Like AR1.com, Newman was a big supporter of Nuclear Energy Paul Newman, who died last week, took a carefully guarded secret to his grave — something that would have disgraced him in Hollywood.
Did he have a secret mistress? (No, that wouldn’t bother anybody.) Did he have a clandestine fleet of SUVs? (Now that’s more like it.) Was he addicted to McDonald’s hamburgers?
No, Paul Newman was a cautious but increasingly open supporter of nuclear power.
Newman’s journey from garden-variety left-wing environmentalism to nuclear advocacy began in 1992 when he played the role of General Leslie Groves, supervisor of the Manhattan Project, in the movie Fat Man and Little Boy. Richard Rhodes’s book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which won the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, was a primary source for the film, and Rhodes had just written Nuclear Renewal, making the case for a revival of the technology.
Rhodes and Newman both lived in Connecticut and became friends. Over the next few years the two men discussed nuclear power, and Newman gradually became a convert to the technology. Through Rhodes, Newman met Denis Beller, a professor of engineering at the University of Nevada, also an expert on nuclear energy.
“In all the meetings I had with Paul Newman, he struck me as very open-minded and inquisitive,” says Beller. “He came out to Nevada in 2002 and visited the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies, where several faculty members showed him research on the transmutation of nuclear waste. They also discussed why ideas like launching nuclear waste into the sun were not really practical. The visit ended with a trip to Yucca Mountain, where Kevin Phillips, the mayor of neighboring Caliente, whose front porch is only 50 yards from the rail line where waste would be transported, told Newman he was not opposed to the project. Later [Newman] told me, ‘That’s the most impressive thing I’ve seen.’”
The following, year, Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward, hosted a dinner and debate about nuclear energy for high-level Washington policymakers and New York press executives in their Fifth Avenue apartment overlooking Central Park. Both Beller and Rhodes helped arrange the event. (Rhodes says the meeting was held under the Chatham House Rule, where none of the participants can be identified, and he still does not feel at liberty to discuss it.) Beller later introduced Newman to two other advocates, Susan Eisenhower, whose Eisenhower Institute has promoted nuclear power as part of a legacy of Pres. Dwight Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, and Al Trivelpiece, former director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. The Eisenhower Institute arranged two more soirees in Newman’s apartment.
For a public figure, however — especially one connected with Hollywood — support for nuclear power is a risky position to take. Newman long directed the profits from his food business, Newman’s Own, into the Newman’s Own charitable foundation. His board of directors warned him that becoming an advocate of nuclear power would endanger fund-raising. “He told me that he had once written an oped in opposition to clear-cutting in the Northwest, and logging supporters had boycotted several restaurants that served Newman’s Own salad dressings,” said Beller. “He was very concerned that any public statements might hurt small businesses that carried his products.”
Newman did begin advertising his support for nuclear in connection with his other passion — auto racing. Ever since playing an Indy 500 driver in the 1968 movie Winning, Newman raced cars on his own. He finished in the top five in races at both Daytona and Le Mans, and won four national driving titles from 1976 to 1986. Over the years he also became friends with a racing opponent, Eddie Wachs, owner of E. H. Wachs, Inc., which has participated in the decommissioning of several reactors and helped rebuild the TVA’s Browns Ferry Unit I, which reopened in 2007.
In 2002 Newman and Wachs formed Newman Wachs Racing, which fielded two cars that carried 26 nuclear decals and a public service message promoting nuclear power. Two years later the Nuclear Energy Institute became aware of their effort and sponsored a car emblazoned with the message “Nuclear — Clean Air Energy,” which won the opening race of the 2008 Champ Car Atlantic season. The car and its racing crew subsequently visited several engineering schools around the country to encourage young people to enter the nuclear profession.
In the last few years, Newman became more public in his support of nuclear power. One of the biggest controversies in the New York area is the effort by environmental groups to shut down the Indian Point Nuclear Station, which provides New York City and Westchester County with 20 percent of their electricity. One leading opponent is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose opposition not only to Indian Point but to windmill farms off Martha’s Vineyard and Long Island Sound earned him an appearance with Al Gore and two movie stars on the cover of the “Green” issue of Vanity Fair (certainly an appropriately named publication). “Paul told me Kennedy tried to recruit him to oppose Indian Point for many years but finally gave up,” said Beller.
Instead, in May 2007, Newman did a tour of Indian Point and issued the following press release stating that “no Army or Navy base I’ve ever visited has been more armored. . . . The commitment to safety is clear.” The release also noted that the generator provided a million people with electricity while generating no greenhouse gases.
The statement received almost no attention in the press.
Anyone with the slightest intelligence and objectivity can see that we are weakening ourselves as a nation through our reliance on foreign oil, that so-called “renewables” can only add a small fraction to our output, and that nuclear offers a clean alternative with minimal environmental disruption. Countries such as France that have already made the nuclear transition have also achieved enormous economic benefits.
Had Newman declared himself a dyslexic or an alcoholic or a homosexual in his later years, Hollywood and the press would have lionized him for his courage and candor. Coming out for nuclear power, however, is a far more dangerous affair. It certainly doesn’t get you on the cover of Vanity Fair.
— William Tucker is author of Terrestrial Energy. Stephanie Gutmann is author of The Kinder Gentler Military.