recently in SA, often used by government itself. Like today: it is a mere (and erroneous) perception that there is a skills shortage in the country.
The demise of the empirical.

2. Peter - August 22, 2009

I am disgusted by GreenPrint. They seem to be a green-washing company, offering their services to whoever pays. I have seen the poster referred to above, and it is a fine example of blatant disinformation. Shame on you, and all who work for you!

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