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Will Obama's Energy Department Continue to Promote Radioactive Energy?

When Chu Went Nuclear


Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced his resignation last week after four years of pushing nuclear power, although he promoted energy efficiency and safe, renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind, too.

But nuclear power remained a major focus of Dr. Chu, a physicist out of the U.S. national nuclear laboratory system.  In his letter to Department of Energy employees announcing his departure, Chu listed as among “tangible signs of success” during his tenure the go-ahead for the building of “the first nuclear power plants in the last three decades” in the U.S.

His position on energy as energy secretary was similar to the stand he took in his previous role as director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. There he also promoted energy efficiency and renewables, but nuclear power was a main thrust of his energy stance.

“Nuclear has to be a necessary part of the portfolio,” declared Chu, as laboratory director, at an “economic summit” in California in 2008 sponsored by Stanford University.  He said in his speech: “The fear of radiation shouldn’t even enter into this. Coal is very, very bad.”

As energy secretary, speaking at the Vogtle nuclear plant site in Georgia last year, where two of the new plants he cited in his letter are supposed to be built, he said:  “The resurgence of America’s nuclear industry starts here in Georgia, where you just got approval for the first time in three decades to build new reactors. The Obama administration is committed to doing our part to help jumpstart America’s nuclear industry. The Energy Department is supporting this project with more than $8 billion in conditional loan guarantees. And we have partnered with industry to support the certification and licensing of the new Westinghouse AP1000 reactor design.”

Describing nuclear power as a “clean” energy technology, Chu said, “What you are doing here at Vogtle will help us compete in the global clean energy race and provide domestic, clean power to U.S. homes.”

And, the year before, in a presentation before the International Atomic Energy Agency, Chu asserted: “Nuclear power will continue to be an important part of our energy mix, both in the United States and around the world.”  The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant disaster had occurred just six months before, and he also said: “The tragic events at Fukushima make clear that nuclear energy…also brings significant challenges to our collective safety and security.”

Some news pieces in recent days about Chu’s resignation have mentioned the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste project and how—as the Las Vegas Review Journal accurately put it—Chu “carried out the Obama administration’s plan to shut down” the project.

For Chu as a nuclear laboratory director was a supporter of the plan to deposit massive amounts of nuclear waste at the site, as noted by CNN in a 2011 piece.  As energy secretary, Chu switched to the stance of President Obama (and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada). The mountain 100 miles from Las Vegas is riddled with earthquake faults.

In his letter to DOE employees, Chu challenged—as he pointed out Obama did in his recent inaugural address—those who deny climate change. “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science…The overwhelming scientific consensus is that human activity has had a significant and likely dominant role in climate change,” Chu wrote.

He went on to promote “clean” energy as an antidote.

The key problem here, however, is that by including nuclear power in the “clean” energy category, Chu refuses to accept that the nuclear “fuel cycle” involved in nuclear power—mining, milling, fuel fabrication, enrichment and so on—is a significant contributor to greenhouse gasses and climate change.

And he refuses to accept that true “clean” energy—safe renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind—can provide all the energy we need and not contribute to climate change at all. “A Plan to Power 100 Percent of the Planet with Renewables” was a 2009 cover story in Scientific American, about one of the major studies done in recent years coming to the same conclusion.

But Chu titled his 2010 essay, on his personal Facebook page—“Why We Need More Nuclear Power.” He insisted that “we need nuclear power as part of a comprehensive solution.” He asked for comments. One reader, Matthew Cloner, commented on March 12, 2011: “I’m afraid that I cannot agree with you in your position, Dr. Chu. As the recent disaster in Japan unfolds before our eyes, it is very obvious that nuclear power is both extremely dangerous and environmentally unsound as an energy source.”

But it’s hard for Chu and many other scientists out of the national nuclear laboratory system to acknowledge the deadliness of the technology which is the basis for most of their work.

These laboratories connect with the early laboratories set up during the World War II Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bombs. Chu’s former laboratory, Lawrence Berkeley, was then called the Radiation Laboratory. It describes itself as the “oldest” of the national laboratories.  It and the other national nuclear laboratories were long run by the Atomic Energy Commission, which the Manhattan Project was turned into after the war. Then, because the AEC was such a zealous advocate of nuclear power, while supposedly a regulator of the technology, the AEC was eliminated by Congress in 1974 and a Nuclear Regulatory Commission and then a Department of Energy were created.

The DOE was given the mission of promoting nuclear power—a mission that Chu pursued as energy secretary. It also replaced the AEC in running the national nuclear laboratories.

Chu’s position—“The fear of radiation shouldn’t even enter into this. Coal is very, very bad”—doesn’t acknowledge how radiation-causing nuclear technology as well as coal are both unnecessary, that “100 Percent of the Planet” can he powered by safe, really clean, renewable energy sources.

Who will replace Chu when he leaves the DOE helm at month’s end?  Obama’s appointee could be more of the same.

Among the names seen as a possibility is that of Carol Browner. Working out of the White House, she was Obama’s energy “czar” between 2009 and 2011, and administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency in the Clinton administration.  She is a nuclear power booster. Browner stressed at a New Millennium Nuclear Energy Summit in Washington in 2010 that the U.S. was “once at the forefront” of the nuclear industry. “We need to recapture that dominant position, and there’s every reason to think we can,” she declared.

By selecting Browner or another nuclear proponent, Obama would be sending the U.S. in the wrong energy direction—a direction not good for public health nor safely powering society and not good, either, to deal with climate change.

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.