Will Shill for Nukes

Decommissioning the nuclear lobby's phony op-ed campaign

Will Shill for Nukes
Illustration By Jason Stout

On March 4, the Austin American-Statesman published an op-ed article by Sheldon Landsberger, professor of nuclear engineering at UT. Headlined "Funds for nuclear waste storage should be used for just that," the column argues that the government is fleecing electric-utility ratepayers, who contribute mandatory per-kilowatt-hour fees toward the development of the proposed national nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Landsberger charges that a portion of the fees earmarked for the federal Nuclear Waste Fund are diverted to the general U.S. Treasury. "This is stealing money from taxpayers who were required to support the waste management project," Landsberger writes.

Strong words.

But they're not Landsberger's. Nor are the other 633 words that appeared in the Statesman that morning under Landsberger's byline. "It was something which was written for me," Landsberger told me later on the phone. "I agreed with it, I went over it, read it a couple of times, took all of 15, 20 minutes."

The op-ed was ginned up, assembly-line style, by a Washington, D.C., public relations firm that the nuclear power lobby retains to tilt public opinion in favor of the stalled Yucca Mountain project. (Unmentioned in Landsberger's plea for official rectitude are the myriad of unresolved scientific, technical, and legal questions about the viability of burying high-level waste in Nevada.) Besides reading and approving the column, all Landsberger did to take credit for authorship was insert his name and position at UT, and forward it via e-mail to the Statesman – even that address provided by the PR firm. (He also sent the column to several other Texas newspapers, none of which printed it.)

On Tuesday, the Statesman published a letter from Landsberger apologizing for his misrepresentation.

Landsberger says he doesn't know who actually wrote his column. He received it, via e-mail, from an employee at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. (Landsberger emphasized that he believed the employee, whom he wouldn't name, sent him the column as a private citizen, rather than on behalf of the national lab.) Nor was this the first time; when it comes to deceiving newspaper readers on behalf of a stealth nuclear lobbying campaign, Landsberger is an acknowledged recidivist. "I've been doing this four or five years," he says. "They [op-ed columns] come from Oak Ridge maybe two or three times a year, particularly when there's a hot-button issue."

Landsberger's accomplice is Theodore M. Besmann, an Oak Ridge employee since 1985. Besmann is a prolific correspondent. Beginning at least as far back as 1978, he has had published under his own or others' names dozens of nuclear love songs in newspapers across the country, from The New York Times to the San Francisco Chronicle to The Washington Post to the Houston Chronicle to The Christian Science Monitor ("Nuclear: The Environment's Friend," appeared in the Monitor in 1994).

None but a blockhead, Samuel Johnson said, writes for free. Ted Besmann is no blockhead. He moonlights as a paid consultant to Potomac Communications Group, the Washington PR firm that works for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry's stentorian voice and lobby. The NEI's current primary concern – besides beating the congressional bushes for tax breaks and subsidies for nuclear power – is opening the atomic garbage dump at Yucca Mountain. Many of the nation's 103 reactors are running out of on-site storage space for their spent fuel rods, the NEI says, and may have to close if the Energy Department doesn't soon open the Yucca Mountain facility.

To spread its message, the electric utility-funded NEI relies on generous campaign contributions to key members of Congress, virtually unbridled access to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and academic "experts" who prostitute their reputations and those of their universities.

Everybody Does It

Enter Sheldon Landsberger, Ph.D. He directs the Nuclear Engineering Teaching Lab at UT and coordinates the Nuclear and Radiation Engineering Program. He's a busy guy. So when Ted Besmann forwarded him the op-ed on Yucca Mountain, Landsberger read it, "signed off" on it, and passed it on to the Statesman as his own, just as he'd done with the Statesman and other papers, once or twice a year for at least five years. Is that such an outrage?
Sheldon Landsberger
Sheldon Landsberger

Well, yes, says Jonathan Knight, an ethics specialist for the American Association of University Professors. "If I see an article by Jack Spratt, then I assume that Jack Spratt has indeed developed the ideas that are in his document," says Knight, who directs the AAUP's program on academic freedom and tenure. "If I learn that in fact Jack Spratt has only lent his name to that, I've got a problem in terms of being seriously misled."

