Congress’s Nuclear Addiction

Image by Lukáš Lehotský.

The “ADVANCE Act,” a bill to promote nuclear power, was passed 88-to-2 by the U.S. Senate last week. The ADVANCE stands for “Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy.” The only senators voting against it were Edward Markey of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

It was approved in the House of Representatives in May, also by a lopsided margin: 393-13. And it now has gone to President Joe Biden,

Among the many points in the bill are the speeding up of the federal licensing process for new nuclear power plants notably those described as “advanced,” reducing licensing fees, allow ownership of nuclear facilities in the U.S. by foreign nations, and establishing in the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission an Office of International Programs “to carry out the international nuclear export and innovation activities.”

The action by Congress comes amid what Kevin Kamps of the organization Beyond Nuclear says is “the biggest push for nuclear power that I’ve experienced in 32 years of anti-nuclear power activities.”

The nuclear industry, he says, is “trying to use the climate crisis” by claiming nuclear energy is carbon-free. “It’s not true. It’s not carbon-free by any means,” he says, and “not even low carbon when you compare it to genuinely low carbon sources of electricity, renewables like wind and solar.” But the nuclear industry is involved in a “propaganda campaign” attempting to validate itself by citing climate change, he says, and many in government having “fallen for this ploy.”

Diane D’Arrigo of the group Nuclear Information and Resource Service commented: “Nuclear power makes climate worse—stealing resources from climate solutions and districting us from real solutions—and this bill is putting our already threatened democracy at even greater risk.”

“Clearly, the U.S. Congress doesn’t understand or care about the dangers of radiation that will result,” said D’Arrigo in an interview. “The nuclear Advance Act, passed by nearly the whole U.S. House and Senate, hitched a ride on a must-pass bill fire-fighting bill as wildfire season is taking off during an election year.” The act of more than 90 pages was inserted into a three-page Fire Grants and Safety measure.

“The nuclear industry,” she said, “has been investing in Congress to get massive subsidies for operating and proposed new nuclear power reactors and those huge investments paid off billions in the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure laws, possibly more for nuclear and carbon capture than renewables and efficiency. Now the 118th Congress is again attempting to kickstart nuclear by bending the already-skewed rules making it harder for impacted communities to protect themselves.”

“Possibly most dangerous,” said D’Arrigo, “is the boost to a plutonium economy with accompanying police state. The ‘advanced’ fuel encouraged in this bill is nearly bomb-grade uranium and the bill provides for exporting it to other countries as well as using it in reactors all over this country. It’s a dismal moment in environmental, economic and human history. But one we must continue to challenge.”

Applauding the Senate’s passage of the ADVANCED Act was John Starkey, director of public policy at the American Nuclear Society. “It’s monumental,” said Starkey in an article on HuffPost. His society describes itself as “the premier organization for those that embrace the nuclear sciences and technologies.” Starkey further said: “This has been a long time coming.”

The HuffPost piece by Alexander C. Kaufman on passage of the ADVANCE Act says Biden “is all but certain to sign it into law.” However, his article adds: “Yet it’s only a first step.”

“The full legislation depends on Congress increasing funding to the NRC” and “help the agency staff up for an expected influx of applications” for new nuclear power plants, it says.

The HuffPost article was headlined: “Congress Just Passed The Biggest Clean-Energy Bill Since Biden’s Climate Law. It’s all on nuclear.”

Edwin Lyman, nuclear power safety director of the Union of Concerned Scientists, declared: “Make no mistake. This is not about making the reactor licensing process more efficient, but about weakening safety and security oversight across the board, a longstanding industry goal. The change to the NRC’s mission effectively directs the agency to enforce only the bare minimum level of regulation at every facility it oversees across the United States.”

“Passage of this legislation will only increase the danger to people already living downwind of nuclear facilities from a severe accident or terrorist attack,” said Lyman, “and it will make it even more difficult for communities to prevent risky, experimental reactors from being sited in their midst.”

Lyman, co-author of the book Fukushima: The Story of a Nuclear Disaster, also spoke about it being “extremely disappointing that without any meaningful debate” Congress was “changing the NRC’s mission to not only protect public health and safety but also to protect the financial health of the industry and its investors. Just as lax regulations by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]—an agency already burdened by conflicts of interests—can lead to a catastrophic failure of an aircraft, a compromised NRC could lead to a catastrophic reactor meltdown impacting an entire region for a generation.”

Harvey Wasserman, author of the book Solartopia! Our Green-Powered Earth and co-author of Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation, said:

“The ADVANCE Act is another death rattle for history’s most expensive techno-failure.”

