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How Global Warming And Al Gore May Rescue the Nuclear Power Industry

Nuclear Saviors:

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Striding into Kyoto claiming to be a mighty warrior in the battle againstglobal warming was a familiar beast, the nuclear power industry. Some ofthe industry’s biggest lobbyists, men such as James Curtis (a former deputysecretary of energy during the Reagan years), prowled the streets and sushibars of this ancient city (itself running on juice from an aging nuke) anglingfor some positive words in the treaty for their troubled enterprise. Thebig reactor makers, GE, CBS, and Combustion Engineering, were there too,dissing the oil and coal lobby, downplaying the long-term viability of naturalgas and generally treating the eco-summit as if it were an internationaltrade show.

CounterPunch got its hands on a copy of the nuclear industry’s Kyotobriefing book prepared by the Nuclear Energy Institute, a $100 million ayear trade organization. The book was written by researchers at Bechtel,the giant construction firm that has built dozens of nuclear plants acrossthe globe. It touts the latest “advanced light water nuclear reactor”as the most ecologically benign engineering feat since the solar panel andargues that only realistic way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990levels in the next ten years is to bring on-line at least an additional50 reactors. “Nuclear energy has been the largest single contributorto reduced air pollution in the world over the past 20 years,” theNEI’s Kyoto global warming book boasts. “And it promises to play aneven greater role in the future, especially in developing countries, likeIndia and China, which need to increase their electricity supplies to accommodatetheir expanding populations and economies.”

The NEI book tactfully avoids the unsavory subject of radioactive waste,but does go to some lengths to argue on behalf of China’s vigilance in thebattle against nuclear proliferation. China, the NEI suggests, would neversecretly export nuclear technology because it “has expressed strongconcern over the possibility of nuclear-armed neighbors.” More significantly,the NEI warns that China “plans to standardize its nuclear generatingtechnology, selecting one or two standardized reactor designs for futureconstruction. If U.S. reactor manufacturers are barred from competing, Chinawill not have the option of selecting the safest technology in the world,and the market will be permanently closed to U.S. suppliers.”

With China and other Asian countries planning to build more than 70 nuclearplants in the next 25 years, the financial stakes are staggering. Americancompanies, such as GE, CBS Corp. (formerly Westinghouse) and Bechtel, desperatelycrave those multi-billion dollar contracts. “In theory these couldall be US plants,” boasted Ian Butterfield, CBS’s vice-president forinternational affairs. With a little help from the US government.

The NEI’s Kyoto packet includes a long list of endorsements ranging fromTom Clancy and the Pope to Hazel O’Leary and green guru James Lovelock,inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis, who is quoted as saying, “Nuclearpower has an important contribution to make.” Also proudly displayedfor the Kyoto conferees is a statement by Al Gore’s good friend, Rep. BobClement, Democrat from Tennessee, who says, “With the implementationof the Clean Air Act and the administration’s increased concern about globalclimate change and acid rain, renewed attention has been focused on nuclearenergy’s significant environmental benefits. Environmental awareness coupledwith increased basic needs for electricity are becoming critical in certainregions of the country. Nuclear energy, along with a strong conservationprogram and energy efficiency programs, is a smart choice.”

Sadly, some of the more eye-grabbing numbers in the NEI’s report simplydon’t check out. For example, the nuclear industry claims that the world’s447 nuclear plants reduce CO2 emissions by 30 percent. But the true villainbehind global warming is carbon. Existing nuclear plants save only about5 percent of total carbon emissions, hardly much of a bargain given thecosts and risks associated with nuclear power. Moreover, the nuclear lobbylikes to compare its record to coal-fired plants, rather renewables suchas solar, wind, and geothermal. Even when compared to coal, nuclear powerfails the test if investments are made to increase the efficient use ofthe existing energy supply. One recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institutefound that “even under the most optimistic cost projections for futurenuclear electricity, efficiency is found to be 2.5 to 10 times more costeffective for CO2-abatement. Thus, to the extent that investments in nuclearpower divert funds away from efficiency, the pursuit of a nuclear responseto global warming would effectively exacerbate the problem.”

