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Will Nuclear Power Blow Up Obama's Climate Goals for Copenhagen?

Art Levine, truthout | Report

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With Wednesday's announcement that President Obama plans to personally visit the UN-sponsored Copenhagen climate change conference next month, there are mounting hopes that his pledge that the US will cut greenhouses gases by 17 percent over a decade will jump-start world action on climate change. (What's been generally overlooked, though, is that the 17 percent figure is based on a pollution high point in 2005 used in Congressional legislation, so the proposed reduction is actually as little as 20 percent of the targeted reduction goals - based on 1990 levels - recommended by the UN-sponsored international scientific body that  suggests treaty standards.)


(Image: Jared Rodriguez / t r u t h o u t; Adapted: AlexJohnson, >> PaulO <<)

Yet even that modest proposed reduction may not be met. That's because of industry-driven compromises and delays in the Senate after the House passed its own watered-down bill, so the Senate won't consider climate legislation until the spring. Meanwhile, the nuclear power industry, despite its dangers, is poised to make a major comeback as a purported panacea for global warming. President Obama, first as a candidate and now as president, expressed his willingness to use nuclear power.
Despite the surprising acceptance so far of nuclear power by most environmental groups as a necessary evil to get a final climate bill, dissenting groups, including Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Beyond Nuclear, are running a rear-guard action trying to head off the rush to nuclear power. It's a troubled industry that hasn't seen a new order placed since the 70s and a new plant built in over a decade, with even Wall Street steering clear.
Yet a tri-partisan proposal, the Kerry-Lieberman-Graham bill, aims to win 60 votes by adding more subsidies for nuclear power and fossil fuel industries, while a bill co-sponsored by centrist Senator Jim Webb would offer the struggling nuclear power industry - repackaged as clean energy - as much as $100 billion in added loan guarantees. As Nuclear Power Daily reported:
"Nuclear power needs to be a core component of electricity generation if we are to meet our emission reduction targets," Kerry and Graham wrote in an editorial published by The New York Times last month.
In any revised bill, Graham insisted on "a renaissance of nuclear power that will help us solve the climate problem, as well as create millions of new jobs."
But some environmental critics contend that the hype is misguided on several fronts. Linda Gunter, a spokesperson for the Beyond Nuclear advocacy group, points out, "It's an incredible amount of expense to bring online and pour hundreds of billions into a slow industry that endangers the public with waste, radioactivity and chemical releases." Meanwhile, the billions in federal guarantees and the funds available from selling "cap-and-trade" emissions permits would, they fear, largely be funneled to the nuclear industry - instead of building renewable energy industries and the green jobs potentially available in solar power, wind power and conservation.
"Renewables and energy efficiency will be completely strangled by investing in nuclear power, and will eliminate those opportunities," Gunter says. And with each nuclear plant taking between six to ten years to start operating - and costs running between $12-$25 billion each for ratepayers, investors or taxpayers - "we've got a finite amount of time to face this [global warming]," she says.
Beyond Nuclear - allied with such progressive stalwarts as Greenpeace, Public Citizen, Friends of the Earth and Physicians for Social Responsibility (see its Nuclear Bailout site) - opposes nuclear power as a solution for global warming on other grounds, as well:
  • A meltdown could cause tens of thousands of deaths and hundreds of billions of dollars in damages and spread radioactive contamination across vast areas for centuries.
  • Security at reactors is inadequate, due to cost-cutting by an industry otherwise unable to compete in the electricity market.
  •  Most reactors still remain vulnerable to aircraft and other attacks, making them potential dirty bombs in our backyards.
  • Civilian nuclear programs provide the materials, knowledge and technology to transition to nuclear weapons production as happened in India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea. Nuclear expansion impedes the goals of nonproliferation and disarmament.
  • No country has an operating repository for radioactive waste. Instead, waste is stored in unsecured fuel pools and casks at reactor sites. There is no solution to the seven-decade old radioactive waste problem.
  • Nuclear power is not an emissions-free energy source. Reactors routinely release radioactivity and toxic chemicals, both harmful to health. From uranium mining to waste storage, nuclear power emits greenhouse gases.
  • Exposure to radiation alters DNA which can cause cancer and genetic mutations and shorten lives. Wildlife near the Chernobyl reactor explosion have demonstrated decreased longevity.
And for taxpayers weary of the trillions in bailouts and guarantees that have put us on the hook for Wall Street's future risky bets that can blow up the economy, major recent reports show what could happen if taxpayer-backed nuclear plants literally blew up or defaulted on their loans. As Beyond Nuclear observed about this month’s Forbes magazine report on an ambitious nuclear company angling for current federal loan guarantees:
As described in the current issue of Forbes magazine, federal nuclear loan guarantees would transfer the financial risks of the "nuclear renaissance" onto U.S. taxpayers. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office has estimated that "well over half" of nuclear loan guarantees will default, leaving taxpayers to hold the bag for many billions of dollars per failed project. In February 1985, Forbes reported that "[t]he failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale. The utility industry has already invested $125 billion in nuclear power, with an additional $140 billion to come before the decade is out, and only the blind, or the biased, can now think that most of the money has been well spent." If Energy Secretary Chu rushes nuclear loan guarantees out the door by the end of the year, as he has threatened to do, this ugly history could easily repeat itself.
