The audacity of nukes



Barack Obama's drill-baby-drill energy pitch has driven much of the buzz over the past 24 hours - with scant attention paid to his previous Republican-style energy pitch: the one that seeks to revive the domestic nuclear power industry. In both cases, the president clearly hopes to woo a few Republican lawmakers, at least enough to free up his climate change legislation from the black hole that is the U.S. Senate. My most recent print column dealt with the nuclear piece of the strategy. Here it is, with a few revisions and updates:

Not that long ago, any Democratic president daring to fly a More Nukes banner would have been fried by his own base; Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, and the Boss would have plugged in for a protest concert, just as they did for the No Nukes show back in ’79. But Obama’s recently-announced request for $54 billion in federal loan guarantees, and his State of the Union pitch for "a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants," have barely moved the liberal ire meter.

Some environmentalists are unhappy – for good reason – but this isn’t like the old days, when the accident at Three Mile Island sowed public hysteria, and a Jane Fonda film, The China Syndrome, did boffo box office business by painting nuclear industry leaders as reckless plutocrats. (I recall the long lines for the '79 movie at a shopping mall, with anti-nuclear activists leafletting the standees.) Today, by contrast, most grassroots Democrats believe that our first priority is to cut carbon dioxide emissions and thus combat global warming, and it just so happens that nuclear plants emit no greenhouse gases.

Nuclear reactors – all of which were built prior to the early ‘70s – provide roughly 20 percent of America’s power, and account for roughly 70 percent of all emission-free energy, which helps explain why Democratic senators John Kerry and Barbara Boxer have been talking up nukes. Even Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue, is now bullish on nukes. And Americans in general are thumbs up for nukes; a March Gallup poll reported that 62 percent favor nukes as a viable power option, the highest share since Gallup first began asking about them in 1994.

But there’s a hitch. Even though nuclear power is no longer a hot-button issue, Obama will still have big problems tweaking the politics to his advantage.

Take, for instance, his relationship with the Republicans. He has crafted his pro-nukes stance in part as an olive branch to the other party. Republican lawmakers have long called for more nuclear plants; in the March Gallup poll, 74 percent of Republican voters nationwide said they were pro-nuke. While there are currently only 104 plants in operation, the GOP energy plan envisions 100 new reactors on line within the next 20 years. During the State of the Union speech, Republicans in the chamber cheered when Obama announced a federal loan guarantee to build two new plants in Georgia.

No doubt he welcomed that applause. He hopes that Republican gratitude for his nuclear stance (and, now, his willingness to drill anew for oil) will translate into some Senate Republican votes for the long-stalled clean-energy and climate legislation that would cut carbon dioxide emissions. But I doubt that will happen. Republicans won’t help him fight climate change even if he promised to place a statue of Ronald Reagan in the Rose Garden and put right-wing Texas textbooks in every American classroom.

Moreover, the Republican camp is split on Obama’s nukes push. Various anti-tax groups – National Taxpayers Union, Taxpayers for Common Sense – oppose federal loan guarantees, as a matter of principle, and fear that the taxpayer will be stuck with any cost overruns. (Nukes have always been plagued by overruns, far beyond the typical $7-billion tab for a new reactor, and the Congressional Budget Office has reported that the risk of default on a new nuke is greater than 50 percent.)

Yet many pro-business Republicans think that Obama’s proposed loan guarantees - $8 billion for the Georgia plants, the other $46 billion in the next budget - are egregiously tiny, and that the feds need to step up and assume far more of the risk, just like the French government does. (On the issue of nukes, these Republicans are perfectly happy to embrace "socialism" and to suspend their pejorative references to all things French.)

I should point out that Obama is not trying to boost nukes just to woo the Republicans. He has long been a booster, dating back to his stint as a state senator in Illinois - which has 11 reactors, supplying more than half the state’s daily electricity. He also touted nukes on the ’08 campaign trail; speaking of his energy plan, Obama said that "before an expansion of nuclear power can be considered, key issues must be addressed, including security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation."

See the problem? Candidate Obama cited the issues that first needed to be addressed, while President Obama has decided to throw billions at nukes before tackling those issues.

Safety problems persist; not long after the State of the Union announcement, Vermont lawmakers voted to shut down the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant starting in 2012, citing repeated leaks of radioactive tritium. In the words of Republican state senator Randolph Brock III, "If the (owners’) board of directors and management were thoroughly infiltrated by antinuclear activists, I do not think they could have done a better job of destroying their own case." (Late last week, the plant owners claimed that their technicians had finally fixed the underground pipes that had caused the leaks.)

And there is still no solution to the radioactive waste storage problem; we’ve been talking about that issue since the days when disco ruled the music charts. The current plants annually produce 2,200 tons of waste, all of which has to be stored on site. Do the math; that’s more than 60,000 tons over the past 30 years. Some California plants store their waste adjacent to earthquake faults.

Not only has Obama signaled a green light for nukes before addressing this problem, he has actually exacerbated the problem. Yucca Mountain in Nevada has long been designated as the place where these wastes would be deep-sixed, but Obama has swept that site off the table. The reason is politics. Nevada is now in play as a winnable state for Democratic presidential candidates – Obama won it in 2008 – and the surest route to defeat is for a Democrat to open Yucca. Meanwhile, Senate leader Harry Reid is trying to keep his Nevada seat this year, and he’d sing at Caesar’s Palace before he’d dare tick off his not-in-my-backyard voters.

So don’t assume that a new nukes era is at hand; the politics, though somewhat scrambled, remain daunting. Barring a small miracle, I’ll stick with physicist Amory Lovins’ quip that nuclear power is an exceedingly costly way to boil water, "the thermodynamic equivalent of using a chainsaw to cut butter," and that neither politics nor the private sector can save the industry from a long, slow death - what he now calls "gigantism's last gasp."


If you're mourning the imminent demise of 24, and the end of Jack Bauer's reign as the only guy who can save the world eight times over without ever going to the bathroom, you might want to read my new freelance piece. An homage, of sorts.