Unsurprisingly, the perpetrators of this "public affairs campaign" see it differently. It matters not who writes the piece, says Bill Perkins, founding partner of Potomac Communications, but what the piece says. "Whether the words are largely theirs, or largely not theirs, the views are. Nobody would submit an article if they didn't totally agree with it."

Besides, Perkins says, everyone does it. "I doubt that there is a public affairs campaign by any advocacy group in the country that doesn't have some version of this. The op-ed pages are one of the ways people express their views in these debates."

But Landsberger did not exactly express his views; he appropriated those of the nuclear lobby, in their words. The distinction is crucial. Otherwise, says Knight of the AAUP, he is "foisting an illusion upon us: that he really has come up with those ideas himself."

Landsberger acknowledges an offense – but claims it was he who was victimized. He says that a "few months ago" he had a "sneaking suspicion" that Ted Besmann was forwarding him the same op-ed columns other professors were receiving. "When I started doing this, I was under the impression that rightfully or wrongfully I was the only guy." He said he has since told Besmann he will no longer participate.

Besmann says Landsberger is mistaken about his place in the PR machine. "I do help with letters to the editor," he says. "It's always original material, unique to that person." But Besmann says he only occasionally ghostwrites op-eds, that more often he merely passes them on from the ghostwriters of Potomac Communications Group.

Was Landsberger saying that it's ethical to slap your name on writing that's not yours as long as no one else claims it, too? "I had no problems with them coming to me," Landsberger says, "but then going on to someone else and having them do the same thing, I felt betrayed, duped, whatever the word is."

No Credit

Suppose, the professor was asked, a student of his submitted a paper he didn't write as his own. Wouldn't he and the university consider that cheating, and how is that different from what he, Landsberger, did?

There was a long, long pause. "I don't put them both in the same light," Landsberger finally said. "There was no monetary value in here, number one, and number two, there was no credit to be given."

Knight, the ethics expert with AAUP, disagrees: "Whether it's an op-ed in a local newspaper or an article in a learned journal, we're talking about the same phenomenon, which is plagiarism: presenting the ideas as if they were one's own."

University policy appears similarly unforgiving. Under UT guidelines, governing "all research conducted at the university," any allegation of "scientific misconduct" – defined as "fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism" – would be referred to the associate vice-president for research, Sharon Brown. As for the university's "working definition" of plagiarism, Brown referred me to the federal Office of Research Integrity, which "considers plagiarism to include both the theft or misappropriation of intellectual property and the substantial unattributed textual copying of another's work." The ORI defines "unattributed textual copying of another's work" as "the unattributed verbatim or nearly verbatim copying of sentences and paragraphs which materially mislead the ordinary reader regarding the contributions of the author."

For at least 25 years, an Oak Ridge employee named Theodore M. Besmann has had published nuclear love songs in newspapers across the country, under his own or others' names.
For at least 25 years, an Oak Ridge employee named Theodore M. Besmann has had published nuclear love songs in newspapers across the country, under his own or others' names.

If an allegation of scientific misconduct is made, Brown said, she and university ethics officer Lee Smith, an attorney in the legal affairs office, would conduct an initial inquiry to determine "whether there is enough evidence to warrant a full investigation."

Trust Them, They're Experts

Professor Landsberger is hardly Big Nuke's lone academic conduit for conducting stealth PR campaigns. His March 4 testimonial to Yucca Mountain in the Statesman apparently rolled off the same assembly line as a piece three months earlier in The State of Columbia, S.C. That column, "Time to move ahead on nuclear waste disposal," appeared Dec. 9, 2003, under the byline of Abdel E. Bayoumi, chairman of the mechanical engineering department at the University of South Carolina.

