Outlook Rosy for Nuclear Industry, Despite Unsolved Problems of Waste and Safety

Nuclear power plant with smileThe Obama administration is considering granting as much as $18.5 billion in loan guarantees to the nuclear industry to build new reactors, and Congress is considering adding billions more to expand nuclear power in the U.S., even though the problems of safety and what to do with nuclear waste remain unsolved.

The positive outlook for the industry comes after an intense decade of lobbying, in which the nuclear industry and its allies, in aggregate, have spent over $600 million on lobbying and almost $63 million on campaign contributions, according to the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.

A Decade of Astroturfing Pays Off

The nuclear lobby's activities are a case study on how industries influence Washington: In addition to the usual spending of vast sums on lobbying and campaign contributions, they have created a network of allies who give speeches, quote one another approvingly and showcase each other on Web sites, effectively creating a media echo chamber that creates the impression of widespread support for nuclear power. Compared to the big oil and big coal lobbies, though, the nuclear lobby has stayed in the background and used increasingly common astroturfing techniques, like making their case through surrogates, and paying a public relations firm to create a pro-nuclear "grassroots" group -- the Clean and Safe Energy Coalition -- which employs high-profile spokespersons like Patrick Moore and Christine Todd Whitman. The industry has also been busy lobbying all possible constituencies, as well as both sides of the political spectrum. The Nuclear Energy Institute has given presentations to the Congressional Black Caucus, and has taken a pro-union stance for the construction of new nuclear reactors, helping win it support from labor unions. In turn, unions have lobbied and obtained the support for nukes from House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman, who is now championing efforts to fund the industry. The nuke industry has managed to do all this while also keeping its traditional base among Senate Republicans. The industry magnified its appeal to politicians by selling the construction of nuclear power plants as a sort of jobs-creation program, at a time when jobs are sorely needed in the U.S. Combine this with steadily increasing energy prices and concern for global warming, and all the stars are lining up for the nuclear energy industry right now.

What About Safer Sources of Renewable Power?

Critics argue that multi-billion dollar federal loan guarantees for nukes would take away financial resources that could be dedicated to other, safer, renewable, low carbon-producing sources of energy, like wind, solar and geothermal power. Even some supporters of nuclear reactors argue that the nuclear industry should stay out of the taxpayers' pocket and obtain private financing, particularly since the Congressional Budget Office concluded in 2003 that the risk of default on a loan to the nuclear power industry would be "very high -- well above 50 percent." Another option is to upgrade existing nuclear plants to produce more energy, which would cost significantly less than building new reactors, and which would require no loan guarantees, according to a spokesman for the power company Exelon.

What Happened to Learning from Past Lessons?

The nuclear industry appears to have lawmakers and other influential parties just where it wants them, and it may indeed succeed this time around in getting billions of dollars in taxpayer funds to build new nuclear reactors. With the hard-learned lessons of the massive Chernobyl disaster and the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island fading quickly into the past, nuclear power may be looking better to lawmakers, but as long as the serious problems it poses have not been sufficiently dealt with, those holding the government's purse strings would be well-advised to proceed with caution.


Not that we should not be worrying about the return of nuclear power, but the prospects are not as rosy as this article might make appear at first. The first problem with nuclear power is that it is fantastically expensive. The $18.5 billion hold over from the Bush administration will only fund at most 4 new reactor projects, and quite possibly less. No reactors will be built in the US without 100% loan guarantees from the Feds, Wall Street has repeatedly made this clear. All of the designs seriously being considered in the US (GE/Hitachi's. Westinghouse/Toshiba and the French Areva design) all have serious problems which have been identified and not resolved. The only one of these under construction is the French design which is already years late and billions over budget in both France and Finland. Nuclear in the US means another bail out (which would be nuclear's 3rd in this country). Perhaps we wont give them the money this time. For an excellent critique of why nuclear does not work as a climate solutin or economically, see Amory Lovins http://tinyurl.com/forgetnuclear

Lets tell the whole story please. Current nuclear plants approx 65. Only 1 default. Loan guarantees get repaid well within the accepted risk level of the financial community. Subsidys for wind and solar systems do not. Thus the fleecing of the taxpayer comes from solar. Not even a 40% credit, such as in Germany, can make the systems make financial sense. Why not try to get a 10billion loan for a wind farm?