The activities of the Nuclear Energy Institute do not meet with universalapprobation in the nuclear industry. The dues are onerous-the TennesseeValley Authority is reputed to fork up no less than $10 million a year-whilethe results are in some cases at least, risible. Some years ago, for example,the watchdogs of the industry noted that The Simpsons, the enormously popularcartoon series, was depicting nuclear power in an unfavorable light. BartSimpson’s father Homer works at a local nuclear plant where the reactorsare held together with chewing gum and a river fed by waste water from theplant is rife with three-eyed trout and other mutations. The NEI spranginto action, sponsoring intensive briefings and tours of reassuringly shinynuclear facilities for the Simpson’s creative team-all without any discernibleeffect on Homer Simpson, who continues to absent-mindedly drop radioactivefuel rods into his pocket at work and then toss them out of the car on theway home.

In many ways, the NEI’s global warming initiative is largely a replayof their attempt to profit off of acid rain legislation in the late 1980s,a campaign which dreadfully failed to attract much sympathy from legislatorsand only seemed to anger the public. This time around the NEI’s is gettinga somewhat warmer reception in the White House and on the Hill. Indeed,in the last two months the nuclear industry has scored series of amazingtriumphs not seen since the waning days of the Reagan administration.

One reason its renewed success may be that the NEI has been putting itsmoney into more profitable investments than its campaign to greenwash TheSimpsons, namely into the coffers of the DNC and RNC. Since 1995 the NEIand its members have doled out $13 million in political contributions tokey senate and house members, including John Dingell ($122,700) Tom Delay($106.500), Dick Gephardt ($104,000) Thomas Bliley ($100,000), and DavidBonior ($80,075).

Another reason is that the nuclear lobby has enjoyed a long and profitablerelationship with both Clinton and Gore. Al Gore, who wrote of the potentialgreen virtues of nuclear power in his book Earth in the Balance, earnedhis stripes as a congressman protecting the interests of two of the nuclearindustry’s more problematic enterprises, the TVA and the Oak Ridge Labs.And, of course, Bill Clinton backed Entergy’s outrageous plan to make Arkansasratepayers pay for cost overruns on the company’s Grand Gulf reactor whichprovided power to electricity consumers in Louisiana.

First came the deal announced during Jiang Zemin’s visit to begin sellingnuclear reactors to China, even though Zemin brazenly vowed not to abideby the so-called “full scope safeguards” spelled out in the InternationalAtomic Energy Act. The move was apparently made over the objections of NationalSecurity Advisor Sandy Berger, who cited repeated exports by China of “dualuse” technologies to Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. The CIA also weighedin against the deal, pointing out in a report to the President that “Chinawas the single most import supplier of equipment and technology for weaponsof mass destruction” worldwide. In a press conference on the deal,Mike McCurry said these nuclear reactors will be “a lot better forthe planet than a bunch of dirty coal-fired plants” and will be “agreat opportunity for American vendors”-that is, Westinghouse.

A day later Clinton signed an agreement to begin selling nuclear technologyto Brazil and Argentina for the first time since 1978, when Jimmy Cartercanceled a previous deal after repeated violations of safety guidelinesand nonproliferation agreements. In a letter to congress, Clinton vouchedfor the South American countries, saying they had made “a definitivebreak with earlier ambivalent nuclear policies.” Deputy National SecurityAdvisor Jim Steinberg justified the nuclear pact with Brazil and Argentinaas “a partnership in developing clean and reliable energy suppliesfor the future.” Steinberg noted that both countries had opposed bindinglimits on greenhouse emissions and that new nuclear plants would be oneway “to take advantage of the fact that today we have technologiesavailable for energy use which were not available at the time that the UnitedStates and other developed countries were going through their periods ofdevelopment.”