Landsberger's column is at times a replication of Bayoumi's. And when it's not identical, it can be downright fraternal. Take the beginning of Landsberger's last paragraph: "The record demonstrates that since the advent of nuclear electricity more than 40 years ago, scientific organizations across the world have examined the issue of radioactive-waste management." Compare Bayoumi's words: "The record shows that since the advent of nuclear electricity more than 40 years ago, scientific organizations around the world have examined the issue of radioactive waste management."

Landsberger's column concludes by quoting a line from a 14-year-old study supporting burial underground as the "best, safest long-term option for dealing with high-level waste." Bayoumi quotes the same, "best, safest long-term option" line from the same study, but ends his column with a flourish: "The government should get on with it."

Landsberger and Bayoumi each told me he was unaware of the other's column. And while Landsberger now acknowledges his duplicity, Bayoumi insists the language in his column is his alone. How, then, to explain that three paragraphs of Bayoumi's column – as well as his grand "The government should get on with it" finale – appeared in an op-ed piece by a University of Pittsburgh professor in The Buffalo (N.Y.) News on July 26, 1993, a full 10 years earlier? Or that the Buffalo News columnist also used the industry's time-honored refrain: "The record shows that since the advent of nuclear energy more than 30 years ago" – note the earlier time-frame – "scientific organizations around the world ..."

"I have nothing really to say," Bayoumi replied when asked to explain his verbatim language. "I have no knowledge of that [Buffalo News] column. I have no idea who did what 10 years ago." Bayoumi did allow that some of his "numbers" came from "fact sheets" posted on the Web site of the American Nuclear Society, a professional organization based near Chicago. "But all the writing is my own," he insists, adding, "I didn't consent to let anyone else use it."

Opinions 'R' Us

But Bayoumi apparently allowed himself to be used. And there he is not alone. Like Landsberger, Bayoumi deceived his hometown newspaper by submitting and representing as his own work what apparently originated as an industry-generated and -funded column. Could these two professors of engineering, one at Texas, the other at South Carolina, be the only beneficiaries of the Nuclear Energy Institute's ghostwriter-in-residence program?

Further investigation has uncovered what might be called Big Nuke's vast op-ed conspiracy: a decades-long, centrally orchestrated plan to defraud the nation's newspaper readers by misrepresenting the propaganda of one hired atomic gun as the learned musings of disparate academics and other nuclear-industry "experts."

The conspiracy stretches from Washington, D.C., home to the NEI and to the inexhaustible pen of Peter Bernstein. Bernstein, a vice-president of the lobby's PR firm, Potomac Communications Group, is the man whose prose stylings have been cloned by nuclear scientists and engineers from Oregon to Florida. (Over the course of two weeks, Bernstein declined to respond to three phone messages and an e-mail requesting an interview.)

In Oregon, for instance, state climatologist and Oregon State University professor George H. Taylor publishes under his name columns written entirely or in part by Bernstein. Says Taylor: "There have been people who have sent me things and said, 'We just want you to say that you wrote this.' And I'm uncomfortable doing that; I'd prefer just to write things myself."

But an examination of Taylor's collected works reveals he doesn't always get around to dashing off his own words. Asked about his op-ed that appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer on April 9, 2002, Taylor recalled that he worked from an outline Bernstein sent him and that he "basically did the writing myself and sent it back to them." Somehow, however, between the time Taylor returned his piece to Bernstein and its publication, it came to echo a handful of other op-eds published previously.

