He may soon be called the nuclear industry's Golden Child. No president in the last three decades has put more taxpayer dollars behind atom power than Barack Obama. And there may be good reason why the president is salivating over the prospect of building new nuclear power plants around the country.
It was one of the most important issues of the 2008 presidential campaign. The perceived threat of global warming began to make even the most skeptical of politicians a bit nervous. Both the Democrats and Republicans proposed searching for more domestic oil supplies, promising to drill up and down the spine of the Rocky Mountains and even off the fragile coastlines of Florida and California. The future of planet Earth, they claimed, is more perilous than ever.
Al Gore made his impact.
Too bad the Gore effect is like a bad hangover: all headache and no buzz. The purported solution the Obama administration has heaved at the imminent warming crisis, nuclear technology, is just as hazardous as our current methods of energy procurement. Yet, Obama isn't the first Democrat in recent years to tout nuclear virtues.
Al Gore, who wrote of the potential green merits of nuclear power in his book "Earth in the Balance," earned his stripes as a Congressman protecting the interests of two of the nuclear industry's most problematic enterprises, the TVA and the Oak Ridge Labs. And, of course, Bill Clinton backed the Entergy Corporation's outrageous plan to soak Arkansas ratepayers with the cost overruns on the company's Grand Gulf reactor, which provided power to electricity consumers in Louisiana.
The Clinton years indeed saw an all-out expansion of nuclear power around the globe. First came the deal to begin selling nuclear reactors to China, announced during Jiang Zemin's 1997 visit to Washington, even though Zemin brazenly vowed at the time not to abide by the so-called "full scope safeguards" spelled out in the International Atomic Energy Act.
The move was apparently made over the objections of Clinton's National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, who cited repeated exports by China of "dual use" technologies to Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. The CIA also weighed in against the deal, pointing out in a report to the president, "China was the single most important supplier of equipment and technology for weapons of mass destruction" worldwide. In a press conference on the deal, Mike McCurry said these nuclear reactors will be "a lot better for the planet than a bunch of dirty coal-fired plants" and will be "a great opportunity for American vendors" - that is, Westinghouse.
A day later, Clinton signed an agreement to begin selling nuclear technology to Brazil and Argentina for the first time since 1978, when Jimmy Carter canceled a previous deal after repeated violations of safety guidelines and nonproliferation agreements.
In a letter to Congress, Clinton vouched for the South American countries, saying they had made "a definitive break with earlier ambivalent nuclear policies." Deputy National Security Adviser Jim Steinberg justified the nuclear pact with Brazil and Argentina as "a partnership in developing clean and reliable energy supplies for the future." Steinberg noted that both countries had opposed binding limits on greenhouse emissions and that new nuclear plants would be one way "to take advantage of the fact that today we have technologies available for energy use which were not available at the time that the United States and other developed countries were going through their periods of development."
The atom lobby during the 1990s had a stranglehold on the Clinton administration and now they seem to have the same suffocating grip around the neck of Barack Obama.
In 2006 Obama took up the cause of Illinois residents who were angry with Exelon, the nation's largest nuclear power plant operator, for not having disclosed a leak at one of their nuclear plants in the state. Obama responded by quickly introducing a bill that would require nuclear facilities to immediately notify state and federal agencies of all leaks, large or small.
At first it seemed Obama was intent on making a decent change in the reporting protocol, even demonizing Exelon's inaction in the press. But Obama could only go so far, as Exelon executives, including Chairman John W. Rowe, who serves as a key lobbyist for the nuclear energy lobby, have long been campaign backers, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars dating back to Obama's days in the Illinois State Legislature.
Despite his initial push to advance the legislation, Obama's office eventually rewrote the bill, producing a version that was palatable to Exelon and the rest of the nuclear industry. "Senator Obama's staff was sending us copies of the bill to review, we could see it weakening with each successive draft," said Joe Cosgrove, a park district director in Will County, Illinois, where the nuclear leaks had polluted local ground water. "The teeth were just taken out of it."
Inevitably, the bill died a slow death in the Senate. And like an experienced political operative, Obama came out of the battle as a martyr for both sides of the cause. His constituents back in Illinois thought he fought a good fight, while industry insiders knew the Obama machine was worth investing in.
Obama's campaign wallet during the 2008 election, while rich with millions from small online donations, was also bulging in contributions given by employees of Exelon, his firth largest bloc of campaign contributors. Two of Obama's largest campaign fundraisers include Frank M. Clark and John W. Rogers Jr., both top Exelon officials. Even Obama's chief strategist in 2008, David Axelrod, has done consulting work for the company.
During a Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing in 2005, Obama, who served on the committee, asserted that since Congress was debating the negative impact of CO2 emissions "on the global ecosystem, it is reasonable - and realistic - for nuclear power to remain on the table for consideration." Shortly thereafter, "Nuclear Notes," the industry's leading trade publication, praised the senator. "Back during his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2004, [Obama] said that he rejected both liberal and conservative labels in favor of 'common sense solutions'. And when it comes to nuclear energy, it seems like the Senator is keeping an open mind."
Last month, Obama's Department of Energy committed a total of $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for the construction and operation of two new nuclear reactors at a plant in Georgia. It was the administration's first move to throw taxpayers' dollars at new nuclear power operations.
"When the new nuclear reactors come on line, they will provide reliable, base-load electricity capable of serving about 550,000 residences or 1.4 million people," the Energy Department said in a press release.
Carol Browner, director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change Policy said, "[reactors are] just the first of what we hope will be many new nuclear projects."
Sadly for the credibility of the atom lobby, some of their more eye-grabbing numbers don't check out. For example, as noted in a report by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry claims that the world's 447 nuclear plants reduce CO2 emissions by 30 percent. But existing nuclear plants save only about 5 percent of total CO2 emissions, hardly a bargain given the costs and risks associated with nuclear power. As you go up the nuclear fuel chain, you have carbon dioxide emissions at every single step - from uranium mining, milling, enrichment, fuel fabrication, reactor construction to the transportation of the radioactive waste.
Moreover, the nuclear lobby likes to compare its record to polluting coal-fired plants, rather than renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal. Even when compared to coal, atomic power fails the test if investments are made to increase the efficient use of the existing energy supply instead. One recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that "even under the most optimistic cost projections for future nuclear electricity, efficiency is found to be 2.5 to 10 times more cost effective for CO2-abatement. Thus, to the extent that investments in nuclear power divert funds away from efficiency, the pursuit of a nuclear response to global warming would effectively exacerbate the problem."
Clearly, Obama recognizes the inherent dangers of nuclear technology and knows of the disastrous failures that plagued Chernobyl, Mayak and Three Mile Island. Yet, despite his attempts to alert the public of future toxic nuclear leaks, Obama still considers nuclear power a viable alternative to coal-fired plants. The atom lobby must certainly be pleased.