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Core Curriculum

Big Nuclear infiltrates the classroom.

In the fall of 2008, EnergySolutions Foundation, the charitable arm of one of the world’s largest nuclear-waste processors, began approaching nuclear utilities with an offer. Guided by a team of science teachers and industry p.r. staffers, the organization had developed a trove of materials on nuclear power for use in sixth-through-twelfth-grade classes. Among them was a 100-page teacher’s guide, which waxed lyrical about the “beneficial uses of radiation,” and a trivia game that highlighted the drawbacks of most energy sources—from the toll windmills take on migrant birds to the damage solar farms supposedly do to desert ecosystems—while sidestepping the pitfalls of nuclear power.

The foundation’s aim was to get utilities to distribute the materials to teachers in their service areas. A number signed on, including New Orleans-based Entergy. That winter, Entergy approached the Mississippi Department of Education, which receives hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in donations from the company, and asked it to review the materials and pinpoint ways they could fulfill curriculum requirements. Officials gladly obliged. “We found they could be very beneficial,” Trecina Green, director of curriculum for Mississippi’s public schools, told me. The department later sent a memo heralding the materials to teachers statewide and held a press conference with Entergy touting their “unique partnership.” Entergy, meanwhile, began doling out materials at teachers’ meetings, hosting free teacher workshops, and offering up EnergySolutions-trained employees to “guest teach” classes. Ann Day Becker, who manages Entergy’s outreach to schools, estimates that the materials are now being used in at least 400 Mississippi classrooms.

Industry-funded materials in public schools are nothing new. For decades, corporations have been flooding classrooms with propaganda. In their heyday, nuclear power companies were among the most aggressive; a 1979 survey of corporate-sponsored materials in public schools found that, when it came to targeting kids, utilities—particularly nuclear utilities—went to the greatest lengths. These efforts dwindled in the late ’80s. But they’re making a comeback as the once-moribund nuclear industry gears up for a revival.

ENERGYSOLUTIONS HAS MADE the deepest inroads of any nuclear group. In addition to its work in Mississippi, Entergy is distributing the organization’s materials and holding teacher workshops in parts of Louisiana, New York, and Michigan. Florida Power & Light, Southern Nuclear, and the Pennsylvania-based reactor manufacturer Westinghouse have similar programs—all based on the EnergySolutions materials.

Other industry groups have taken a similar tack. Each year, the American Nuclear Society hosts some 20 workshops on nuclear energy for teachers. Those who attend get a trove of classroom materials with a pro-nuclear slant. One student handout claims that it’s “safer to work in a nuclear power plant than an office” and that any spike in cancer rates due to the Chernobyl meltdown is “too small to measure.” (In fact, according to the World Health Organization, at least 9,000 people are expected to die of cancer as a result of fallout from Chernobyl.)

Government has gotten in on the act, too. The Department of Energy (DOE) recently finished updating the Harnessed Atom, a pro-nuclear power curriculum that it distributed to middle school teachers nationwide in the ’80s. The revised version is being piloted in three public school systems and will be officially rolled out in classrooms next year. “We needed a counterbalance to the standard textbooks,” one person involved in the project told me. “They put so much focus on things like accidents and nuclear waste. No one’s going to read that and say, ‘I want to be a nuclear engineer. That sounds like a great career!’”

Meanwhile, the DOE website features an interactive, animated city called Neutropolis, a space-age utopia where kids zip around on hovercrafts. There’s Electra On, a “fashion-forward teenager” in purple knee-boots who cares about the environment and plans to study nuclear engineering; Newt R. On, “a scooterriding, fun-loving middle-schooler” in baggy jeans and a hoodie; and Ura Nehum, a pigtailed tween who loves shopping and “space sports.” These youngsters-envoys of a “smart, successful society that embraces and uses clean, safe nuclear energy”—guide visitors through a maze of multimedia propaganda.

Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)—the official industry watchdog—is doing its part to peddle nuclear power to children. The agency’s website features both a “Students’ Corner” and lesson plans for teachers, which tout the glories of radiation while barely touching on the hazards of nuclear power. Between early March, when reactors in Japan started melting down, and early June, the NRC materials received more than two million hits.

The industry, meanwhile, continues to expand its toolkit. EnergySolutions is currently putting the finishing touches on a video game, which revolves around a broken-down reactor buried in the jungle. Players—acting as technicians, reactor operators, even p.r. people—have to try to get it up and running so they can power civilization. “Nuclear energy is a tough subject to grasp,” says EnergySolutions’ Executive Director Pearl Wright. “Our goal is to package it so it’s accessible to young people. We’re always looking for new ways to reach kids.” 

Mariah Blake is a writer in Washington. This article originally ran in the July 14, 2011, issue of the magazine.