The owners of Vermont Yankee picked a hell of a time to launch an advertising blitz about the nuclear plant’s safety.
Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee is under assault for a double whammy: allowing elevated levels of radioactive tritium to leach into the groundwater at the Vernon nuclear plant, and misleading state regulators about the existence of the underground pipes that sprang the leak.
The bad news for Entergy comes as Vermont Yankee seeks a 20-year renewal of its license to operate, currently set to expire in 2012. It also comes midway through a pricey advertising push by Entergy to portray itself as a company primarily concerned with safety and getting the truth out about nuclear power.
Since December, Vermont Yankee has been blanketing the state with television commercials and full-page newspaper ads — recession-sensitive employee testimonials that put a human face on the jobs at stake and tout the plant as a safe, cheap source of power for Vermont.
Now Vermont Yankee is yanking some of those ads and scrubbing others to remove references to an employee who critics say misled regulators under oath.
Vermont Yankee pulled an ad featuring Dave McElwee, a top engineer at the plant and one of several company officials accused of giving misleading answers to questions about the plant’s infrastructure.
Another employee testimonial was apparently edited to remove a reference that she was McElwee’s daughter. The profile of financial analyst Beth Bristol was changed to remove a sentence that said: “Beth’s dad, Dave McElwee, is a 28-year Vermont Yankee veteran.”
A 30-second video showing father and daughter together was apparently removed from a website devoted to the ad campaign, www.iamvy.com, as was another commercial shot outside the red brick Vernon elementary school.
Asked about the altered ads, Entergy spokesman Rob Williams emailed Seven Days a written statement.
“All of the ads are in a rotation and there should be a couple of new ones coming out this week,” Williams wrote. “The employees’ ads have been one of the best things we have ever done here. The purpose of the ads is to give a voice to VY employees and the employees very much appreciate the opportunity to present their heartfelt views.”
Williams declined to answer specific questions about the McElwee and Bristol ads, or address whether the recent revelations about the nuclear plant’s integrity undermine the safety message in Vermont Yankee’s new ads.
Bob Stannard is a lobbyist for the group Vermont Citizens Action Network and is a leading critic of the nuclear plant. He calls Entergy’s latest ads “really slick,” but says they show “a complete disconnect from reality.”
“You can’t have a young lady on television saying, ‘What you need is truth, What you need is the facts,’ when you have the truth and facts being distorted and misrepresented,” says Stannard, referring to one of several employee testimonials featured in commercials.
Vermont Public Interest Research Group, another opponent of the nuclear plant, has pounced on Vermont Yankee’s creative tweaks. VPIRG’s James Moore suggests the video outside the elementary school was removed because, with a radioactive substance showing up in the groundwater, Vermont Yankee “didn’t want to remind people there were school children nearby.”
VPIRG has asked Vermont attorney general William Sorrell to investigate Entergy’s latest advertising campaign for false claims, specifically whether one statement by an employee — urging the public to “understand the true facts that come from Vermont Yankee” — violated consumer protections law in light of recent revelations. Sorrell has pledged to look into the ads but stopped short of promising a full-blown investigation.
Vermont Yankee’s TV airtime purchase is significant. The nuclear plant bought a three-month block of airtime on Channel 3 WCAX-TV to run its 30-second ads “at least three times a day,” says station general sales manager Bruce Grindle. The ad block started in early December and runs through the end of February, he says.
On Channel 5 WPTZ-TV, Vermont Yankee is airing ads three to four times a day, says general sales manager Bruce Lawson, during morning and evening news programs and also during prime time.
“They bought what we call in our business a flight of commercials, which is a campaign,” says Lawson. “It started in December and right now it’s ongoing. My expectation is it will go on a while longer.”
Williams would not disclose the cost of the marketing campaign. But a professional media buyer, Karen Fahey of Stowe, estimated the TV time alone would cost as much as $2800 per station, per day.
Concurrently, Vermont Energy Partnership, a consortium of pro- nuclear businesses that includes Entergy, is buying ad space in “a broad selection” of daily and community weekly newspapers around Vermont. The campaign includes Seven Days. A new ad in this week’s issue takes the case for Vermont Yankee to a new level. It claims that without the plant’s cheap power, “even Vermont’s annual state fairs will be impacted.” A picture of a Ferris wheel illustrates the point.
The consortium is buying radio airtime, too, says the partnership’s communications director, Guy Page, though he couldn’t say on which stations.
Page says the message of all the ads is, “Vermont needs an energy policy of safe, reliable, clean, affordable power. And we have been supporting all along since the partnership began the Hydro-Québec contracts and continuing those and Vermont Yankee relicensing because they fit very well into those criteria.”
Vermont Citizens Action Network’s Stannard believes it was a good news week for opponents of the nuclear plant, but says he isn’t turning his back on Entergy for a second.
“These guys have more half lives than the plutonium that they produce over there,” Stannard says. “I’m not going to underestimate [them] just because it looks like they’re down. They have a lot of lawyers and a lot of money.”
Just how fair and balanced are Vermont newspapers when covering a story like the relicensing of Vermont Yankee?
Consider the study done by University of Vermont researcher Richard Watts about VELCO’s bid to build a high-voltage transmission line through western Vermont in 2005 — another big energy project that raised concerns about health, safety and fair process.
Watts reviewed 442 news articles, editorials and letters to the editor about the transmission-line project, published by the Vermont Associated Press, the Burlington Free Press and the Addison County Independent. He also reviewed selectboard minutes, promotional materials, press releases and 185 citizen comments from six public hearings. Watts did word searches and catalogued every individual quoted to determine whether the news coverage reflected reality.
His conclusion: Reality can be a moving target. Energy giants such as VELCO are far better at getting their message in the media than are their opponents — even when opponents vastly outnumber those in favor of such a project. For example, despite comments running 35 to 6 against the project at an October 1, 2003, public hearing in Charlotte, WCAX-TV and the Associated Press both ran stories that evenly balanced comments for and against the project. In total, the news stories mentioned VELCO 368 times, while the two citizen opponent groups garnered 15 mentions and all statewide environmental groups received just five.
VELCO dropped $25,000 on paid advertising and spent $10 million overall for the application, acording to the study. Oppositions groups spent just $85,000.
In the case of VELCO, those opposition groups weren’t very well organized, which is not the case with the Vermont Yankee fight. Groups like VPIRG have been lobbying against Vermont Yankee for years and know how to influence the media, Watts says. Watts serves on the board of VPIRG, one of Vermont Yankee’s biggest critics, and previously consulted with VELCO on its media strategy during the power-line fight. Watts says he undertook his media study as a PhD candidate at UVM, not as an environmental advocate.
Watts hasn’t scientifically studied coverage of Vermont Yankee, but says he has compiled every AP story written about the nuclear plant over the last seven years — around 300 articles.
One big difference Watts sees between the VELCO power-line project and Vermont Yankee’s relicensing is context. When the big blackout left half the East Coast dark in the summer of 2003, it played right into VELCO’s narrative that Vermont had a serious reliability problem that only high-voltage transmission lines could fix.
With Vermont Yankee, the narrative is swinging the other way — in favor of opponents, Watts says.
“People say the plant is unsafe, and now we’re reading that there’s this radioactive leaking,” he points out. “Now, experts can debate all the fine points, but for a public just taking images of this — unsafe, radiation, leaking — that won’t make much difference.”
Maybe Watts doesn’t believe in the power of advertising.