Nuclear Energy: A Poor Choice Now More Than Ever

John McDonald Mar 17, 2011

There should be  a deep concern in this country regarding President Obama’s plans to build new nuclear power plants, especially in light of the recent earthquake, tsunami and resulting catastrophes that have taken place in Japan and the damaging effects to its nuclear power infrastructure. The Obama Administration’s plan includes a proposed tripling of funding for nuclear energy to the tune of $54 billion in loan guarantees.

On Tuesday 15 February, President Obama announced $8 billion in loan guarantees for the building of a new nuclear power plant in Burke, Georgia; the first plan for new construction of a nuclear power plant in the United States in over thirty years.

According to the White House and the President the new plant in Georgia is, “expected to cut carbon pollution by 16 million tons each year. ‘That’s like taking 3.5 million cars off the road’.”

The President neglected to mention that a typical nuclear reactor will generate 20 to 30 tons of high-level nuclear waste annually. This is no small consideration.

The waste, which has a half-life of 24,000 years, cannot be disposed of safely. Therefore, over the course of those years, which will inevitably out last any nation state and its ability to safeguard it, the problem will remain a persistent threat to life on the planet. According to the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation:

“The rate of decay of a radioactive isotope is called its half-life, the time in which half the initial amount of atoms present takes to decay. The half-life of Plutonium-239, one particularly lethal component of nuclear waste, is 24,000 years. The hazardous life of a radioactive element (the length of time that must elapse before the material is considered safe) is at least 10 half-lives. Therefore, Plutonium-239 will remain hazardous for at least 240,000 years.”

A major point of concern is the proper storage and safety of this nuclear waste. An illustration of this danger is the disaster that occurred post Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, which basically turned the city into a toxic waste dump as reported by the Independent and delineated in this EPA report by destroying the containment units of toxic waste that then contaminated the water that flooded 80% of the city. It is likely, based on pervasive flooding and nuclear facility damage, that the flood waters in Japan will similarly contaminate the surrounding areas with radioactive waste.

In the wake of this disaster, Japan has declared a state of emergency at five power plants and is monitoring troubles in others. There have reportedly been explosions and the potential of meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant as well as at least two others. As for the subsequent elevated radiation levels, reported by the Guardian, “a Japanese nuclear safety panel said radiation levels were 1,000 times higher than normal in a control room and eight times higher than normal just outside the plant.” The radiation levels have since increased and are so high that it has prompted U.S. military vessels stationed 100 miles out to sea to relocate. These levels are difficult to gauge accurately and experts suggest that the levels may well be much higher elsewhere. The threat continues to grow as nuclear containment units are threatened by explosions and breaching of the units by flood waters.

Commentators are expressing consternation as to why the Japanese Nuclear plants are not behaving exactly as designed and predicted, which generates further cause for concern. Given the highly sophisticated operation and monitoring at the Japanese plants, perhaps the best in the world, and their anticipation of such threats from earthquakes it likely makes theirs the best possible scenario in case of disaster. The outcome has not been good and threatens to become far worse.

The response from the nuclear industry in the U.S., as expressed in the mainstream media, that a similar disaster could not happen in the United States and radiation levels are not extremely threatening, is patently false according to experts. There is reason to believe that there will be immediate and long-term detrimental public health threats in Japan associated with vast amounts of leaked radiation due to malfunctions. It is also critical to acknowledge that many of the Japanese reactors are identical to, and made by the same companies, as nuclear power plants here in the United States.

Moreover, significant safety concerns have arisen associated with the design of the reactors in the new nuclear plant to be built in Georgia as outlined by Mother Jones. According to the article:

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) rejected the proposal after determining that the shield design would not protect the reactor from earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and airplane crashes. Michael Johnson, director of the NRC’s Office of New Reactors, noted that the agency had ‘consistently laid out our questions’ to Westinghouse about the design, which did not yet meet ‘fundamental engineering standards’.”

Obviously these concerns are highlighted by the recent events in Japan.

An even more perplexing aspect of the investment of U.S. taxpayer funds in Nuclear Power is its total  lack of economic viability. Nuclear power is not an economically viable source of energy without huge state intervention in the form of subsidies, overrun costs passed on to consumers and low interest loans – a strange form of energy to be pursued by the constant free-market, small-government touting Republicans and now President Obama. Ralph Nader spells out many of the economic ills of nuclear energy here and here, which include a 50% chance of loan default, over run costs, bankruptcy and frequent plant construction abandonment.

The current administration has continued to put resources into energy intensive, polluting and unpopular energy sources, such as natural gas hydro-fracking, nuclear energy and deep water drilling, claiming that they are effective answers to the dependency of the United States on foreign oil. An appropriate energy policy calls for the bolstering of clean, renewable energy sources with government subsidies and tax breaks for solar, wind, tidal and thermal energy, to name a few, while eliminating the same for fossil and nuclear fuels.

However, the obvious reason why the administration continues to operate in this manner is the result of corporate lobbying by wealthy fossil fuel and nuclear energy firms and the entrenched power that they wield.

Not surprisingly President Obama received huge campaign contributions from Exelon, an Illinois based Nuclear Power Company, as well as Southern Company, a Georgia based Nuclear Power Company and the recent recipient of an $8 billion loan guarantee to build a new nuclear power plant in Georgia despite its previously mentioned design flaws.

According to

“The company [Exelon], based in the president’s home state of Illinois, has funded Obama campaigns since his Senate run, when employees contributed more than $48,000, according to CQ Moneyline, and Exelon’s political action committee gave the maximum of $10,000. Exelon employees gave Obama nearly $210,000 for his presidential campaign, according to CQ Moneyline.

Exelon’s management includes two Obama bundlers who are friends of the president. One, director John W. Rogers, helped direct Obama’s Illinois fundraising during his presidential race and helped plan the inauguration. The other, Frank M. Clark, has lobbied on nuclear issues for the company.”

For a mere several hundred thousand dollars in campaign contributions the Obama administration is handing out $54 billion in loan guarantees. Not a bad return on investment for the nuclear power industry.

This is a strong indictment of the electoral process in the United States and raises questions of impropriety that the Obama Administration’s own Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, raised (seen here) during the 2008 election campaign. “Sen. Obama has some questions to answer about his dealings with one of his largest contributors Exelon, a big nuclear power company; apparently he cut some deals behind closed doors to protect them from full disclosure of the nuclear industry,” she said.

So while President Obama fulfills his quid pro quo with the nuclear energy industry, for campaign contributions received, the cost and danger of nuclear energy to the citizens of the United States is ignored.

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