The once-demonized nuclear industry got its biggest boost in years Thursday.
A bipartisan coalition of US senators put forward a "framework" for climate legislation that aims to dramatically increase off-shore oil drilling, ensure a "future for coal" and, above all, ramp up subsidies for the financially risky nuclear power industry. The announcement was timed, in part, to send a signal to negotiators at the climate conference in Copenhagen that the US Senate is supposedly serious about climate reform.
Sen. John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joseph Lieberman are taking the lead in pushing an industry-friendly package that aims to bring down carbon emissions 17 percent from 2005 levels - a modest goal shared by House-passed legislation and President Obama. As The Hill reported: "White House press secretary Robert Gibbs called the framework a 'significant step' and said Obama believes it shows movement toward reaching a bipartisan Senate agreement."
The influential Center for American Progress's Climate Progress blog also declared, in bold letters:
The bottom line: We are likely to get a bipartisan, economy-wide bill on the Senate floor "early next year" as Kerry put it. Lieberman said the bill would become law "in this session of Congress."
"I believe the green economy is coming. That's not a question of if it's going to happen, it's just when it's going to happen. The sooner the better for me, because the jobs of the future lie in energy independence and cleaning up the environment.... Why can't America have the cleanest air?"
Critics of nuclear power argue, with few in the mainstream media listening, that this rush to nuclear power could lead to potentially trillions in US-backed bailouts for a default-prone, financially troubled industry; draw away resources needed to promote genuine renewable energy resources and conservation; still pollute the air with carbon-based and other greenhouse gases through the entire production chain; and
In Copenhagen, Caldicott has been addressing like-minded activists, but has not had access to the official delegates to offer her chilling, information-packed overview of the industry's dangers, or her disturbing lectures that often start by explaining how nuclear energy creates genetic mutations and deadly cancers. (You can see one here, at the five-minute mark.)
Beyond the public health and financial dangers, as Dr. Caldicott wrote in the introduction to the first edition of her book, "Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer" (since updated), there are those other apparent risks:
In this day and age, nuclear power plants are also obvious targets for terrorists, inviting assault by plane, truck bombs, armed attack, or covert intrusion into the reactor's control room. The subsequent meltdown could induce the death of hundreds of thousands of people in heavily populated areas, and they would expire slowly and painfully, some over days and others over years from acute radiation illness, cancer, leukemia, congenital deformities, or genetic disease. Such an attack at the Indian Point reactors, thirty-five miles from Manhattan, for instance, would effectively incapacitate the world's main financial center for the rest of time. An attack on one of the thirteen reactors surrounding Chicago would wreak similar catastrophic medical consequences. Amazingly, security at US nuclear power plants remains at virtually the same lax levels as prior to the 9/11 attacks.
Adding to the danger, nuclear power plants are essentially atomic bomb factories. A 1,000 megawatt nuclear reactor manufactures 500 pounds of plutonium a year; normally ten pounds of plutonium is fuel for an atomic bomb. A crude atomic bomb sufficient to devastate a city could certainly be crafted from reactor grade plutonium. Therefore any non-nuclear weapons country that acquires a nuclear power plant will be provided with the ability to make atomic bombs (precisely the issue the world confronts with Iran today). As the global nuclear industry pushes its nefarious wares upon developing countries with the patent lie about "preventing global warming," collateral consequences will include the proliferation of nuclear weapons, a situation that will further destabilize an already unstable world.
Meanwhile, every billion dollars spent on the supremely misguided attempt to revivify the nuclear industry is a theft from the production of cheap renewable electricity. Think what these billions could do if invested in the development of wind power, solar power, co-generation, geothermal energy, biomass, and tidal and wave power, let alone basic energy conservation, which itself could save the United States 20 percent of the electricity it currently consumes.
As Climate Progress noted, reflecting the prevailing wisdom among most environmental journalists and such prominent groups as the Sierra Club:
Yes, there is going to be a big nuclear component to this bill, as well as a boost for domestic drilling for oil and gas. Not big news, I suppose, but it is central to Graham's support for the bipartisan effort and his message. This is, as they say, the price of admission for making this bipartisan effort work, for getting to 60 votes, which Lieberman says they don't have yet, but he is confident they will.
Slocum reserves special scorn for the messaging and PR campaign of the nuclear industry, even though it seems to have worked: "They're saying that nuclear power is a new renewable energy. They're trying to sneak in nukes by saying 'we're the same.'"
