WASHINGTON – The Nuclear Energy Institute, a potent policy and lobbying organization for the nuclear power industry, also runs a popular travel program for an elite group of Americans.

Each year it invites selected members of Congress and their staffs to travel to some prized destinations, such as Paris, Barcelona and Seville in Spain, Rome and Marseilles, not to mention Las Vegas.

Since 2000, at least 17 members of Congress, and in some cases their spouses, have toured nuclear facilities at the expense of an organization that has been working hard to revive the industry in the United States.

Such trips are coming under greater scrutiny in the wake of a controversy involving privately financed travel for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Some critics say there should be tighter regulation and greater disclosure of such travel. Others say these trips should be banned outright.

While it is illegal for a lobbyist to directly pay for such travel, a trade association or other policy group can fund a trip. Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor and critic of both congressional junkets and the nuclear industry, called such trips “the biggest joke on Capitol Hill” and nothing more than an exercise in taking members and their spouses “on a high-priced vacation.” He added: “What is fascinating is how much the members want to preserve this perk. These trips are almost entirely valueless.”

Critics say such trips financed by special interests give those groups access to lawmakers that no ordinary citizen could get.

“For large groups like the (Nuclear Energy) Institute, they don’t need to do any lobbying at all,” Turley said. “They are trying to get members to align themselves with the institute and its interests.”

President Bush has been an avid supporter of nuclear power, proposing to ease regulations on the industry and supporting federal risk insurance to cover utility companies that want to build nuclear plants against construction delays.

Several members who took trips at the institute’s expense took issue with Turley, saying they went to learn about the complexities of nuclear technology and that they have an interest in its resurgence in the United States.

“Nobody lobbied me,” said Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who took a $17,708 trip to Paris and other parts of France in 2000 to tour nuclear facilities. “It was a fact-finding trip for me.”

Lawmakers have racked up some large costs on the institute’s tab. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., went on a fact-finding trip to Rome at a cost of $10,638 in August 2003. The senator also authorized a staff member, Denise Bauld, and her spouse to go on the same trip, and they incurred a total of $19,700 in expenses.

The senator also approved an institute-sponsored trip to Japan in 2004 for an aide, Aleix Jarvis, at a cost of $10,299. And this year, from March 29 to April 2, another Graham aide, Matthew Rimkunas, took a $5,761 trip to France. All together, that’s more than $46,000 paid by the institute on behalf of one senator and his staff in two years.

Graham’s office did not respond to a query about those trips.

For more than 15 years, the Nuclear Energy Institute has maintained “a very active travel program” for members of Congress and their staffs, according to spokesman Steve Kerekes.

“We are a policy program and we are sponsoring informational trips,” Kerekes said.

The institute also maintains a staff of lobbyists to push specific legislation on Capitol Hill, such as that dealing with the cost of disposing of nuclear waste and limiting the industry’s liability for nuclear accidents.

Since 2000 the institute – with an annual budget of $36 million – has spent $272,877 for 21 such trips by members of Congress alone, according to a report by PoliticalMoneyLine.com, a Web site that collects data on money and politics. There are three or four trips every year, Kerekes said, and often as many as 10 to 12 people, including staff members, go on each trip.

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Illinois lawmakers Ray LaHood, John Shimkus and Mark Kirk, all Republicans, are among House members who have gone on institute-sponsored trips. LaHood went on a $15,002 visit to Paris and Cherbourg, France, in 2001, while Shimkus and Kirk traveled to the Yucca Mountain nuclear repository in Nevada in the same year.

LaHood’s wife accompanied him, while his aides Joan Mitchell and Diane Liesman took separate trips to France, which cost the institute a total of $8,110.

Shimkus’ trip, which included a stopover in Las Vegas, cost $1,707, and an aide accompanied the congressman at a $1,091 expense. The institute paid only $360 of Kirk’s expenses, including a $340 helicopter ride from Las Vegas to Yucca Mountain. An aide incurred the same expense.

Kirk flew to Las Vegas at taxpayer expense to view a classified electronic warfare “range” at a naval facility. He said he stayed at a $50-a-night hotel near the base rather than in an expensive hotel on the gambling strip offered by the institute.

“I hate Las Vegas and I hate gambling,” said Kirk, a supporter of burying nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Congress approved legislation in 2002 designating the Nevada site as a nuclear repository, but the project faces fierce opposition from environmentalists and some political leaders in Nevada, and has to be approved by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Kerekes, the institute spokesman, said lawmakers invited to visit Yucca Mountain usually stay in a hotel off the strip and take a long bus ride from Las Vegas rather than a helicopter. Those trips start at 6:30 a.m., and the buses arrive back in Vegas at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m., he said.

But an itinerary for an Aug. 12-14, 2003, Yucca Mountain trip allowed four hours for a helicopter trip to Yucca Mountain, and two nights and an afternoon in Vegas. The group stayed at the luxurious Mandalay Bay Hotel, which has a casino, and the itinerary called for a post-tour dinner at the Eiffel Tower Restaurant in the Paris Hotel.

Rep. J. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C., disclosed that he and his wife toured Yucca Mountain on these dates at a $3,774 cost to the institute. Three aides accompanied them. Barrett did not respond to queries about the trip.

“Member trips typically result from members expressing an interest in learning about particular facets of nuclear technology,” Kerekes said. He said it is “not a case of us “selecting’ them on the basis of any criteria.”

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Reps. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., and Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., recently introduced legislation to strengthen regulation of lobbyists, require more disclosure about lobbying activities and require timelier and more extensive disclosure of privately financed trips.

Although the nuclear institute does lobby, it considers itself primarily a policy organization.

Emanuel said, “Our bill is comprehensive and deals with the fact that special interests and lobbyists have a seamless relationship with the Congress and they become a back office, travel included.” But the congressman said the legislation would not bar privately financed trips.

In fact, Mary Boyle, press secretary for Common Cause, a Washington watchdog group, said if all privately funded congressional trips were banned, it is doubtful that Congress would come up with the money to allow members to travel as extensively as they do now.

Lawmakers who travel with the nuclear institute say they gain information about the reprocessing and storage of nuclear material, which are major issues in the debate over whether to build new nuclear plants in the United States. There has not been a new nuclear plant started in the United States in 32 years.

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But there is time for other activities. Clyburn, accompanied by his wife, Emily, said he felt compelled to take some time to visit the U.S. cemetery at Normandy, site of the D-Day invasion during World War II, because he was a history major. “There’s always down time,” said the South Carolina lawmaker.

Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz., said, “Obviously, it gave me a chance to see Barcelona. I won’t deny that. But I also had a chance to see something in another country in terms of recycling and reusing” nuclear material.

Pastor, who sits on the energy and water subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, visited facilities in Barcelona and Avignon, France, in 2003 and Paris and Normandy in 2000. The institute picked up the tab of more than $19,000 each time.

The congressman took issue with Turley’s assessment. “It was not a joke to me,” he said. “It was a working trip.”

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Kerekes said nuclear technology is complex and has to be seen to be well-understood.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., also took two trips, once to Italy in 2003 and another to Paris in 2001, when he was a member of the House. His wife accompanied him on the Paris trip. The Paris trip cost $15,769 and the Italian trip, $18,912.

The senator said in an interview that he has never been criticized at home for taking informational trips about an important industry and employer in his state. He said he went to study all aspects of nuclear power, including reprocessing and storage, and added that there is a resurgence of interest in nuclear power in the United States.



(Chicago Tribune correspondent Dawn Withers contributed to this report.)



(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune.

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AP-NY-05-22-05 1938EDT


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