Nuclear Industry's Ads Called Potentially Deceptive

New York Times
May 14, 1999

WASHINGTON -- The Better Business Bureau said Thursday that ads run by the nuclear power industry about the air pollution benefits of reactors "have a strong potential to mislead customers" and that it would ask the Federal Trade Commission and possibly state attorneys general to investigate.

The industry's assertions, about gases thought to cause global warming, are "overly broad claims that tell, at best, only a half-truth, and therefore have the capacity to deceive," the bureau said Thursday morning. Its decision came in an unusual second round in a case in which the bureau had investigated the claims and tried to resolve them as part of a self-regulatory scheme within the advertising industry. Thursday it said it was referring the matter to the FTC.

But the organization that placed the ads, a trade association called the Nuclear Energy Institute, contended that the ads were factual and that it had never agreed to abide by the bureau's ruling.

The bureau had found in December, in a case brought by environmental groups, that the industry had falsely claimed that reactors make power without emitting so-called greenhouse gases. The environmental groups said -- and the bureau eventually agreed -- that the uranium fuel for reactors was made using electricity from coal plants, which emit large amounts of greenhouse gases.

The environmentalists said that nuclear utilities were trying to deceive consumers, who can choose their power suppliers in states that have deregulated utilities. Companies that make electricity from sun, wind and other "green" sources are marketing their electricity by appealing to consumers especially concerned about the environment, but environmental groups say reactor operators should not be able to make strong environmental claims.

But the Nuclear Energy Institute continued running the ads, in The New Republic, the Atlantic Monthly, two papers published on Capitol Hill, Roll Call and the Hill, and The New York Times. The ads say, "Chances are you know nuclear power generates about 20 percent of America's electricity without emitting greenhouse gases."

Angelina Howard, senior vice president of the industry group, said the ads were not geared toward consumers who had to pick an energy supplier; the group was "advertising to a policy community on a policy issue," she said.

The advertising business established a voluntary resolution process for questionable advertising claims 25 years ago, through the Better Business Bureau, to head off the threat of government regulation. The bureau said the nuclear case was unusual because of 100 or so cases decided each year, only three or four advertisers did not abide by the rulings.

At the FTC, C. Lee Peeler, the associate director for advertising practices, said the Better Business Bureau referral would "go to the top of the pile that's here," so his agency could determine promptly whether the charge met its criteria for follow up. The FTC strongly supports the Better Business Bureau's voluntary program, he said, and in cases where an advertiser has ignored a ruling, if the FTC finds the ads deceptive or unfair, it can order a broader remedy.