The Unusual Suspect
It’s a year after Fukushima and there’s a new book out about nuclear power in America, but there’s more to it than meets the eye.
Public Meltdown is about the struggle by the state of Vermont to gain control over and close the 40-year-old Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant and the efforts by the plant’s owner – Entergy Nuclear of New Orleans – to keep it open. The book, however, is not the usual suspect’s tale of fighting the good fight to save the planet.
Yes, it’s about the pros and cons of nuclear power and the Vermont Yankee story is a compelling back-and-forth battle, but what the book reveals is applicable to public policy debates beyond nuclear power and beyond the environmental movement. Anyone interested in shifting the body politic, anywhere for any reason, will find this work closer to George Lakeoff than Helen Caldicott.
The book’s author, Richard Watts, a research professor at the University of Vermont, is primarily interested in the way we make public policy. Entergy Nuclear wants to influence government to keep the plant open, so it frames the issue as “safe, reliable, affordable energy.” Environmentalists want to close the plant and frames the issue as “dirty, dangerous and outdated accident waiting to happen.”
Dr. Watts tracks the debate – and the up-and-down fortunes of each “frame” – by counting the number of times each frame appears in the media over a number of years. Who’s repeating Entergy’s frame? Who’s repeating the opponents’ frame? Whose frames are the politicians and editorial boards repeating? Have they changed their frame? When? Why?
It’s a book about a nuke fight, but for Dr. Watts’s media laboratory, it’s a case study from a small state with a media market a researcher can get his arms around. The insights he draws from the public debate – which has now shifted to the courts – are ones everyone in the environmental movement would be well advised to heed.
(Mark Floegel is a Senior Investigator with Greenpeace and lives in Burlington, VT)