And nuclear opponents wonder: Can we afford the risk of banking on nuclear power when the latest report from the top international panel of scientific experts shows that the dangers are mounting faster than previously thought? As recounted by The Washington Independent in the context of a new right-wing campaign over stolen internal emails of global warming scientists:
A study released today by 26 leading climatologists, which finds that the climate situation is actually far more dire than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had led us to believe.
The new report, dubbed "The Copenhagen Diagnosis," seeks to fill in the gaps since the last IPCC assessment, published in 2007 but drafted earlier. Its authors include 14 members of the IPCC, the world's top climate change authority.
Jonathan Hiskes, who's compared the two reports in greater depth than I have, writes:
The new diagnosis finds that arctic sea ice is melting 40 percent faster than the panel estimated just a few years ago. Another startling finding: Satellites have found that the global average for rising sea levels was 3.4 millimeters per year from 1993-2008. The IPCC estimated it would be 1.9 mm for that period--short by 80 percent.
In addition, a recent analysis of the economic dangers posed by nuclear power - based on the well-justified wariness of Wall Street - should also give its cheerleaders pause. If an investment is too risky for Wall Street high-flyers willing to gamble on fuel options, Singapore real estate and subprime mortgages, then maybe it's a bit too dicey for taxpayers, too. Indeed, it seems that a nuclear power plant is the ultimate toxic asset. As Nuclear Power Daily reported:
If Congress and the states do not follow the lead of Wall Street in declining to underwrite financially "risky and uneconomic" new nuclear reactors, the resulting taxpayer-backed loan guarantees and other subsidies could pave the way for the same kind of industry-wide meltdown that happened in the 1970s and 1980s, according to a major new study by Dr. Mark Cooper, a senior fellow for economic analysis at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School.
Titled "All Risk, No Reward for Taxpayers and Ratepayers," the new study by Dr. Cooper looks at the reasons that Wall Street is shunning the financing of new reactors and concludes that Congress and state lawmakers would be well-advised to follow the same course to avoid leaving taxpayers and ratepayers holding the bag in the form of failed loan guarantees and needlessly higher utility bills.
But despite all the potential dangers, critics say, most mainstream environmental groups haven't strongly opposed the push to nuclear power or protested legislative give-aways to other energy industries. "It's gotten to the point where environmental groups and members of Congress are bargaining away so much they're willing to accept any bill with the word 'climate' in it," says Kyle Ash, a Greenpeace lobbyist.
In contrast, Sierra Club spokesperson David Willett doesn't believe that abandoning the bill over nuclear power is worth considering at this point. "In general, I don't think that nuclear power is the best option, and we have concerns for security, safety and cost," he told Truthout. "But there are a lot of fronts on energy that we've focused on aside from just getting a bill passed, like making sure that there's more in there for energy efficiency and renewables." He adds, "We are applauding the effort of Kerry, Graham and Lieberman for [trying to] find a way for a bill to clear the Senate. Nuclear power isn't now a deal-breaker."
Yet an insider look at the rifts among progressives over climate-change bills by E&E Daily raises questions over the possible high cost of effective global climate change resulting from the trade-off for political influence and pragmatism. The well-respected publication reported recently:
For the past year, major environmental groups have framed the climate change bill as the movement's single most significant piece of legislation in several decades - if not ever - dedicating the bulk of their political muscle and heavy financial resources to passage of the effort.
But as the bill moves forward, with this summer's historic House vote and yesterday's Senate committee markup, some question whether in their quest to get a bill, environmentalists and their allies are far too willing to compromise on historic priorities such as offshore drilling and nuclear power ...
And though [most] environmentalists openly admit that the final product may not be their ideal bill, they also argue there is no choice but to accept some items they do not want in a situation where the fate of the legislation hangs on moderate lawmakers who are hesitant to back a bill.
"We can only do what we have the political support to do," said Margie Alt, executive director of Environment America ...
But one thing environmentalists and their congressional allies have not done is make specific demands on items that must be in the bill to ensure the environmental community's support. Perhaps even more telling, when lawmakers have pushed for policies that have been vehemently opposed in the past, environmental groups have not actively pushed back.
The clearest example to date is last month's op-ed from Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), which stated the climate bill needs to have provisions for increased offshore drilling and support nuclear power if it hopes to pick up bipartisan support and pass the Senate.
There has been virtually no outcry from mainstream environmental groups over the bill's sponsor (Kerry) seemingly backing such a position ...
And that's one reason why, when President Obama meets with foreign leaders in Copenhagen, he won’t be able to deliver on his early promises for global climate change. And that's also why you could find yourself living down the street from a nuclear power plant in the next several years, even as portions of US coastal cities may eventually find themselves underwater.