As a congressman, Rep. Robert Walker extolled the safety of nuclear power, arguing that technology prevented radiation poisoning during the meltdown at Three Mile Island.
He's buttressing nuclear again today, this time working from the inside. Retired from the House, the Pennsylvania Republican provides strategic advice to the trade group Nuclear Energy Institute.
Walker is one of more than 240 lobbyists for companies with nuclear interests who came through the government-to-industry revolving door.
A Greenwire analysis of companies involved in nuclear found that the overwhelming majority of their lobbyists previously worked on Capitol Hill or in a presidential administration. The portion ranges from a high of 83 percent at Energy Future Holdings Corp., which operates a Texas nuclear plant, to 69 percent at Entergy Corp., the country's second largest nuclear generator.
Many of those lobbyists will present company viewpoints to lawmakers as the industry faces new scrutiny and a spate of bills following the catastrophe at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, which was disabled by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami.
"We place a premium on engaging firms and individuals with subject matter expertise in the public policy arena, many of whom have gained such experience in the legislative or executive branches of government," said Michael Burns, spokesman for Entergy. "We will continue advocating for a workable energy policy that recognizes a diverse mix of energy, including nuclear, will be required in order to meet the energy needs of this country."
Watchdogs argue that revolving-door lobbyists give corporations leverage that individuals and community groups lack.
"A revolving-door lobbyist is the biggest bang for your buck," said Tyson Slocum, director of the energy program at consumer group Public Citizen. "If you want to make an investment to secure access to a Congress member, the easiest way to achieve that is to hire someone who used to work for a Congress member."
Greenwire examined the lobbying ranks of leading nuclear businesses using Center for Responsive Politics data from 2010, the latest available. The inquiry looked at both in-house lobbyists and those employed by outside firms. It included all corporate divisions. The companies studied use lobbyists for a number of issues in addition to nuclear, including taxes, U.S. EPA regulations and policies for other energy sources.
Revolving-door lobbyists represent 78 percent of the total at Duke Energy Corp., which runs three nuclear facilities and plans to open a fourth; 74 percent at Southern Co., which has three plants; and 70 percent for Exelon Corp., the biggest nuclear generator in the country. The share of Capitol Hill-experienced lobbyists is 45 percent at the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI).
Greenwire also looked at General Electric Co., a conglomerate that made three of the six reactors at Japan's damaged plant. Hill and administration veterans make up 63 percent of GE's total lobbying pool.
Revolving-door lobbyists for nuclear companies will advocate on their behalf as some lawmakers and environmental groups raise questions about safety.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) has offered legislation that would impose a moratorium on all new nuclear reactor licenses or license extensions until new safety requirements are in place.
House Foreign Affairs Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) offered legislation that would increase congressional oversight of nuclear cooperation agreements. Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), ranking member on Foreign Affairs, sponsored an update to the law covering international civil nuclear cooperation accords. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) submitted a bill to strengthen an existing international nuclear safety treaty (E&E Daily, April 5).
Meanwhile, the Safe Energy Program at Physicians for Social Responsibility has urged Congress and the Obama administration to block construction of new plants while an independent commission reviews findings from Japan. The group also wants a block on the $36 billion that President Obama has requested for loan guarantees for nuclear power plants.
Nuclear issues are taking priority for some utility company lobbyists.
"Since the tragedy in Japan, it's gotten a lot more focus," said David Hoppe, president of Quinn Gillespie and Associates, which lobbies for Entergy. The company, he said, has "tried to provide background and information on what they're doing, their safety procedures, how they believe they've provided backup safety procedures."
The industry faces a challenge in conveying its message post-Japan, said Steve Kerekes, spokesman for NEI.
"We know we have a considerable communications challenge here as we move forward," Kerekes said. "We're going to undertake it. Exactly how we're going to do that, we're still getting our heads around that."
Companies and NEI said they will continue to underscore the industry's safety record.
"The bottom line is: Are we operating safely? Is the oversight process operating as it should?" Kerekes said. "The answer to both of those is yes."
Watchdog groups said the high number of connected lobbyists could impede needed changes.
No significant reforms came after last year's Macondo oil rig explosion that killed 11 and sparked the nation's worst oil spill, nor after or the explosion at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine that killed 29, said Ellen Vancko, manager of the Union of Concerned Scientists' Nuclear Energy & Climate Change Project.
"What has caused the government not to make changes?" Vancko said. "One can only surmise that industry influence, industry money and industry lobbyists had an impact on that outcome."
"My job in looking at the disaster in Japan is to make sure that whatever lessons we learn from the Japan disaster are fully and quickly implemented here," Vancko added.
Relationships count when it comes to lawmaker meetings with lobbyists, former Rep. Walker said.
"You can have a trust that is involved between people that know each other, and therefore regard the information that comes from those individuals as being trustworthy and legitimate," Walker said. "That's certainly a better relationship in many instances than dealing with people you don't know.
"People you learn to trust, those people could generally get to see you when they had something on their mind."
Walker said, however, that when he was in Congress he also met with people he did not know if they had an issue relevant to his district.
Many industries employ a large segment of revolving-door lobbyists. It is difficult to know where the nuclear industry ranks. The nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics tallies sectors that have 70 percent or more revolving-door lobbyists. It includes 20 on its list. The highest level -- 77 percent -- is in the entertainment industry.
