Barack Obama’s Nuclear Ambitions

It is fast becoming one of the most important issues of the 2008 presidential campaign. Both major candidates want to search for more domestic oil supplies, promising to drill up and down the spine of the Rocky Mountains and off our fragile coastlines. The perceived threat of global warming is making even the most skeptical of politicians a bit nervous. The future of planet Earth, they claim, is more perilous than ever.

Al Gore has made an impact.

Too bad the Gore effect is like a bad hangover: all headache, no buzz. The purported solution to the imminent warming crisis, nuclear technology, is just as hazardous as our current methods of energy procurement. Al Gore, who wrote of the potential green virtues of nuclear power in his book Earth in the Balance, earned his stripes as a congressman protecting the interests of two of the nuclear industry’s most problematic enterprises, the TVA and the Oak Ridge Labs. And, of course, Bill Clinton backed the Entergy Corporation’s outrageous plan to soak Arkansas ratepayers with the cost overruns on the company’s Grand Gulf reactor which provided power to electricity consumers in Louisiana.

The Clinton years indeed saw an all-out expansion of nuclear power around the globe. First came the deal to begin selling nuclear reactors to China, announced during Jiang Zemin’s 1997 visit Washington, even though Zemin brazenly vowed at the time not to abide by the so-called “full scope safeguards” spelled out in the International Atomic Energy Act.

The move was apparently made over the objections of Clinton’s National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, who cited repeated exports by China of “dual use” technologies to Iran, Pakistan and Iraq. The CIA also weighed in against the deal, pointing out in a report to the president that “China was the single most import supplier of equipment and technology for weapons of mass destruction” worldwide. In a press conference on the deal, Mike McCurry said these nuclear reactors will be “a lot better for the planet than a bunch of dirty coal-fired plants” and will be “a great opportunity for American vendors” — that is, Westinghouse.

A day later, Clinton signed an agreement to begin selling nuclear technology to Brazil and Argentina for the first time since 1978, when Jimmy Carter canceled a previous deal after repeated violations of safety guidelines and nonproliferation agreements.

In a letter to congress, Clinton vouched for the South American countries, saying they had made “a definitive break with earlier ambivalent nuclear policies.” Deputy National Security Advisor Jim Steinberg justified the nuclear pact with Brazil and Argentina as “a partnership in developing clean and reliable energy supplies for the future.” Steinberg noted that both countries had opposed binding limits on greenhouse emissions and that new nuclear plants would be one way “to take advantage of the fact that today we have technologies available for energy use which were not available at the time that the United States and other developed countries were going through their periods of development.”

The atom lobby during the 1990s had a stranglehold on the Clinton administration and now they seem to have the same suffocating grip around the neck of the brightest star in the Democratic field today: Barack Obama.

In 2006, Obama took up the cause of Illinois residents who were angry with Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear power plant operator, for not having disclosed a leak at one of their nuclear plants in the state. Obama responded by quickly introducing a bill that would require nuclear facilities to immediately notify state and federal agencies of all leaks, large or small.

At first it seemed Obama was intent on making a change in the reporting protocol, even demonizing Exelon’s inaction in the press. But Obama could only go so far, as Exelon executives, including Chairman John W. Rowe who serves as a key lobbyist for the Nuclear Energy Lobby, have long been campaign backers, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars dating back to Obama’s days in the Illinois State Legislature.

Despite his initial push to advance the legislation, Obama’s office eventually rewrote the bill, producing a version that was palatable to Exelon and the rest of the nuclear industry. “Senator Obama’s staff was sending us copies of the bill to review, we could see it weakening with each successive draft,” said Joe Cosgrove, a park district director in Will County, Illinois, where the nuclear leaks had polluted local ground water. “The teeth were just taken out of it.”

Inevitably the bill died a slow death in the Senate. And like an experienced political operative, Obama came out of the battle as a martyr for both sides of the cause. His constituents back in Illinois thought he fought a good fight while industry insiders knew the Obama machine was worth investing in.

