Despite Obama's push, nuclear era not on the horizon

Is it OK if I talk about something besides health-care reform now?

I know we're all fixated on the fate of President Obama's signature mission, but surely we can agree that his newly announced bid to build more nuclear power plants is worth a thousand words. The politics alone are fascinating.

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 in '79. But Obama's 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 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 by painting nuclear-industry leaders as reckless plutocrats. Today, most grassroots Democrats believe our first priority should be combating global warming by cutting carbon dioxide emissions, and it just so happens that nuclear plants don't emit that greenhouse gas.

Nuclear reactors — all built before the early '70s — provide roughly 20 percent of America's power and account for about 70 percent of emission-free energy, which helps explain why the likes of Democratic Sens. John Kerry and Barbara Boxer have been talking up nukes.


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 Republicans. He has crafted his pro-nukes stance partly as an olive branch to the other party. Republicans have long called for more nuclear plants; there are currently 104 plants in operation, and the GOP's energy plan envisions 100 more over 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 plants in Georgia.

No doubt Obama welcomed that applause. He hopes GOP gratitude for his nuclear stance will translate into some Republican Senate votes for long-stalled clean-energy and climate legislation that would cut carbon dioxide emissions.

But that won't happen. Republicans wouldn't help the president fight climate change if he promised a statue of Ronald Reagan in the Rose Garden and right-wing Texas textbooks in every classroom.

Moreover, the Republican camp is split on Obama's nukes push. Various anti-tax groups — such as the National Taxpayers Union and Taxpayers for Common Sense — oppose federal loan guarantees as a matter of principle, fearing taxpayers will be stuck with any cost overruns. (Nukes have always been plagued by overruns well 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 plant is greater than 50 percent.)

Yet many pro-business Republicans say they think that Obama's proposed loan guarantees — $8 billion for the Georgia plants, an additional $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 as the French government does. (On the issue of nukes, these Republicans are perfectly happy to embrace "socialism" and suspend their pejorative attitude toward 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 time as a state senator in Illinois, which has 11 reactors supplying more than half the state's electricity. Obama also touted nukes on the '08 campaign trail.

Speaking of his energy plan at one point during the campaign, 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 issues that needed to be addressed first, 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 Sen. Randolph Brock III, "If the (plant's) 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."

And there is still no solution to the radioactive-waste storage problem. We've been talking about that since the days when disco ruled the charts. Current plants produce 2,200 tons of waste a year, all of which has to be stored on-site. Do the math: That's more than 60,000 tons over the last 30 years. Some California plants are storing their waste next to seismic faults.

Not only has Obama signaled a green light for nukes before addressing this problem; he has exacerbated it. 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 winnable for Democratic presidential candidates — such as Obama in 2008 — and the surest route to defeat there is opening Yucca Mountain. Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is trying to keep his Nevada seat this year, and he'd sing at Caesars Palace before he'd dare tick off not-in-my-back-yard voters.

So don't assume that a new nuclear era is at hand; the politics remain daunting. Barring a small miracle, the nuclear option remains unacceptably risky and expensive. As the physicist Amory Lovins has quipped, using nuclear reactors to boil our water is like using a chainsaw to cut butter.

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