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The New Fierce Battle Over Nuclear Power

Radioactive Bailout in Advance

by HARVEY WASSERMAN

After fifty years of what Forbes Magazine long ago called "the largest managerial disaster in business history," the nuke power industry is demanding untold billions in a federal "Bailout-in-Advance." Congress will decide on these proposed loan guarantees for new nukes in its September conferences over the new Energy Bill.

Both sides are gearing up for the new war over the irradiation of our energy future.

As usual, it’s vital to "follow the money."

The industry once promised that atomic energy would be "too cheap to meter." But after a half-century of proven failure, Wall Street won’t invest in new nukes without federal support.

So buried in the Senate version of the new Energy Bill is a single sentence authorizing the Department of Energy to underwrite virtually unlimited loans for still more nukes. The sentence was slipped into the bill by industry backers without open debate.

Overall this staggeringly complex bill contains a hodge-podge of benefits for renewable energy and efficiency, along with a pile of contradictions and steps backward. The House version, for example, lacks strict fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. It also drew a veto threat from George W. Bush, who wants the restoration of huge tax breaks for his friends in the fossil fuel business.

But the single sentence that could ultimately have the biggest impact on human survival is the one that offers the prospect of an essentially unlimited amount of taxpayer money to guarantee investments in new atomic reactors.

The funding would come through the Department of Energy, which Congress has authorized to guarantee "new" technological advances that are considered "green." Congress says that includes new reactors.

The Senate version of the bill would allow the DOE to sign off on loan guarantees for up to 80% of the cost of each new nuke it wants, with no yearly review from Congress. The industry has targeted $25 billion for next year alone, followed by another $25 billion in 2009, and admits to wanting at least 28 new reactors as soon as possible. The industry says the plants will cost $4-6 billion each, but history indicates the ultimate price tags will be far higher.

This does not include the federal insurance, under the Price-Anderson Act, that since 1957 has shielded nuke owners from liability in case of a major catastrophe.

Though it says they are "inherently safe," the industry demands the same insurance for its new reactors. The policy would leave countless citizens uncompensated for the destruction of their health and property after a radioactive disaster.

Atomic power is also a major source of global warming. Reactors pump huge quantities of waste heat directly into the air and water. The mining, milling and enrichment of nuclear fuel also result in substantial CO2 emissions, as do the construction and decommissioning of the plants.

As for the long-term management of radioactive waste, the solution promised fifty years ago is nowhere in sight. Regulatory officials say the proposed Yucca Mountain waste repository, under construction at a cost so far of some $10 billion, cannot open until 2020, if ever. The projected cost if Yucca does open is now about $60 billion, but it’s likely to climb even higher.

In 2000-2001, as much as $100 billion in bad "stranded cost" nuke investments were foisted on the public by a technology that can no longer compete with wind, solar, increased efficiency or a wide array of truly green energy sources that offer real answers to the global warming crisis.

None of this bothers the reactor pushers and their well-funded supporters on Capitol Hill. Citizen groups such as Greenpeace, the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, Public Citizen, Beyond Nuclear, PIRG, Musicians United for Safe Energy, Nukewatch, Nuclear Energy Information Service, the Alliance for Nuclear Responsibility, and green industry supporters have banded together to wage an uphill battle aimed at striking that critical sentence from the Senate bill.

Come September, much of the public attention may be on the pro-green features of the bill, which requires more energy efficiency in buildings, appliances and the power grid, along with a demand that 15% of the nation’s electricity come from solar, wind and other renewables by 2020. The House passed its version—which also calls for a carbon neutral federal government—by a vote of 241 to 172 (the fossil fuel tax breaks demanded by Bush were rejected, 221 to 189).

But the real long-term impact on our energy future will turn on the tens of billions in taxpayer guarantees that may or may not pour into reactor construction that no private investors would otherwise fund.

As Forbes put it in 1985, atomic energy has been "a defeat for the U.S. consumer and for the competitiveness of U.S. industry, for the utilities that undertook the program and for the private enterprise system that made it possible."

The losses, said Forbes, exceeded the cost of the space program and the Vietnam War combined and left the US with "a power source that is not only high in cost and unreliable, but perhaps not even safe."

To stop this tragedy from being repeated, the safe energy movement will desperately try to stop yet another "bail-out in advance" for the world’s most dangerous and expensive failed technology.

They need your help—in the short term for the Congressional conference on the Energy Bill, in the long term for turning back this latest nuclear assault on our energy future.

Our survival depends on their green-powered success.

HARVEY WASSERMAN is the author of SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH, A.D. 2030. He is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, a co-founder of MUSE, and senior
editor of www.freepress.org.