Obama’s campaign wallet, while rich with millions from small online donations, is also bulging from $227,000 in contributions given by employees of Exelon. Two of Obama’s largest campaign fundraisers include Frank M. Clark and John W. Rogers Jr., both top Exelon officials. Even Obama’s chief strategist, David Axelrod, has done consulting work for the company.

During a Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works hearing in 2005, Obama, who serves on the committee, asserted that since Congress was debating the negative impact of C02 emissions “on the global ecosystem, it is reasonable — and realistic — for nuclear power to remain on the table for consideration.” Shortly thereafter, Nuclear Notes, the industry’s top trade publication, praised the senator. “Back during his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 2004, [Obama] said that he rejected both liberal and conservative labels in favor of ‘common sense solutions.’ And when it comes to nuclear energy, it seems like the senator is keeping an open mind.”

Sadly for the credibility of the atom lobby, some of their more eye-grabbing numbers don’t check out. For example, as noted in a report by the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuke industry claims that the world’s 447 nuclear plants reduce C02 emissions by 30 percent. But existing nuclear plants save only about 5 percent of total C02 emissions, hardly a bargain given the costs and risks associated with nuclear power. As you go up the nuclear fuel chain, you have carbon dioxide emissions at every single step — from uranium mining, milling, enrichment, fuel fabrication, reactor construction to the transportation of the radioactive waste.

Moreover, the nuclear lobby likes to compare its record to coal-fired plants, rather than renewables such as solar, wind, and geothermal. Even when compared to coal, atomic power fails the test if investments are made to increase the efficient use of the existing energy supply. One recent study by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that “even under the most optimistic cost projections for future nuclear electricity, efficiency is found to be 2.5 to 10 times more cost effective for C02-abatement. Thus, to the extent that investments in nuclear power divert funds away from efficiency, the pursuit of a nuclear response to global warming would effectively exacerbate the problem.”

Clearly Senator Obama recognizes the inherent dangers of nuclear technology and knows of the disastrous failures that plagued Chernobyl, Mayak and Three Mile Island. Yet, despite his attempts to alert the public of future toxic nuclear leaks, Obama still considers nuclear power a viable alternative to coal-fired plants. The atom lobby must certainly be pleased.

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: The Politics of Nature and co-edits Joshua Frank is the co-editor of Dissident Voice and the author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush. Together they are the editors of Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland, published by AK Press. Read other articles by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Donald Hawkins said on October 18th, 2008 at 2:30pm #

    I have always been agnostic on nuclear power. I like to hope that, if our next President gives high priority to a low-loss national electric grid, renewables will be able to take over most of the power generation load4. Wind and solar-thermal are poised to become big players. IEA’s estimate that renewables will only grow from 1% to 2% (by 2030!) can be dismissed due to IEA’s incestuous relation with fossil industries – nevertheless, one must have healthy skepticism about whether renewables can take over completely. Maybe an understatement – I’m not certain. James Hansen

    Hansen goes on to talk about 4th generation nuclear power in the Trip Report it’s on his web site. To me the reasons are simple why we may not make it. You know the survival of the human race. Profit all that money and the power the fossil fuel industry has to stop or slow any progress trying to be made. We can’t get there from here. There is a lot to be said about Nationalizing energy. On this present path it doesn’t look good. Solar-thermal will work and can be done in time the hardest part is the low-loss national electric grid. Wind and nuclear if the money that so far has been stopping by the people with the money for funding of research. Of course energy is only one part a big part but farming practices and the way we cut forests is a big one. It all comes back to the money profit the economic system. Bit of a problem but if we can’t change now we probably won’t get a second chance. In the past it was this civilization didn’t make it or that one but this time we all get a piece of the action. The damn problem is it is a little slow but the end result is to late have a nice day. In twenty years from today on this present path tuff doesn’t begin to explain it. Think of this as kind of a war.

