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Former Utne Reader senior editor Keith Goetzman on environmental issues from climate change to composting.

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Nuclear Energy: Bad Policy, Worse Business

5/3/2011 4:16:05 PM

Tags: energy, nuclear energy, nuclear power, Fukushima, politics, business, environment, Keith Goetzman

Satsop nuclear cooling tower 

President Obama’s tenacity in clinging to nuclear power is astounding. With the Fukushima disaster still spewing radiation into the atmosphere and brutal budget cuts on the table, Obama wants to extend another $36 billion in taxpayer-guaranteed loans to the nuclear industry to build new plants—in addition to the $18.5 billion he has already offered.

Writes Nation environmental correspondent Mark Hertsgaard, “As health, education, and other social services are being sacrificed on the false altar of deficit reduction, $54.5 billion is a massive amount of money. Worse, Obama is shoveling money at nuclear energy at the very same time he has diverted funds from renewable energy.”

Hertsgaard sees Obama’s nuclear ambitions as playing into “a larger meta-narrative dominating discussion of the Fukushima disaster here in the United States”:

Yes, Fukushima is scary, the narrative goes, but it is far away, our own nuclear plants pose little danger and, besides, neither our economy nor the fight against climate change can succeed without more nukes. Even the usually sensible nonprofit journalism enterprise ProPublica is publishing articles implying that anything less than a Chernobyl-scale disaster amounts to only “limited” impact.

The supreme tragedy here is that more nuclear power is not only unnecessary but downright unhelpful to securing America’s, and the world’s, economic and environmental future. Countless studies have shown that the enormous financial cost and long construction times of nuclear power plants make them the costliest, slowest way to supply electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (which is exactly why investors demand loan guarantees rather than risk their own money to build new nukes).

Even with Obama’s bully-pulpit backing, the phenomenally bad economics of building new plants are dogging the industry, reports the New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald. One expert tells Wald that he thinks nuclear plant construction will “go quiet” for two to five years, and Wald notes that “of the four nuclear reactor construction projects that the Energy Department identified in 2009 as the most deserving for the loans, two have lost major partners and seem unlikely to recover soon.”

Obama’s strategy is for U.S. taxpayers to take on the risk that energy investors are afraid to touch. Having already committed us to $18.5 billion, he wants to effectively triple our exposure.

“A federal loan guarantee is a little like a parent co-signing a child’s car loan; if the child makes the payments, the parent pays nothing,” writes Wald. But “If the builders default, as happened on some nuclear construction projects in the 1980s, the taxpayer liabilities could run into the billions of dollars.”

That’s a loan I wouldn’t co-sign. Would you?

UPDATE 5/6/11: Apparently, Rep. Ed Markey wouldn’t. The Massachusetts Democrat today released a letter he sent to the Office of Management and Budget demanding answers to several questions regarding loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors and the risk to taxpayers, reports the Nuclear Information and Research Service.

Sources: The Nation, New York Times

Image by HeyRocker, licensed under Creative Commons. 

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