Cheney energy report's impartiality questioned

Major GOP donor recommended reactor endorsed in document

March 24, 2002|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - In Chapter 5 of Vice President Dick Cheney's national energy report, executives of the once-moribund nuclear power industry were probably thrilled to read that the White House supported "the expansion of nuclear power in the United States as a major component of our national energy policy."

The energy report had embraced a wide array of proposals that the executives advanced in private meetings with Cheney and documents submitted to members of the task force that formulated a national energy policy.

One such proposal was the development of a new nuclear reactor designed to produce electricity - a gas-cooled reactor built on tennis-ball-size graphite spheres - that the report said "has inherent safety features."

"The industry has an interest in this," the report said, "and other advanced reactor designs."

But only one company, Exelon Corp. of Chicago, which provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican campaigns in recent years, has an interest in promoting the so-called pebble-bed reactor.

Exelon, the nation's largest nuclear energy company, is the only U.S. corporation developing a design for the pebble-bed reactor, which it says will lead to a new generation of cheaper, smaller and more efficient nuclear reactors. The company says the pebble-bed reactor will be safer, too, though environmentalists in the United States and in other countries have disputed that, calling the pebble-bed reactor a failed system vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The national energy report of May 2001 is filled with dozens of positive assessments of proposed new technologies, including nuclear designs and wind-generated power. Most of those assessments favor sectors of various industries, and some undoubtedly favor individual corporations. But it is impossible to know how and why the task force endorsed most of those proposals and which corporations they might help because Cheney has steadfastly refused to release the names of industry executives who advised the energy task force as it was researching and compiling its report.

This week, more than 14,000 pages of documents related to the task force will be released by the Energy Department, which was ordered by a federal judge to make the material public under the Freedom of Information Act. The Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmentalist group, had sued for the information.

The General Accounting Office has sued Cheney for a list of industry executives who advised the task force.

The administration's endorsement of Exelon's technology was learned through interviews and documents that the corporation provided The New York Times.

Although Exelon's name is not mentioned in the energy report, its executives lobbied the task force on the benefits of the pebble-bed design.

The task force's endorsement of the reactor was contained in a single paragraph. But a paragraph in a national energy report can be a huge boon to a corporation.

Don Kirchoffner, a spokesman for Exelon, said campaign contributions had nothing to do with the pebble-bed reactor's mention in the report. "We didn't influence anybody," Kirchoffner said.

For Exelon, the paragraph was seen as "a good thing," Kirchoffner said, but he insisted that the mention of the reactor's design did not necessarily represent a boon for the corporation.

"A good thing for the industry and the country was the fact that the administration came out with a recommendation for new forms of nuclear power, and our pebble-bed modular reactor is a byproduct of that," Kirchoffner said. "We just happened to have it. They took a look at what we gave them, and they said this kind of makes sense."

Exelon owns and operates about 20 percent of the nation's nuclear capacity. Its co-chief executive officers, John W. Rowe and Corbin A. McNeill Jr., who has since retired, were among a group of about 75 energy executives who met with Cheney in March 2001. Along with other participants of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's trade group, McNeill also met that month with Karl Rove, President Bush's chief strategist, and Lawrence B. Lindsey, the president's top economic adviser.

That information was revealed by Exelon officials, not the White House.

Critics of the task force have noted that many companies represented at its meetings gave financial support to the Bush campaign or the Republican Party in the 2000 election. Exelon was no exception.

Exelon, its executives and its political action committee gave the Republican Party $564,661 in the two years before the 2000 election. Last year, Exelon gave the party $347,514, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

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