In contrast to nuclear power, “Solar-generated electricity is now ‘too cheap to meter’ in California,” he said. And “every day now California goes 100% renewable for hours at a time.” In Texas, he noted, wind turbines are now producing so much electricity that it’s being distributed “for free” at night.

“Of the four big U.S. reactors ordered in the 21st century, two are stillborn in South Carolina at $9 billion,” said Wasserman in an interview. And the two new Vogtle nuclear power plants built in Georgia “are a $35 billion fiasco.”

“For the first time since 1954, zero big new U.S. nukes are under construction,” said Wasserman. As for what the nuclear industry calls “small modular reactors” that it is promoting, the “small mythological reactors are already soaring in price and crashing in production schedules, light years behind renewables in time and price.”

“The attempt to revive shut-down reactors will never work,” he said.

Also, he says the electricity generated by the two Diablo Canyon nuclear plants in California, slated for closure but now scheduled to keep running, “would $8-12 billion over market” price for electricity through 2030.

“The ADVANCE act aims to bail out a boat whose bottom has fallen out,” said Wasserman. And, “Solartopia’s day has dawned.”

Indeed, the current The Economist magazine on its cover heralds “Dawn Of The Solar Age” The accompanying article in this “special issue” is headlined: “The solar age. The exponential growth of solar power will change the world.” It states: “To grasp that this is not some environmental fever dream, consider solar economics.” The magazine, considered conservative, speaks of “the resources” needed for solar power being “abundant.” Further, “As for demand, it is both huge and electric…The result is that, in contrast to earlier energy sources, solar power has routinely become cheaper and will continue to do so.”

But Senator Shelley Capito, a West Virginia Republican and a lead sponsor of the ADVANCE Act, said after the Senate vote on June 18th, that “we sent the ADVANCE Act to the president’s desk because Congress worked together to recognize the importance of nuclear energy to America’s future and got the job done.” She is the ranking member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

Its chairman, Delaware Democrat Tom Carper, said: “In a major victory for our climate and American energy security, the U.S. Senate has passed the ADVANCE Act with overwhelming bipartisan support.”

As the website “Power,” which describes itself as “at the forefront of the global power market,” summarizes the ADVANCE Act in an article titled “The ADVANCE Act—Legislation Crucial for a U.S. Nuclear Renaissance—Clears Congress. Here’s a Detailed Breakdown,” it says it is sweeping legislation that seeks to promote U.S. nuclear leadership, accelerate advanced nuclear technology development while preserving existing nuclear generation, bolster national security measures, and enhance regulatory efficiency to support new nuclear deployment.”

The act is “likely to be enacted” with signing by Biden and “is a significant endorsement of nuclear energy” says the piece by senior editor Sonal Patel.

The bill’s passage in Congress, notably, follows a suite of new measures unveiled by the White House on May 30, aimed at slashing risks associated with new nuclear reactor development and construction,” it says. “The White House highlighted recent efforts by the Department of Energy (DOE) to revive and revitalize existing nuclear plants, support advanced reactor demonstrations, and facilitate siting and financing. But it also acknowledged key risks and long-standing barriers that have hindered an expansion of the 70-year-old industry, shining a light on necessary licensing reforms, supply chain and workforce gaps, and high capital costs.”

It quotes Ted Nordhaus, founder and executive director of the archly pro-nuclear Breakthrough Institute, as saying “the NRC has tried to regulate to make risk from nuclear energy as close to zero as possible, but has failed to consider the cost to the environment, public health, energy security, or prosperity of not building and operating nuclear energy plants. This reduces rather than improves public health and safety….But with passage of the ADVANCE bill, Congress is telling the regulators that public benefits are and have always been part of their mission.”

In speaking against the ADVANCE Act on the floor of the Senate, Senator Markey, chair of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Subcommittee on Clean Air, Climate, and Nuclear Safety, said it “includes language that would require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to rewrite its mission to state that its regulation and oversight should ‘not unnecessarily limit’ civilian nuclear activity, regardless of whether it is beneficial or detrimental to public safety and national security. The NRC shouldn’t be the Nuclear Retail Commission. The Commission’s duty is to regulate, not facilitate.”

“This legislation is not wise,” said Markey.

“And while some of the bill’s supporters argue we need new nuclear technologies to combat the climate crisis, I have an arched eyebrow as to why this bill focuses solely on nuclear energy,” he said. He said technologies “such as wind and solar and geothermal…is what

our country should be promoting around the rest of the world.”