No energy sectors are listed. The center said it had not examined nuclear and noted that energy industries are difficult to group because they have a variety of interests.
The roster of revolving-door lobbyists includes a number of high-profile figures. In addition to Walker, there are nine other former Congress members.
Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and Sen. John Breaux (D-La.) lobby for GE and Entergy. Former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) represents GE and Southern Co.
Former House Minority Leader and Democratic presidential contender Dick Gephardt of Missouri, and former Reps. Henry Bonilla (D-Texas) and Jim McCrery (R-La.) advocate for GE.
Former Rep. Bill Brewster (D-Okla.), lobbies for Entergy and retired Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas) represents Energy Future Holdings.
The companies combined also help pay the salaries of 33 lobbyists with experience as White House, presidential or vice presidential aides and 35 who once worked as a chief of staff for a lawmaker.
Former chiefs of staff are among the most valuable people to have on your lobbying payroll, Slocum said.
"They've got their extensive relationships and connections from the days of running an office," Slocum said. "It's often just as good to have a chief of staff as it is a member of Congress."
Shawn Whitman, a lobbyist who was chief of staff for Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) and the late Sen. Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), said his experience is less about connections and more about having background into how Congress operates. He is a principal at Kountoupes Consulting, which contracts with NEI.
"Obviously, if you're going to be working consulting you need to understand what you're consulting on," Whitman said. "Having an understanding of the Hill increases your ability to relay information, and understand and interpret."
When approaching lawmakers and their aides, "you know what kind of info is more useful to them," Whitman said, including data relevant to their state or district.
Other nuclear company lobbyists who were chiefs of staff include Quinn Gillespie and Associates' Hoppe, who worked for Lott, and Bret Boyles, who worked for Breaux. Hoppe also worked as chief of staff to former Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Jack Kemp of New York. Boyles, like Hoppe, lobbies on behalf of Entergy.
Hoppe said the 27 years that he worked on Capitol Hill help him as a lobbyist, both in terms of knowledge and connections. But people who criticize revolving-door lobbyists have motivations for doing so, he said, including raising money for their group.
"Do I think experience helps? Yes," Hoppe said. "Do I think that some people don't get meetings because they haven't worked on Capitol Hill? I never thought that to be true when I worked on Capitol Hill. I don't think it to be true now."
Though he presents his clients' point of view, Hoppe said, he hopes his reputation is "somebody who is a straight shooter who will tell them the facts."
Hill and administration experience typically came early in many of the lobbyists' careers, said Duke Energy spokesman Tom Williams.
"This experience provided them with a better understanding of how government and the legislative process works," Williams said. "This is not uncommon in D.C. for both groups who support and oppose nuclear energy."
These lobbyists help make the company's positions heard, several of the businesses said.
"We believe we have put together a balanced lobby team to advocate effectively on our behalf on the myriad issues that a company of our size and scope could be impacted by," said Lisa Singleton, Energy Future Holdings' vice president of corporate communications.
Southern Co. has eight lobbyists in Washington and pays outside firms that represent energy companies "on issues critical to the industry and our business, including nuclear," spokeswoman Valerie Hendrickson said.
"We do this because it's important that decisionmakers understand how legislative and regulatory proposals impact our customers and shareholders," Hendrickson said. "Moving forward, we will continue to have a voice in D.C. on any/all issues that impact our customers and shareholders."
GE spokeswoman Stephanie Judge said, "GE is a diverse company with a broad portfolio of businesses."
"Government touches a number of aspects of these businesses and we have an obligation to our shareowners to ensure our voice is heard," Judge said. "It is our responsibility to hire the best and most experienced people to do so."
Exelon spokeswoman Judy Rader sent a statement that said the company "like its peers in the electric and nuclear industry, actively engages in the political process."
Energy companies said that environmental groups and other nuclear opponents also hire former Capitol Hill staffers. Neither Public Citizen nor Sierra Club funds any revolving-door lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Union of Concerned Scientists last year paid $10,000 for lobbying to former Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.).
The revolving door lobbyists are part of an escalation in spending by businesses with nuclear interests.
Since 2004, many of the companies have doubled or tripled influence expenditures. Exelon doled out $3.7 million on lobbying last year, up 225 percent from six years earlier. Entergy paid $4.6 million in 2010, a 136 percent increase from 2004.
The growth came after the 2005 energy bill, which represented the first major energy legislation in years, said NEI's Kerekes.
Around that time NEI made a hiring move observers say signaled a change in lobbying strategy. The trade group hired Alex Flint, who had been chief of staff for former Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.), who chaired the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee from 2003 to 2007.
"Once they kind of had Domenici as a captured entity, their lobbying got better because they really had a champion inside who was able to make things happen," said Dave Hamilton, Sierra Club's director of federal global warming and energy programs.
Because of Flint, he said, "they certainly had a champion and an ally who could do stuff for them."
Kerekes declined to comment on the hiring of Flint, and Flint was not available for an interview.
Both Hamilton and Kerekes agreed that nuclear also gained attention because of concerns about climate change. Hamilton said movements to cap carbon have given nuclear an opportunity.
"They were able to seize on a moment when people were focused on other things and say, 'They were not so bad,'" Hamilton said.
Worries about greenhouse gases are a backdrop to discussions about the role of nuclear, Kerekes said.
"The fact is," he said, "we're 70 percent of the carbon-free electricity generation in the U.S."