The time has come for the clean energy/anti-nuclear movement to get serious. Actually, it’s well past that time.
By serious, I mean playing politics–for real.
This movement, of which I’m proud to have been a part for more than 30 years now, has had a lot of success–even in Congress. Far more success than our presence, or lack thereof, on Capitol Hill and in political venues generally, would indicate.
*We stopped Mobile Chernobyl and “interim” high-level radioactive waste storage in 2000, and again this year.
*We got the NRC’s noxious “Below Regulatory Concern” radioactive waste deregulation policy repealed by Congress.
*For six years, from 2007-2012, we beat back every effort–at least nine of them–to increase funding for the Department of Energy’s nuclear loan program.
Those are pretty significant accomplishments, and just some of the big ones. There have been more.
But we’ve lost a lot too, and perhaps more importantly we haven’t been able to advance our agenda, especially in recent years. We’ve been forced to react, to focus on stopping bad things, or at least the worst things. We have been much less successful at getting any meaningful legislation passed that would actually improve things.
A few examples:
*Repeal of Price-Anderson
*Expansion of emergency planning zones
*Amending or undoing the Atomic Energy Act
*Passing a ten million solar rooftops bill
You’ll surely be able to think of many items to add to this list.
Yesterday, we reported on the Top 20 Congressional recipients of Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) campaign cash from 2003-2012. We hope to soon post a full list of every candidate who took money from the NEI during that period.
As we noted, the NEI spent more than $2 million during that period–and it is just one of dozens, maybe even hundreds, of pro-nuclear PACS giving money to your legislators. Just about every utility has a PAC. So do the reactor manufacturers, and the nuclear suppliers, radioactive waste companies, fuel cycle companies, mining companies. All told, millions of dollars of nuclear industry money flow to Congressional campaigns every year. And an awful lot of these companies have a lobbying presence in Washington, and in state capitols as well.
The anti-nuclear movement spent zero on campaign contributions during that period. That’s right, zero. And the number of lobbyists working on nuclear issues from a critical perspective can be counted on less than two hands.
The wonder is not that the nuclear industry is successful in setting the nuclear agenda on Capitol Hill, the wonder is that we’ve won anything at all. For that, we credit both the many thousands of activists and concerned people across the country who have acted on these issues over the years and our movement’s ability to bring facts and reason to the table. After all, we’re not working out of greed–no one has ever gotten rich from the anti-nuclear movement–we’re working because we care deeply about our country and our planet, and the facts are on our side.
But facts, reason, and public support are rarely enough on Capitol Hill. To set an agenda, we need access, we need more candidates with an explicitly nuclear-free, carbon-free energy position, and we need fewer Congressmembers beholden to the nuclear industry.
The way to get that is to elect those candidates and defeat the other ones. And that requires participating in the political process. It requires money. In my view, it requires the establishment of a clean energy PAC and support for that PAC from donors large and small across the country.
I say that with some hesitation, because the anti-nuclear movement has historically been terribly underfunded, even by typical non-profit standards. NIRS’ budget should easily be twice what it is–and even then we’d still be underfunded. The same holds true for all anti-nuclear groups. So the idea of establishing yet another organization that requires funding is, well, a little scary.
But a clean energy PAC–a PAC that exists to support and build a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system–need not require a lot of money, especially at the beginning.
There aren’t that many explicitly anti-nuclear candidates waiting in the wings; they’ll need to be recruited (a task made much easier if there is funding support available from a PAC). There are plenty of existing Congressmembers beholden to the nuclear industry, of course, but we’d have to pick our battles wisely–there would be little point in working to defeat a pro-nuke Member if the alternative was a slightly less rabid pro-nuke Member.
Senate races are extraordinarily expensive; we’d have to stay out of those until the PAC built up. But for a relatively modest amount of money–say $25,000 or so (more is always better, of course), a PAC could make a difference in a few House races. We’d pick one or two candidates to back, where the candidate’s anti-nuclear position would be visible and part of the campaign. With only a very few candidates supported at first we’d want the nuclear issue to be as high-profile as possible. Or, we might go where a candidate’s high-profile pro-nuclear positions could be used against them. A few very public victories–electing a new member and/or defeating an incumbent–and the PAC should grow rapidly. Success breeds success.
We’ll never have the kind of money the nuclear industry can contribute to candidates, of course. But we don’t need that much. It’s not a spending battle, it’s about using money wisely and picking battles carefully–and that’s something the anti-nuclear movement (and if I can boast a little here, especially NIRS) can take pride in doing throughout its existence.
I should note here that NIRS, and nearly all anti-nuclear groups, are 501(c)(3) organizations. We’re prohibited from endorsing candidates or working for or against any candidates for public office, at any level. So a clean energy PAC would not be based at any existing organization. It would have to be entirely new, and probably at the beginning with volunteer or very part-time staff. But staff members of 501(c)(3) organizations could serve on the PAC’s Board of Directors, on their own time. And it would be crucial to have an active, fairly large, wide-ranging, broad-based Board of Directors to make the idea work.
I want to know what you think. Do you support this idea? Would you support it financially? Would you support it financially and still give to the existing anti-nuclear organizations you support? What pitfalls do you see? What advantages do you see? Please give your thoughts in the comments; let’s start a discussion. And fill out the poll below as well.
There may be other alternatives. For example, instead of a standard PAC that gives to candidates, would it make more sense to establish an organization–like both the right and left use–that advocates on issues during campaigns, that attacks pro-nukers and supports anti-nuclear positions, without actually endorsing candidates (always a fine line, one that is crossed frequently in my view)? Or some combination of the two? This is the new world after the Citizens United and McCutcheon decisions. We can all bemoan those decisions and seek to overturn them, and we should, but in the meantime pretending they don’t exist and not becoming involved in the political process will just set us back further and allow the nuclear industry to expand its ability to set the agenda.
In my view, it’s past time to get serious about the political process. It’s time to set a new energy agenda for our nation. The climate crisis is real and is finally getting some attention. Nuclear power can’t solve it, but clean energy can. We don’t have a radioactive waste policy in this country at present; Congress is going to have to establish one. Decisions on these and other critical issues are going to be made that will affect us all for decades, if not permanently–not this year, but perhaps next, and certainly after 2016. If we want those decisions to be made based on the facts, on what is best for our country and planet, we need to participate in a much stronger way than we have so far. And if we want the ability to begin setting the agenda, to make the idea of a nuclear-free, carbon-free energy system the nation’s goal and not just a discussion topic among ourselves, we need to take action. Let’s get to it.
May 8, 2014
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