During the run up to Kyoto, the nuclear industry secured another startlingwindfall, this time a promise of nearly $400 million in research and developmentsubsidies. The key man here is one of Al Gore’s intellectual Svengalis,John P. Holdren. While a professor at Berkeley, Holdren portrayed himselfas a mighty foe of nuclear weapons. His popularity among Berkeley studentssoared after he gave ecological backing to Carl Sagan’s scary scenariosabout nuclear winter. Now Holdren is ensconced at Harvard’s Kennedy Schoolof Government, where he presides as the John and Teresa Heinz professorof environmental policy. It will be recalled that Teresa Heinz is the $2billion widow of the late Sen. John Heinz, intimate friend of Clinton’sformer global warming negotiator Tim Wirth, current wife of Sen. John Kerry,head of a $200 million foundation which gives money for “practicalsolutions to global environmental problems” and long-time board memberof the Environmental Defense Fund.

Holdren was tapped by Gore and Clinton’s science advisor Jack Gibbonsto head a task force on energy and climate policy as part of the PresidentialCommission on Science and Technology. Holdren’s panel was well stocked withallies of the nuclear lobby, headlined by Bechtel’s Lawrence Papay and WilliamFulkerson, former associate director of the Oak Ridge National Lab and nowa senior fellow at the Gore-endowed Joint Institute for Energy and Environmentat the University of Tennessee. Masquerading as an academic was CharlesVest, president of MIT and a driving force behind the American Nuclear Society’sEagle Alliance.

Another prominent spot went to the person who must hold the all-timerecord for appointments to presidential commissions involving environmentalmatters, Virginia Weldon, chief flack for Monsanto. Weldon rarely missesan opportunity to praise irradiation as a cure for all of the dangers lurkingin the US food supply.

Environmentalists were given two slots. One went to Daniel Lashof, ascientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. The other was reservedfor one of Lashof’s biggest funders, Hal Harvey, executive director of theEnergy Foundation. Last year both Lashof and Harvey supported the bail outof the California nuclear industry.

With this roster of advisers, it’s not surprising that Holdren’s reportlargely parrots the line advanced by the Nuclear Energy Institute, callingfor increased research and development subsidies for fusion and fission,export of US nuclear technology and the creation of a new Nuclear EnergyResearch Initiative to underwrite “new reactor designs with higher-efficiency,lower-cost and improved safety to compete in the global market.”

Holdren’s panel recommends that federal spending for research and developmenton commercial nuclear reactors be tripled from $40 million to $120 million,a bigger percentage increase than is recommended for either renewablesor energy efficiency. The money is essentially a direct subsidy to helpnuclear companies and utilities deal with the industries two biggest problems: radioactive waste disposal and aging reactors. “The interest is notso much in building new nukes in the US, but in finding a way to keep theold reactors up and running so that they can be relicensed,” says AukePiersma of the Critical Mass Energy Project. “It’s a shame that peoplelike Holdren use global warming as way to justify this handout.”

“Nuclear energy currently generates about 17 percent of the world’selectricity,” Holdren writes. “If this electricity were generatedinstead by coal, world carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuel consumptionwould be almost 10 percent larger than they currently are. Given the desirabilityof stabilizing and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is important toestablish fission energy as a widely viable and expandable option. Worldleadership in nuclear energy technologies and the underlying science isalso vital to the United States from the perspective of national security,international influence and global stability.”

Incredibly, Holdren and his gang also recommend spending $280 millionon fusion research, a proven waste of money in terms of energy production.Under even the most optimistic scenarios, fusion reactors will be able togenerate electricity for about 50 cents per kilowatt hour, ten times morethan the cost of natural gas turbines. But a boost in fusion research cango a long way toward solving a problem that has vexed the nuclear industryand the defense lobby: How to keep testing nuclear weapons technology underthe restrictions of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (one of the few brightspots on the Clinton record.) The answer: funnel fusion energy researchmoney to places like the Lawrence Livermore Labs and its mammoth NationalIgnition Facility.

The Department of Energy is not sitting by idly either. Every on thelookout for any opportunity to advance the cause of nuclear power is Dr.Terry Lash, the Energy Department’s director of nuclear operations. AlertNature and Politics readers will recall Lash as the man who has almost single-handedlykept Hanford’s Fast Flux Breeder Reactor humming along on “hot standby”until it can once again be fired up to make tritium for H-bombs and, insome distant future, be put to the more humanitarian use of making medicalisotopes. To fund the Fast Flux project, Lash has diverted $40 million ayear from the strapped cleanup budget for Hanford, which the DOE itselfcalls the most toxic site in North America.