Every homeowner policy, and your cellphone handset loss/breakage policy continues to specifically EXCLUDE radiation damage. Back in the late 1960's, a book "Perils of the Peaceful Atom" quoted an insurance company executive as why this exclusion continues. His answer was "The hazard is new". Really, now. Guess who is left devastated in the event of a Chernobyl disaster. You! The Dixon Yates act of the mid-fifties still limit operators of nuclear facilities to $250 million dollars TOTAL! If nuclear power is so safe, why, oh, why are the operators not required to assume much more liability?

You're exactly right! There were some bright spots in the State of the Union address but the President's continued endorsement of nuclear power, to the applause of Members on both sides of the aisle, was a huge disappointment to me. Lisa Graves

From what I have recently read, nuclear waste from reactors dumped into streams that lead into the Chesapeake Bay is an ecological and medical catastrophe for the entire eastern seaboard, and yet very little media attention has been paid to it. And Congress has just approved the building of additional nuclear power plants by the same companies that have yet to even begin to clean up their radioactive pollution of the Bay and surrounding areas. I have also read that the nuclear waste from power plants is being used in the manufacture of our depleted uranium weaponry which is causing severe birth defects, cancer and other horrific diseases throughout Iraq, Afghanistan, and even Bosnia. Apparently, the U.S. government has known the effects of DU since the first Iraq war but continues to deny the scientific data and ignore the fact that DU weapons have been declared weapons of mass destruction internationally and banned. Nuclear plants in India, built with the encouragement of the IMF and the US, have contaminated rivers and streams, rendered agricultural areas unusable, and poisoned the population. No immediate solution to the problem is known, the Indian government is suppressing information about the catastrophe, and rice from affected areas continues to be exported to the U.S. and other countries. With all this in mind, how can our government even think of building more nuclear power plants?

Will any private insurer, say Nationwide, ever write a policy for a nuclear plant? Never! And thanks to lobbying like that mentioned above, the dirty, unsafe, expensive nuclear industry will never have to try to buy such a policy. After you read the excellent "Forget Nuclear" Amory Lovins link posted by the commenter above, look on Wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Price-Anderson_Nuclear_Industries_Indemnity_Act to see why nuclear industry has any chance of competing with solar or wind. The game has been rigged, that's why. Lastly, here's a 2002 photo of a massively corroded reactor head at the Davis-Besse plant here in my home state of Ohio: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Davis-BesseHole.png Because of lax inspection procedures, we nearly had a meltdown. Chernobyl & 3-Mile are only the best-known catastrophes. Please don't be convinced that "the most expensive way to boil water ever invented" is anything like a clean alternative substitute. We need to expose nuclear propaganda and fight both parties on this issue.

Nuclear power is like playing Russian roulette, The supporters of nuclear should be the hosts for storage of the waste from the industry. Every home should get a barrel in their home. The largest and safest nuclear power plant already exists, it’s called the SUN. Fortunately it is at a safe distance and provides ample energy daily. We need an investment in technology on par with the Manhattan project to unlock the ability to effectively harness this energy. This is our future- Nuclear has its place, in science and in history. Resurrecting Nuclear energy is an act of insanity.

On a lighter note, when I read about nuclear power I invariably remember Homer Simpson's job - you know: "manning" the power plant, sometimes asleep at the switch or chomping down on yet another glazed doughnut, oblivious to all else. We are all Homer Simpson in some ways and human error will never change because we won't cease to be human, nor to err... It is a scary, but sobering thought. Well worth remembering when tinkering with great natural powers. Great article.

This was a real eye opener and the comments. Thank you. I am left wondering if the nuclear lobbyists really think that the fall out won't fall on them, or their descendants. For whom the bell tolls..... The good news is that there is a grass roots movement world wide against nuclear power and it is growing..