OpenSecrets’ interesting question

I don’t know what the intern schedule is like at OpenSecrets.org, but someone over there posted this question from their Facebook page at about 9:30pm today (a Saturday):

Question of the day: Which do you consider to be the more powerful political force — the nuclear energy industry, or special interests that advocate against nuclear energy? Please explain your answer.

My perhaps unexpected answer: the anti-nuclear lobby is more powerful… even though it barely exists.

First, the empirical comparison is clear: The nuclear lobby is probably a more powerful force than the “anti-nuclear” lobby. It includes a multitude of groups from General Electric to the Nuclear Energy Institute, and is part of a steady, high-volume set of lobbying campaigns that was supposedly within arm’s reach of repealing the decades-old moratorium on American nuclear power.

Courtesy of OpenSecrets.org

By contrast, the “anti-nuclear” lobby consists almost entirely of the peripheral aims of bigger environmental organizations like the Sierra Club. As that organization is involved in everything from local stream maintenance to defense of funding for the EPA, its seemingly large $1-million+ lobbying expenditures last year are segmented among a host of programs, and their most visible such campaign in the previous cycle was probably their mountaintop removal campaign.

But none of these have to do with the nitty-gritty of anti-nuclear campaigns because none of these target the right decision-makers. Federal lawmakers are actually less important than the town government in the area where theoretical nuclear plants could be located. The placement of nuclear reactors is a famous application of the “Not In My Backyard” principle, a subset of the classic Prisoner’s Dilemma: Even if everyone wanted nuclear power, most are reluctant to let a plant be built near their own property. The reason this concern plays out so often is because town governments are much easier to influence for the average voter, especially average voters with a clear, salient impending threat to their property values.

Indeed, on the federal level there are few “outsiders” in the professional lobbying world; every major energy company has government relations offices in every state, consisting of state natives who know the important political and journalistic actors in their respective states. It is almost impossible, by contrast, to appear as anything but an outsider to a town government, especially if faced by an opposition of NIMBY-mad locals. That’s why the “anti-nuclear lobby” is so powerful: It accidentally behaves like the most effective vast, wealthy professional organizations: it is decentralized, on-message, and speaks directly to potential gains or losses of local voters.

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