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Radioactive Handouts: the Nuclear Subsidies Buried Inside Obama’s “Clean” Energy Budget

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You don’t have to be a math wizard to understand the Obama administration’s just announced $4.15 trillion budget proposal for the 2017 fiscal year, but it helps.

It also helps if you like gerunds, since pretty much every header in the administration’s Budget document is about “building,” “investing,” “reflecting,” “partnering” etc.

But the most essential talent is being able to decipher the rather vague and allusory subtexts contained in the narrative.  This is the key to figuring out what is actually being funded.  And, as they say in New York, “good luck with that one, pal.”

Cut to page 19 of the Office of Management and Budget’s Fiscal Year 2017 Budget document.  Here we find “clean energy,” a phrase no longer to be trusted at face value, having been purloined into meaning at times something quite the reverse.  For example, nuclear energy tends to hide beneath the “clean energy” mantel, muddling the message and undermining cause for optimism.

While it may be true that the nuclear power fuel chain does not produce the kind of dirt that can be swept under rugs, the nuclear industry has metaphorically done exactly that by presenting itself as a “clean” energy technology.  There is nothing particularly clean about an industry that contaminates the air, land and waterways with heavy metals and with radioactive isotopes that, among other things, give kids living nearby leukemia.

But let’s gerund away anyway and see what lurks beneath the section entitled, “Doubling the Investment in Clean Energy R&D.”  Here we learn that the U.S. Government indeed intends to double its current $6.4 billion investment in clean energy for 2016 to arrive at $12.8 billion by 2021.  A hefty chunk — $7.7 billion — will be given as discretionary funding to the Department of Energy in 2017 alone for “clean energy R&D.”

But for what, exactly?  “About 76 percent of the funding is directed to DOE for critical clean energy development activities, including over $2 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies,” the Budget document reads.  Just two billion dollars for energy efficiency and renewable energy combined?   That leaves $5.7 billion for something else that the DOE considers “clean energy.”  One of those claimants undoubtedly is nuclear power.

More clues to the likely destination of this unassigned mystery money can be found in a later section where the Budget document reveals that the $7.7 billion is actually earmarked as funding for the “first step toward the Mission Innovation doubling goal.”

The White House describes Mission Innovation, which was announced during the Paris climate talks last December, as an “all-in, all-sector approach,” which is basically the same old “all of the above” foolish compromise on energy policy that the Obama administration has held to from the beginning.

Since this strategy is roundly contradicted by what is actually happening across the country — wind and solar energy installation outpacing natural gas while coal fades and nuclear plants close — there is only one logical explanation for this “fair and balanced” energy policy nonsense: corporate captivity.

To oversimplify: Barack Obama, the Senator from Illinois, emerged from Rahm Emanuel’s clamshell, and Emanuel invented Exelon and Exelon is today the country’s leading nuclear behemoth.  Exelon’s chief lobbyist in the early days was David Axelrod.  Team Obama was born in the country’s nuclear cradle, then.  Nevertheless, it’s high time that a U.S. president as committed to renewables as Obama, ceased tossing favors — aka our money— to his corporate nuclear cronies.

And so it goes on. Sitting on that Paris stage last December for the Mission Innovation announcement was Bill Gates, whose only energy agenda is tinkering around with nuclear unicorns, an exercise so devoid of relevance to the urgent battle to address climate change that every dime spent there is a dime wasted.  OK they are his dimes, trillions of them.  But think what he could really do for climate change if he spent his riches wisely.

Let’s follow the trail of budget breadcrumbs a little further.  The OMB goes on to say: “Mission Innovation is complemented by the Breakthrough Energy Coalition, a separate, private sector-led effort whose purpose is to mobilize substantial levels of private capital to support the most cutting-edge clean energy technologies emerging from the R&D pipeline.”

The Breakthrough Energy Coalition is Bill Gates again, and loaded to the hilt with his fellow billionaires all salivating at the prospect of old nuclear pots to mend.  But given the Breakthrough Coalition is entirely “separate” and “private,” what is it doing even being mentioned in a government budget rollout?

What comes out of the Clean Energy R&D pipeline rather depends on what goes into it.   It would be good if that turned out to be a true renewable energy revolution and not more deadly radioactive effluent from an obsolete fleet of new nuclear power plants.

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Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She also serves as director of media and development. 

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