March 31st, 2006

Berkley Calls on DOE to Fire Yucca Mountain Cartoon Man

By Steve Tetrault
Los Vegas Review Journal

Joe Camel, and now Yucca Mountain Johnny?

Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., connected the icons on Thursday in calling on the Department of Energy to erase the square-jawed cartoon miner from its Web site for the proposed nuclear waste repository.

Berkley charged that Johnny’s job on the “youth zone” of the Web site “is to convince kids in Nevada that nuclear waste is okay and that the state of Nevada is a safe place to store nuclear waste.

“What really bothers me is the message that Yucca Mountain Johnny is giving our schoolchildren is akin to Joe Camel telling our school kids that smoking is healthy,” Berkley said in a House speech delivered while standing next to an enlargement of the character.

The R.J. Reynolds tobacco company ended an advertising campaign featuring Joe Camel in 1997 under pressure from Congress and public health groups. Although the company denied it, the character was widely associated with the promotion of Camel cigarettes to children.

The Energy Department does not plan to bury Yucca Mountain Johnny, said spokesman Craig Stevens, who rejected the comparison as “preposterous.”

Yucca Mountain Johnny is not propaganda but a teaching tool, Stevens said. The character has existed for nearly 10 years and has been on the DOE Web site for two years.

He can be found at http://www.ocrwm.doe.gov/youth/index.

“Yucca Mountain Johnny has been educating thousands of students and adults around the world on complex science issues including nuclear physics, hydrology, geology and engineering,” Stevens said.

But Yucca Mountain Johnny - depicted with an open, smiling face and strong jaw - also appears to be selling trust, said Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an advocacy group that studies how the media sends messages to children.

“The character as depicted makes you think that Yucca Mountain is a fine thing,” Ruskin said. “He looks like a trustworthy guy. That is the image the DOE is trying to put forth here about Yucca Mountain but as a matter of policy that is deeply subject to question.

“If Yucca Mountain Johnny was depicted as an atom bomb, it would make a different point,” Ruskin said.

This is not the first time that the Energy Department outreach on Yucca Mountain has run afoul of critics.

In 2001, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., got a bill passed that temporarily blocked the department from advertising public tours of the repository site 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Reid maintained DOE was using the tours to lobby for Yucca Mountain. The advertising ban expired a year later and was not renewed.

On Thursday, Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., registered a Yucca Mountain Johnny complaint with the Energy Department through an aide, spokesman Jack Finn said.

Other Nevada lawmakers echoed the call for the department to terminate the character.

“To sell the Yucca Mountain Project to our children through the use of a cartoon character is an irresponsible and desperate act,” said Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev.

But a Clark County science teacher questioned Yucca Mountain Johnny’s reach among students.

In the county curriculum, eighth graders being taught Newtonian physics and introduction to nuclear physics would be most likely to visit the Yucca Mountain website for assignments, said Brad Evans, science department chairman at Grant Sawyer Middle School.

These students in their early teens don’t notice the cartoons, said Evans, whose students recently completed a project on the repository that involved Internet research.

“They would be more concerned about the information they could find on the site rather than the character,” he said. “They would look at it and think it was silly.”

Evans added students recognize that information on the government’s website is “slanted” on the project.

“They seem to be more astute as far as that goes,” Evans said, adding that a savvy student running a Google search of “Yucca Mountain” would discover 6.4 million other potential sources of information about the repository.

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