Nuclear energy pulls a big switch
Looking back, Joseph Cosgrove said he was naive to think that Sen. Barack Obama could require that nuclear power plant operators publicly disclose any radioactive releases.
Cosgrove and others who live and work in the hamlet of Godley, Ill., sought help after discovering years after the fact that there had been releases from the nearby Braidwood Generating Station.
Two years later, Obama’s legislation, lobbied by one of his largest corporate backers, has stalled.
Cosgrove, glimpsing the nuclear industry’s sway, said he watched as the bill’s “teeth” were removed.
Many references to “nuclear” were stripped. More important, Obama allowed deletion of a provision that nuclear plant operators “shall immediately notify” state and local officials about any release.
The issue is relevant in the 2008 presidential campaign. In an about-face, companies that have a stake in the nuclear energy industry are giving large sums to Democrats running for president, after having showered their money on Republicans in past campaigns.
In Washington and elsewhere, nuclear energy is being promoted as a way to generate large amounts of electricity without spewing greenhouse gases that exacerbate global warming.
Obama is the largest beneficiary of money from companies that have a stake in nuclear energy’s future. The Braidwood plant’s owner, Exelon Corp., has donated $275,000 to Obama over his career.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a co-author on the 2006 bill, is the second-largest recipient. Neither candidate has come out in opposition to nuclear power, unlike their onetime rival, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.
The donations come as the industry reasserts itself. Several companies have filed or are considering filing applications to build plants after a generation-long moratorium.
The shift is an example of what has troubled Republicans and heartened Democrats in this campaign: Interests once loyal to the GOP are tilting toward Democrats.
“Partly what is happening has less to do with the Democratic candidates’ positions than a pragmatic assessment of what these business interests see happening in the campaign,” said California Democratic consultant Garry South, who is not involved in the race.
That employees of firms with a stake in nuclear energy are shading Democratic is noteworthy as Obama of Illinois and Clinton of New York seek votes in California, where anti-nuke attitudes run deep.
In 2006, Obama introduced a measure requiring public disclosure whenever there were discharges of radioactivity. His inspiration was the unannounced release of radioactive water from Braidwood, 50 miles from Chicago.
The spills were said to have posed no health threat. But there was no disclosure until a lawsuit was filed years later, alarming Godley residents who drink from a shallow aquifer.
“We want people to be notified,” Cosgrove, 52, said Saturday. He is a director of a park district in Godley that includes a child-care center for 150 children. “Think about it. They had releases and no one was told. How would you like to turn on the tap and [have to] think, ‘Should I drink this?’ ”
The weakened bill ultimately stalled in the Senate. The New York Times detailed the saga of the bill this weekend. Obama’s aides insisted Saturday that the senator was stymied by what had been a Republican-controlled Senate in 2006. He since has reintroduced the legislation -- in its weakened version.
Elizabeth Moler, who oversees Exelon’s lobbying operation, said the company opposed the bill as it was introduced. But after working with Obama’s staff, the company has “committed to Sen. Obama that we will support it.”
This time, Clinton is not a co-sponsor.
Compared with the unprecedented sums of money raised in this campaign, the amount delivered by executives and employees of utilities and other companies that own or are involved in nuclear power plant construction, operation and waste handling is modest.
But with nine months left in the campaign, the current total of $830,000 already approaches what employees at the firms spent in the entire campaign four years ago.
Democrats have received the bulk -- $536,000 to Republicans’ $294,000, a Times analysis of Federal Election Commission records shows. That is a shift from the last two presidential elections, when George W. Bush received 3 1/2 times the amount collected by his Democratic foes, Al Gore and John F. Kerry.
Obama last year raised nearly $266,000, more than Gore and Kerry combined. Clinton raised more than $166,000. Sen. John McCain of Arizona leads Republicans with about $107,000.
The bulk of Obama’s nuclear energy-related money, $190,000, has come from Exelon’s employees. The Chicago-based company is the nation’s largest nuclear power plant operator, with 10 facilities representing 20% of the nation’s nuclear energy.
Exelon recently earmarked $100 million to help it decide whether to build more nuclear plants, likely in Texas, which holds its primaries March 4. Like most of the donors, Exelon has varied interests. It also operates coal-fired plants.
Obama has refused money from Washington lobbyists, including those who represent Exelon. But like other energy companies, Exelon has a lobby presence in the nation’s capital. It spent $1.7 million on lobbying in the first half of 2007.
One of Obama’s major bundlers is Frank Clark, chief executive of Exelon subsidiary Commonwealth Edison. Clark and Obama have been friends since the mid-1990s, when Obama was a state senator and Clark oversaw the utility’s lobbying in Springfield, Ill.
Exelon’s Moler said donations from company executives and employees were “not surprising” given Obama’s Chicago roots. “He will end up being either president or a senator from Illinois,” Moler said. “He speaks to their values. They feel like they know him.”
Among Clinton’s backers, David Crane, chief executive of NRG Energy Inc., which operates power plants nationally, is a “HillRaiser.” Clinton bestows the title on donors who have raised at least $100,000.
In September, the Princeton, N.J.-based company became the first in 25 years to submit applications to build nuclear power plants, seeking to construct two in Texas. NRG spent $600,000 on Washington lobbying in the first half of 2007, reports show.
Among Republicans, McCain regularly talks about nuclear power as a way to stem climate change. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also is supportive. But industry leaders see a change among Democrats and think that Obama and Clinton are, if not supportive, at least not opposed.
“We see a field of candidates neutral to very positive,” said Michael J. Wallace, head of the Baltimore-based Constellation Energy Nuclear, which operates three nuclear power plants and is considering building more. “We expect very critical questioning. We need that tough question.”
In 2005, Obama voted for and Clinton voted against wide-ranging energy legislation that authorized the Department of Energy to provide loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants. The measure was signed into law.
“The need for loan guarantees was critical for new nuclear power plants to be built,” Wallace said.
Times staff writers Peter Gosselin and Doug Smith and data analyst Sandra Poindexter contributed to this report.