<i>Statesman</i>, March 4, 2004
Statesman, March 4, 2004

Each of those other columns, published under similar headlines ("Nuclear Power Provides a Cheaper, Cleaner, Safer Alternative" is representative) and different bylines in The San Diego Union-Tribune, The Detroit News, The Beaumont Enterprise, Richmond Times-Dispatch (and after Taylor's, in Florida Today, Melbourne, Fla.), used at least one stock sentence: "Far from being an atoms-for-peace relic heading for extinction, nuclear power now sets the competitive bench mark for electricity generation." (Occasionally a minor word was changed – "today" substituted for "now," for example.) And there were a multitude of interchangeable paragraphs or sentences that appeared to be cut-and-pasted from one to another.

Don't Waste Your Words

Before you dismiss this argument as little more than an exercise in LexisNexis-fueled pedantry, consider yet another serial instance of nuclear collusion – a chorus of received and parroted ideas likely to induce cynicism in even the staunchest believer. Here it may help to note that no matter how indefatigably Bernstein yanks his puppets' strings to argue that nuclear power is, well, a "cheaper, cleaner, safer alternative," the industry's Achilles' heel is still the waste question: how to safely manage nuclear waste remains unresolved.

Meanwhile, the radioactive waste piles high. And not just the high-level spent fuel rods, but so-called low-level waste generated in medicine and manufacturing. In the early 1990s, the industry launched a PR campaign to site commercial low-level nuclear waste dumps in various states: Nebraska, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Texas.

Writing in the Omaha World-Herald of the proposed Boyd County, Neb., dumpsite, Dr. Samuel H. Mehr, the director of nuclear medicine at an Omaha hospital, proclaimed in November 1990 that "the best scientists and engineers available ... believe that the ... facility will be among the safest and best-engineered waste facilities of any type in the country."

Two years later, a nuclear engineering professor at Penn State, Anthony Baratta, took to the pages of Harrisburg, Pa.'s Patriot to champion a dump in Pennsylvania as, yup, "among the safest and best-engineered waste facilities of any type in the country."

Not to be outdone, Charles M. Harman, a Duke University professor of mechanical engineering, struck a blow in the News & Record of Greensboro, N.C., for a planned facility in Wake County, N.C. "The design of the ... facility," Harman wrote in April 1994, "is such that it would be" – all together now – "among the safest and best engineered of any waste disposal facility." (Professor Harman also included other language not his own. Here is the last line from Mehr's 1990 Omaha column: "It is past time to move on to real and present problems that lack solutions." Here is Harman's: "It is past time to move on to real and present problems and to available solutions.")

It is also past time to conclude these ruminations, so let us return to the engineering department on the campus that spawned them: the University of Texas. In the June 29, 1996, edition of the Statesman, Dale E. Klein, then associate dean for research and administration of the College of Engineering, published a letter to the editor in support of building the proposed nuclear dump in Sierra Blanca, in far West Texas. (In November 2001, Klein moved from the Forty Acres to the Pentagon. He is presently assistant to the secretary of defense for nuclear and chemical and biological defense programs. His wife, Rebecca Armendariz Klein, is the Republican candidate for U.S. Congress in CD 25.)

Klein wrote in response to coverage of an Austin rally to protest the dump. He declared that to leave the waste "at multiple sites – many in populous areas of the state – is a monitoring nightmare and brings into question the motives of the most strident opponents of the facility."

After insulting those who might wonder why nuclear waste is safe for rural residents but not for city folk, he suggests that an effort be made to tell those many families who trooped to Austin from Hudspeth and surrounding counties that "the food they eat and the water they drink will not be radioactive."

Why's that, Dr. Klein?

Because, he wrote, the Sierra Blanca facility "will be among the safest and best-engineered waste facilities in the country."

But of course. end story

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public relations; nuclear power, Sheldon Landsberger, Yucca Mountain, Theodore M. Besmann, Potomac Communications Group, Nuclear Energy Institute, Jonathan Knight, AAUP, Bill Perkins, Sharon Brown, Lee Smith, Abdel E. Bayoumi, Peter Bernstein, George H. Taylor, Samuel H. Mehr, Anthony Baratta, Charles M. Harman, Dale E. Klein

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