Markey continued: “It’s also shortsighted to me to make such a herculean effort to promote new nuclear technologies when we’re yet to solve the longstanding problems resulting from our existing nuclear fleet. To this day, the Navajo nation is dealing with the legacy of uranium contamination, including more than 500 abandoned uranium mines and homes and water sources polluted with elevated levels of radiation.”

Michel Lee, chair of the Council on Intelligent Energy & Conservation Policy, calls “the passage of the ADVANCE Act the legislative equivalent of detonation of a nuclear weapon in our regulatory system.”

The Nuclear Information and Resource Service had extensively campaigned against the ADVANCE Act asking people, as a communication it sent out declared, “Please Ask Your Senators to Vote NO on the Nuclear Advance Act.”

It said: “The nuclear ADVANCE Act, a 93-page bill to promote expensive, dangerous, dirty, environmentally unjust nuclear power that could accelerate nuclear exports and weapons proliferation and allow foreign ownership/control of U.S. nuclear facilities, is hitching a ride …on the short Fire Grants and Safety.” It “shifts the mission of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to boosting more than regulating.”

As for “new nuclear power,” it said that “from mining to long-term waste management it violates environmental justice and relies on carbon at every step, is radioactively and chemically dirty, dangerous, expensive, slow, takes resources from true climate solutions and leaves intense, long-lasting radioactive waste that technically cannot be isolated for the eons it remains dangerous.”

Also campaigning against the act has been Beyond Nuclear which says: “The ADVANCE Act will significantly increase the risks of nuclear power by changing the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s mandate from safety mandate from safety regulation to industry promotion…It would also promote new atomic reactors, and much more highly enriched nuclear fuel, both in the U.S. as well as overseas. This will worsen the hazards, harms and environmental injustices at each and every stage of the uranium fuel chain, from mining to highly radioactive waste dumping. The ADVANCE Act’s allowing of foreign ownership of nuclear facilities in the U.S., and its promotion of High Assay Low-Enriched Uranium fuel, both domestically and overseas, will also significantly increase nuclear weapons proliferation .”

The Sierra Club has opposed the act. In a letter to Senator Majority Leader Charles Schumer, it has declared: “Nuclear power is not a solution to the climate crisis. Spending precious federal resources on nuclear power only takes away from the desperately needed development of a clean, affordable and more equitable energy system powered by renewable energy. Passage of the ADVANCE Act…will lock in the use of dirty, dangerous and expensive nuclear power for a generation.”

“As a result of this legislation ,” the letter continued, “we would expect to see the production of vast amounts of uranium mining and mill tailings waste, even hotter high level radioactive waste, for which there is no final plan for isolation, and depleted uranium that becomes more radioactive over one million years. Additionally, the expansion of nuclear power will result in more so-called “low-level” radioactive waste going into unlined trenches and the release of radioactive liquids and gasses into the air, water and environment from every reactor around the country and around the world.”

Also opposing the act has been Food and Water Watch whose executive director, Wenonah Hauter, has said: “Senator Schumer’s apparent embrace of new nuclear energy development represents a stark betrayal of the clean, safe renewable energy options like wind and solar that he claims to champion. The Senate and President Biden must quickly come to their senses and reject the dangerous and unaffordable false promises of toxic nuclear energy.”

Among many other groups opposing the ADVANCE Act have been:  Climate Justice Alliance, Environment America, Friends of the Earth, Institute for Policy Studies, Indigenous Environmental Network, Science and Environmental Health Network, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, Waterspirit, 350 New Orleans, Earth Action, Inc., Endangered Species Coalition, Long Island Progressive Coalition and Methane Action.

In regard to the “follow the money,” that element of Congressional support of the ADVANCE Act was certainly also a factor. Politico in 2011 ran an article headlined: “Nuclear lobbyists clout felt on Hill.”

“Facing its biggest crisis in 25 years, the U.S. nuclear power industry can count on plenty of Democratic and Republican friends in both high and low places,” began the piece by Darren Samuelsohn. “During the past election cycle alone, the Nuclear Energy Institute and more than a dozen companies with big nuclear portfolios have spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and campaign contributions to lawmakers in key leadership slots and across influential state delegations.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute, “the industry’s biggest voice in Washington, for example, spent $3.76 million to lobby the federal government and an additional $323,000 through its political action committee on a bipartisan congressional slate, inclu2ding 134 House and 30 Senate candidates…”

“Nearly all of the investor-owned power companies that operate U.S. nuclear reactors play in the donation game,” said the article.

That was last decade, but times on this issue don’t change.

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet, and the Beyond Nuclear handbook, The U.S. Space Force and the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war in space. 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.