Indeed, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute( NEI), Mitch Singer, echoed those upbeat themes while praising the senators' expanded proposals. "It's definitely a recognition of the key role for nuclear energy as part of viable strategy for dealing with global warming," he told Truthout. "It's one of the largest sources of energy that doesn't emit greenhouse gases." He also challenged the view, as reported by the Congressional Budget Office and other researchers, that 50 percent of new plants could default and that the industry has been spurned by Wall Street as a poor investment. He sent along an op-ed written by Richard Meyers, the vice-president for policy development for NEI that challenged a recent study that reported building new plants could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars in financial risk.
Meyers likened his industry to the small but growing renewable energy industry in needing federal assistance, while noting, "Capital markets are prepared to finance new nuclear plant construction, assuming appropriate financing support in the form of loan guarantees from the federal government for the first plants and from state governments in the form of supportive rate treatments." Those "supportive" rate treatments mean, in fact, huge increases in charges to consumers.
Ironically, the op-ed was at the bottom of a November 9 Energy Daily page reporting that the Department of Energy was abandoning plans to use the Yucca Mountain reserve in Nevada as a nuclear waste depository, leaving over 100 plants in the United States with cancer-causing nuclear wastes on site in cooling "pools" - with half-lives as long as 250,000 years, Caldicott pointed out. That's one of the still-unresolved issues haunting the nuclear power industry.
What's really at stake in the pending legislative proposals to aid the nuclear power industry is the size and scope of a bailout that could amount to 100 percent loan guarantees for the industry, beyond the $18.5 billion and 80 percent backing currently available. As the January issue of Mother Jones reports, in one of the few major recent articles critical of the industry's role in global warming legislation:
Key Senate Democrats have signaled that they are willing to use nuclear subsidies as a bargaining chip to overcome Republican opposition. The Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the industry's main lobby, is pushing for at least $100 billion in federal loan guarantees - a dicey proposition given that the Congressional Budget Office has determined that the risk of default would be "well above 50 percent." This raises the question: Will the cost of passing a climate bill be a massive, taxpayer-funded nuclear bailout? ...
The industry says it has solved its cost problem, partly by engineering reactors that are simpler and less expensive to build. But the first two next-generation reactors, which are under construction in Finland and France, have been bogged down in multibillion-dollar cost overruns. Meanwhile, the projected cost of building new nuclear plants in the US is soaring: As recently as 2005, the NEI claimed new reactors could be constructed for roughly $2 billion. Newer estimates, including one by Moody's, the credit ratings agency, put the cost as high as $12 billion. That would make nuclear power more expensive on a watt-for-watt basis than most large-scale renewable energy sources, including wind, biomass, and hydropower.
No wonder the industry has found it impossible to secure private-sector financing for the 28 reactors that are currently in the pipeline across the nation. Investors "will not accept the economic risk of building new reactors," says Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who is now a professor at Vermont Law School. "There will be no nuclear renaissance beyond what the government is willing to underwrite ..."
"You listen to the rhetoric around this place and there is no one who will say a disparaging word about nuclear," says a senior Democratic Senate staffer close to the climate bill talks. "They have enough political muscle and enough support across the aisle that I think they will get all the loan guarantees they need."
The hosannas being offered the nuclear power industry reflect its new influence, helped along by $1.7 million in lobbying spending. As the senators' new framework declared Thursday:
Encouraging nuclear power.
Additional nuclear power is an essential component of our strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We strongly support incentives for renewable energy sources such as wind and solar, but successful legislation must also recognize the important role for clean nuclear power in our low-emissions future. America has lost its nuclear technology manufacturing base, and we must rebuild it in order to compete in the global marketplace. Our legislation will encourage the construction of new nuclear power plants and provide funding to train the next generation of nuclear workers. We will make it easier to finance the construction of new nuclear power plants and improve the efficiency of the licensing process for traditional as well as small modular reactors, while fully respecting safety and environmental concerns. In addition, we support the research and development of new, safe ways to minimize nuclear waste. We are working with our colleagues to create incentives for low-carbon power sources, including nuclear, that will complement the Energy and Natural Resource Committee's work to incentivize renewable electricity.
Have these Senators lost perspective? Just because they slap a "Climate Action" label on their legislative framework does not hide the fact that their proposal will enshrine into law the largest financial giveaways to the oil, coal and nuclear industries since George W Bush was in the White House.
The obsession cannot be simply to get to 60 votes in the Senate, damn the legislative details. The People's Business before congress and our children's future is simply too important to waste time and the taxpayers' money on more nuclear power plants, a new generation of coal burners and the largest expansion of oil and gas drilling in two generations.