Dan Duffy, the village administrator for Minooka, Illinois, wants people to know that he thinks the Dresden Station, a nearby nuclear power plant, is a great friend to his community. In a letter to the editor of the Joliet Herald News last November, Duffy said that Exelon, the Fortune 100 company that owns the plant, is “a very valuable partner” to the communities surrounding the plant.
“We’ve always appreciated the transparency and sense of partnership Exelon has nurtured through various community outreach initiatives,” Duffy wrote in the local paper for Minooka, a small suburb an hour southwest of Chicago. He grounded those opinions in the fact that “for the last 16 years, I have worked in Grundy County and raised my family here.”
There’s only one problem with Duffy’s letter: he didn’t write it. The letter was written by Exelon itself, provided to Duffy in an email from an Exelon spokesperson with the following instructions: “could you cut and paste this text into an email to the Joliet Herald and send it this afternoon? The email is firstname.lastname@example.org.”
Duffy replied 34 minutes later: “done.”
The exchange, which the Energy and Policy Institute discovered via a public records request, appears to be part of a ghostwriting campaign by Exelon to muster a defense of the Dresden plant after a scathing series of investigative articles exposed previously unreported safety threats at Exelon’s nuclear plants.
The Illinois-based government watchdog Better Government Association (BGA) published a three-part investigative series on Exelon, operator of the largest nuclear fleet in the nation, and the nuclear energy industry as a whole in November. The revelations were made available through the Associated Press and various news outlets including the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, and The Herald News, and included revelations about safety violations at Exelon plants.
In response to the investigative series, several Illinois public officials had letters-to-the-editors published all arguing the same basic point – that Exelon is a good corporate citizen and a job creator, which makes it a “very valuable” partner.
The day before Duffy emailed his letter to the editor to The Herald News, he did provide a slight change to Exelon’s draft; he added two sentences about his life in Grundy County.
Braidwood, IL Mayor Jim Vehrs had his letter to the editor published in The State Journal-Register. Vehrs’ letter had very similar language to what Exelon provided Duffy. Despite the similarities, Braidwood told the Energy and Policy Institute that it possessed no responsive documents showing correspondence between the mayor and Exelon.
But a spokesperson for Vehrs told the Energy and Policy Institute that Vehrs did in fact communicate with Exelon regarding his letter, stating that he “sat down with them and talked.”
Cordova’s Village President James Boone also had a letter published in The State Journal-Register that was virtually identical to Vehrs’ letter, with Boone’s letter praising Exelon’s Quad Cities nuclear plant. In some parts of Vehrs’ and Boone’s letters, entire paragraphs were verbatim, with the only difference being the names of the power plants.
As was the case with Braidwood, Cordova told the Energy and Policy Institute that it did not have any responsive documents regarding communication with Exelon about the letter.
Village President Boone did not respond to questions about his letter.
Cordova did provide emails that Exelon sent to Boone about BGA and its investigation. An email from Exelon’s Brandy Donaldson, a senior nuclear site communication specialist, to Boone explained that there will be forthcoming stories from BGA that Donaldson expected to be “unbalanced and misleading,” and that Exelon is “planning to respond to the story in a variety of ways.”
BGA’s Power Struggle series revealed that Exelon’s nuclear facilities, including the plants in Braidwood, near Minooka, and in Cordova, have leaked, spilled, or accidentally released water contaminated with radioactive tritium. The most recent leak was at the Braidwood plant over two weeks in May and June of 2017. Another leak occurred at the Dresden plant in 2014 – and contamination was found in Morris’ sewage treatment plant. The series also shed a light on how the regulatory body for the nuclear industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), has received 687 whistleblower complaints from 2010 through 2016 that have alleged retaliation for raising safety concerns. The NRC has upheld zero of those complaints, although an NRC spokesperson told BGA that more than a quarter of those cases reached private settlements.