Lash has also promoted nuclear power’s global mission, fervently lobbyinginside the DOE for nuclear trade pacts with China, India, Argentina andBrazil. “Lash is a shrewd and incredibly calculating operator,”a senior DOE staffer tells Nature and Politics. “He’ll employ any argumentfor the cause of nuclear power. He pressed for sales of reactors to Braziland China, saying that it was vital to combat the greenhouse effect.”

Lash also played a key role in padded the new Clinton clean air budgetproposal with a handsome handout to the nuclear industry. Sources say Lashoriginally pushed for a $50 million “clean air” subsidy to utilitiesladen with nuclear plants, but the figure has been scaled back to $30 millionby budget hawks at the Office of Management and Budget.

Longtime anti-nuke activists remember Lash from his days as a seniorscientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council in the 1970s, when thegroup touted itself as a fierce foe of nuclear power and raised millionsoff the Three Mile Island disaster. During his tenure there, Lash co-wrotea book for NRDC on nuclear waste. Lash’s co-author was none other than JohnBryson, a co-founder of the group. Today Bryson is CEO of Edison International(formerly Southern California Edison), which operates the San Onofre nuclearplant. Bryson is fresh off an amazing victory, where he convinced the Californialegislature to stick ratepayers and taxpayers with $26 billion in “strandedcosts” to make his company’s nuke’s “more competitive in the deregulatedelectricity market.”

One last goal remained for the nuclear lobby: split the environmentalcommunity on nuclear power. There was every reason for optimism. Nuclearenergy had divided the greens in the past, most spectacularly in 1969 whenDavid Brower publicly attacked fellow Sierra Club leaders who helped PacificGas & Electric pick the Nippomo Dunes as the site for the company’sDiablo Canyon reactor. This principled stance led to Brower’s ouster asthe Club’s executive director. In 1990 scientists from the EDF and NRDCjoined a onto a statement saying that nuclear power had an essential roleto play in curbing air pollution.

As Al Gore packed his day pack for his whirlwind trip to Kyoto, a full-pagead appeared in the Wall Street Journal that must have warmed the heartsof the men at the NEI. Under the headline, “A Business Climate Challenge:America Needs to Get Serious About Climate Change,” 60 corporate executives,led by Nike, Mitsubishi, CalEnergy, Pacific Energy, Mitchell Energy, andTed Turner endorsed the need for a strong climate change treaty. The adwas also signed by Enron and Bechtel, two companies with interests in nuclearpower. The companies had been rounded up by three environmental groups,World Wildlife Fund, Ozone Action and NRDC. “The idea for this reallycame from the Clinton administration,” Brandon MacGillis tells Natureand Politics. “They said if we wanted to see a good treaty we neededto show that property owners and Republican business leaders cared aboutglobal warming.”

Using a grant from the Ford Foundation, money from Ozone Action and contributionsfrom Nike and Mitchell Energy, the groups began asking corporate leadersto sign on the ad. “We asked everyone we could think of,” MacGillissays. MacGillis admits that they environmental reputation of the companieswasn’t a factor. “Sure some wanted onto the ad purely for economicor pr reasons,” MacGillis says. “But other companies really thinkthey can make a difference. Nike, for example, believes that by improvingair quality in its factories it can increase productivity.” (This isa staggering admission. Up till now, Nike has rigorously claimed it hasno control over the operations of its Asian factories.)

As all of this was going on, a coalition of environmental groups, spearheadedby Critical Mass Energy Project, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, drafteda letter to Clinton and Gore on the subject of nuclear power. The letterharshly denounced the Holdren report, DOE’s budget for nuclear power andall “proposals to use nuclear power to reduce greenhouse emissions.”More than forty groups signed the December 4 letter. One major group refused: NRDC. CP