FREE SPEECH ZONE | Obama’s Nuclear Blunder


 President Obama has made yet another bad decision, one that will likely harm your children and grandchildren, and generations of your family, for centuries.

On February 16, Obama announced another bailout–this time for the nuclear power industry, those goodfellas who have given us dangerous nuclear reactors, a few more terrorist targets, and a whole lot of toxic waste that nobody wants in their backyard.

Obama is giving one of the big nuke players, Southern Company, $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to build a couple of reactors in Georgia. And as a gift to the rest of the nuclear industry, Obama is tripling government loan guarantees–to $54 billion–in his 2011 budget. The industry depends on government loans because nuclear reactors are a risk even Wall Street won’t gamble on.

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Having failed to move Congress towards a green energy policy, and having wasted any momentum he might have had at the Copenhagen climate conference, pushing nuclear power is apparently Obama’s “clean” alternative to fossil fuels.

Someone should tell this president that there’s nothing “clean” about toxic nuclear waste; that he should solve the storage problem before handing out tax dollars to create more garbage; and that reprocessing nuclear fuel, which misinformed pro-nuclear politicians are so crazy about, will only make the storage problem worse.

Arjun Makhijani, an expert on nuclear fusion and energy and author of Carbon-free and Nuclear-free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, argues that:

The current commercial reprocessing technology, PUREX (for plutonium-uranium-extraction) is huge and polluting. The largest such installation in the world is located on the Normandy peninsula in France. The radioactive liquid waste discharges from that and the similar facility in northwestern England, have polluted the seas all the way to the Arctic ocean.

Atlantic salmon anyone?

Makhijani says that reprocessing only reduces some of the high-level waste, while creating additional intermediate-level toxic waste streams. The uranium stream “becomes contaminated with traces of fission products, notable technetium-99, as well as plutonium and neptunium-237.” These materials are even more radioactive that the uranium. Before uranium can be re-used, “it must be chemically processed and re-enriched. Trace contamination results in contamination of the enrichment plant and creates additional radioactive exposure hazards for workers.”

A final problem with reprocessing is that uranium enrichment results in a stream of depleted uranium. The U.S. military has used depleted uranium in weapons, contaminating vast areas of the Middle East and possibly causing many of the illnesses plaguing returning soldiers. Makhijani states that, “There is at present no place to dispose of depleted uranium in a way that would conform to prevailing radiological safety and health norms.” Depleted uranium waste, says Makhijani, must be placed in a deep geologic repository. Instead, it’s sitting above ground in Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio, just waiting for a natural or manmade disaster. 

Did Obama really study the problem of waste storage before he rushed to throw money at an industry so irresponsible, yet so favored by Republicans, or was this just another example of the now famous Obama negotiating style: give your political enemies anything they want–with no conditions–and then hope they’ll play nice?

OK, maybe the storage of highly toxic nuclear waste that remains radioactive for generations doesn’t bother the “fiscal conservatives” in Washington or St. Paul. So how about an economic argument? Did you know, for instance, that the risk of big nuke companies defaulting on these nuclear loan guarantees is “very high–well above 50 percent” according to the Congressional Budget Office? That means we the people will, once again, get stuck with the bill, and irresponsible corporations, who now have all the rights of “persons” but none of the responsibilities, will get off the hook (of course, if they happen to make millions with our tax-dollar loans, they probably won’t play nice and share).

Nuclear power companies have a track record of financial irresponsibility, and we don’t have to dig far back into history for proof. Last October, the San Antonio Express News reported that the cost of two new nuclear reactors proposed by CPS Energy had jumped several billion dollars–before construction had even begun. The project was originally estimated to cost $5.4 billion back in 2007 when the company applied for a license to build the reactors. Cost increase followed cost increase until, as of October 2009, the city council was told that the new estimated cost of the project would be about $17 billion, over 200 percent of the original estimate. The company disclosed the cost increase just before the city council was about to vote on financing for the project–but only after an aide to the mayor demanded a clarification of the costs. Take note Mr. Obama, this is how big corporations play.

What will $8 billion buy us in Georgia? Stacy Feldman of explains that Southern Company’s Georgia reactors will “use the AP1000 third-generation technology designed by Pennsylvania-based Westinghouse, one of the world’s largest makers of nuclear turbines.” The problem is, “the design has yet to get safety clearance in the U.S., and it is not generating electricity anywhere in the world.” Westinghouse claims that the AP1000 is the safest nuclear plant available, so what’s the problem? It seems that this new nuclear reactor design that Obama is pouring tax-payer money into “may not be durable enough to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes or a direct airplane hit, American regulators have said, raising security concerns as the country attempts an atomic revival.”

I might agree with Erich Pica of the Huffington Post that, “After more than 50 years as one of the biggest recipients of federal subsidies, the [nuclear] industry should sink or swim on its own,” except I don’t want companies to build more nuclear plants–neither with my money nor theirs.

Yes, Obama is making another bad decision. It won’t work. The Republicans still won’t play nice; nuclear plants still won’t be “clean,” safe, or cost effective; and America still won’t have a secure energy policy.

 Janet Contursi is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis. She can be reached at