President Barack Obama's support this week for the construction of more nuclear power plants in the United States, amid the ongoing nuclear power plant disaster in Japan, must be considered as among the most wrong-headed and irrational positions ever taken by a US president, against stiff competition.
As a candidate for president, Obama knew about the deadly dangers of nuclear power. “I start off with the premise that nuclear energy is not optimal and so I am not a nuclear energy proponent,” Obama said at a campaign stop in Newton, Iowa, on December 30, 2007. “My general view is that until we can make certain that nuclear power plants are safe … I don't think that's the best option. I am much more interested in solar and wind and bio-diesel and strategies [for] alternative fuels.”
As he told the editorial board of the Keene Sentinel in New Hampshire on November 25, 2007: “I don't think there's anything that we inevitably dislike about nuclear power. We just dislike the fact that it might blow up … and irradiate us … and kill us. That's the problem.”
However, as president, he hired a nuclear power proponent out of the national nuclear laboratory system, Steven Chu, as his energy secretary. Chu, who had been director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, minimizes, indeed denies, the impacts of radioactivity, as do many of the atomic physicists in the national laboratory system. Obama's two top White House aides, meanwhile, had been deeply involved with what is now the utility operating more nuclear power plants than any other in the US, Exelon. Rahm Emanuel, his chief of staff, was as an investment banker central to the $8.2 billion corporate merger in 1999 that produced Exelon. David Axelrod, senior adviser and chief political strategist, was an Exelon PR consultant. Candidate Obama received sizeable contributions from Exelon executives including John Rowe, its president and chief executive officer, who, in 2007, also became chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear industry's main trade group. Forbes magazine, in a January 18, 2009, article about Rowe and how he has “focused the company on nuclear,” displayed a sidebar titled, “The President's Utility.” It read: “Ties are tight between Exelon and the Obama administration,” noting Exelon political contributions and Emanuel's and Axelrod's Exelon links.
So, as president, Obama began talking about “safe, clean nuclear power” and pushed for multi-billion dollar taxpayer subsidies for the construction of new nuclear plants
The disaster in Japan is not stopping that. In his speech Wednesday evening, March 30, on energy, Obama also wheeled out a major nuclear lie in his effort to “revive” nuclear power – that it provides “electricity without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.”
But what the nuclear industry and Obama are not admitting is the fact that the overall nuclear “fuel cycle” – mining, milling, fuel fabrication, enrichment, and so on – contributes substantially to global warming. It is safe, clean, renewable energy technologies such as solar and wind power that are carbon free and don't release greenhouse gases, don't contribute to global warming.
And as the organization Beyond Nuclear emphasizes: “Nuclear power is counterproductive to efforts to address climate change effectively and in time. Funding diverted to new nuclear power plants deprives real climate change solutions like solar, wind and geothermal energy of essential resources.”
Obama also spoke Wednesday, March 30, about how “I've requested a comprehensive safety review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to make sure that all of our existing nuclear energy facilities are safe” and added, “We'll incorporate those conclusions and lessons from Japan in designing and building the next generation of [nuclear] plants.”
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is an unabashed promoter of nuclear power – never having denied a license for a nuclear power plant anywhere, anytime in the United States. In recent times, it has been busy extending the operating lives of half of US nuclear plants to 60 years, although – because radioactivity embrittles metals in nuclear plants – they were never seen as operating for more than 40 years. But with no nuclear plant ordered and built in the US since 1973, the commission has been seeking to keep the nuclear industry going, somehow. The commission and the nuclear industry have recently been seeking to extend the operating lives of the plants to 80 years. With this promotional stance, will the commission “make sure all of our existing” nuclear plants are safe?
As to “new, improved” nuclear plants – a “next generation” as Obama called it – this is also a major theme of Dr. Chu, before and since the nuclear disaster in Japan. The key issue here is radioactivity. And thus, no matter what the design, all nuclear plants are deadly. Whether they are the US-manufactured General Electric boiling water plants in Japan now spreading radioactivity in Japan and around the world, or the Westinghouse pressurized water design, or the design of Russian plants etc., all nuclear plants generate thousands of tons of lethal radioactive poisons as they boil water to turn a turbine to generate electricity.
As Adm. Hyman Rickover, the “father” of the US nuclear Navy and head of construction of the first US nuclear plan, Shippingport in Pennsylvania, said in an address before a committee of Congress when he retired in 1982: “I'll be philosophical. Until about two billion years ago, it was impossible to have any life on earth; that is, there was so much radiation on earth you couldn't have any life – fish or anything. Gradually, about two billion years ago, the amount of radiation on this planet and probably in the entire system reduced and made it possible for some form of life to begin … Now when we go back to using nuclear power, we are creating something which nature tried to destroy to make life possible … Every time you produce radiation, you produce something that has life, in some cases for billions of years and I think there the human race is going to wreck itself and it's far more important that we get control of this horrible force and try to eliminate it. I do not believe that nuclear power is worth it if it creates radiation.” Rickover declared, “we outlaw nuclear reactors.”
But the nuclear agencies of government – led by Obama – and the nuclear industry would instead promote nuclear power despite it being a gargantuan threat to life and unnecessary.
Safe, clean, renewable energy technologies fully implemented can provide all the power we need – and energy that we can live with.