  2. Max Shields said on October 18th, 2008 at 5:15pm #

    Donald Hawkins,

    We’d need 750 nuclear power plants to begin to replace fossil fuel.
    Given the problems we have with just over 100 and the incredible costs, that’s not areal option – so I’d leave the “agnostic” side step behind. What’s more nuclear is only good for electricity not the other 90% of what we use fossil for.

    The US has created a deadend society. We need to reduce, drastically, total consumption. We need to move people BACK to dense cities and out of the suburbs where we can optimize efficient energy use. The party is OVER.

    Technology is NOT going to fix this problem. Technology is not a source of energy. ALL of our FOOD REQUIRES fossil. The energy fossil provides touches every inch of our lives. The end – and I don’t mean this as some kind of “chicken little” – is of fossil here. We have yet to feel it; but it is clearly here. Peak oil occurred a few decades ago. The demand for fossil continues to grow expotentially and it will out strip supply. When that happens – BAM! No major oil sources in 40 years. Alternatives will not REPLACE fossil. Let me say it again – WE HAVE CREATED A DEADEND SOCIETY.

    To correct this we will need to utterly change our expectations and our living habits (“life style”) that are nearly all based on cheap fossil. This will be very difficult; BUT it will be unavoidable.

    Chances are we will not move fast enough but will have the beginnings of what will be needed and we’ll need to exploit those for survival.

    The answer is not in a lab somewhere; nor will Orville and Wilbur invent a new thing-a-ma-doozy.

    Our CONSUMPTION has made the problem expotentially unsustainable. That’s not simply a nice word for “farmer’s markets” for lilly white burb dwellers with some extra cash.

    Solutions are possible when we realize the PARTY is OVER.

  3. DavidG. said on October 18th, 2008 at 7:11pm #

    Ah, the party might be over but, as is usually the case, there are still drunks who want to dance and sing.

    I guess we need a monster hurricane or two, or a severe drought or three, or a huge rise in ocean levels. That is the only kind of thing that will rouse the sheeple out of their apathy, force them to get rid of the current cabal of leaders who are taking us to hell!

    No, the Democratic, Faith-based Capitalist (DFC) system is stuffed. Get the full story on my blog!

  4. Hue Longer said on October 18th, 2008 at 8:23pm #

    Just because Gore is a tool and Nuclear is a joke, doesn’t mean that climate change is not occurring…I’m selective when clapping for a St. Clair, Frank piece

  5. Donald Hawkins said on October 19th, 2008 at 5:12am #

    I agree Max and when might we start? As the talk is already about many programs being cut because of the economy. The economy is in shambles as well it should be that greed thing. Last night on CNN they had a special on Wall Street called the end of the fat cats. It was amazing to watch that insanity. It showed I guess this club with the cigars the caviar and oh that arrogance but these people are the secondary the real money you must go up one more step on the ladder. Same thing happens just in a little different way probably less drugs and more booze and that power is very good at keeping you going. I only say this because that arrogance is going to take us all into the darkside. For a long time I thought they knew the problems and just decided to go out in style but maybe that arrogance for most blinds them from the truth. How much money did Wall Street and banks just get from uncle sam to keep the insanity going you know to bring greed back to normal? Oh that’s right this is all being done so Joe public can get car loans and student loans and the moon is made of green cheese. We can’t get there from here and to wait until the droughts are right in our face and flooding and heat and disease millions hungry well it will be to late. There is still time not much but will take focus and minds that I know are out there but not asked to help so far they are the enemy. This administration and his group and maybe the next have they called or will call on these minds probably not. Funny how that works.

  6. Donald Hawkins said on October 19th, 2008 at 6:44am #

    Funny how that works not really. How about a little town hall meeting. On one side Rush and Hannity and Inhofe a few CEO’s from the energy companies and Obama and McCain. Then we have James Hansen Steven Hawking, James Lovelock, Richard Alley, Steffen Konrad that should do it. Could this ever happen of course not as that first group would look like total idiot’s. Now to use the second group to help save our ass and many more would they ask for say 200 million and bonuses and perks I think not. There is the difference.

  7. Donald Hawkins said on October 19th, 2008 at 7:18am #

    How about this at the town hall meeting. You could have Richard Alley who I have seen on the History Channel and he is tuff well all those people in the second group are tuff about as tuff as it get’s. Anyway Richard asks the first group, Ok people all of us in this second group are in agreement that the Earth is a little more than 4 billion years old any thoughts on that. I am sure you would probably hear nonsense at that point. Then you could have Steven Hawking say, this brings up an interesting concept. In the seventeenth century there was this man that told people the Earth was not the center of the Universe but the Sun. After this word got out he was put on home detention. My question is could this happen to us for our ideas on climate change and for that matter the Universe? Then James Hansen could say, does anybody hear that laughter off in the distance it seems to be getting louder.

  8. Marcel F. Williams said on October 26th, 2008 at 2:53am #

    “the nuclear lobby likes to compare its record to coal-fired plants, rather than renewables such as solar, wind, and geothermal”

    Yeah. Right. Let’s compare.

    Nuclear power currently cost 1.68 cents per kWh

    Wind (non-subsidized) cost 4.35 to 6.56 cents per kWh

    solar thermal (Sunny climate) project cost 6 cents per kWh in Southern California

    home photovoltaic (Sunny climate) cost 37.78 cents per kWh

    home photovoltaic (Cloudy climate) cost 83.13 cents per kWh

    commercial photovoltaic (Sunny climate) cost 27.49 cents per kWh

    commercial photovoltaic (Cloudy climate) cost 60.47 cents per kWh

    industrial photovoltaic (Sunny climate) cost 21.41 cents per kWh

    industrial photovoltaic (Cloudy climate) cost 47.11 cents per kWh

    After $45 billion in federal subsidies and R&D for wind and solar, they currently produce barely 1% of our total electricity in the US.

    After $65 billion in federal subsidies and R&D for the nuclear industry (less than 6 billion of that for the Light Water Reactors that power the nuclear industry), nuclear power produces 20% of our total electricity in the US.

  9. Alan Larson said on October 27th, 2008 at 6:14pm #

    I have scanned the article and the responses. I don’t think any of the respondents are engineers. Shouldn’t energy policy be made with great input from the engineering community? Politicians are not experts on this subject. They are experts on people. Right now many people wish to hear their politicians tout “green” solutions to the energy problems. Little to nothing is stated as to whether the “green” solutions are the best solution. Marcel Williams has pointed out some current costs of various energy sources. When the taxpayer receives the bill for “green” energy, nuclear will begin to look pretty good. Unbiased engineering studies can assist the public and the politicians in determining the best energy solutions that are based on fact and not touchy feely ideas of uninformed individuals.

    “We’d need 750 nuclear power plants to begin to replace fossil fuel.
    Given the problems we have with just over 100 and the incredible costs, that’s not areal option – so I’d leave the “agnostic” side step behind. What’s more nuclear is only good for electricity not the other 90% of what we use fossil for.”

    How does Max Shields determine the 750 number? Nuclear plants can be built with different capacities. What incredible costs is he referring to? Does he refer to the capital costs of building the plants or operating costs of the plants? Nuclear plants are competitive. Operating costs can be low. Finally, his statement that nuclear is only good for electricity is silly. Nuclear power is a heat source. It can be used to boil water for electricity, provide the energy for chemical reactions or can be used for such purposes as pumping water for desalination or irrigation. Energy decisions are best made by informed individuals and not on a touchy feely basis.

    There are economic reasons why the horizon is not dotted with windmills. Don’t you think that if wind and solar were an economic source of energy that utilities wouldn’t have already widely adopted these forms of energy? Utilities would rather not pay for the vast amounts of coal that they consume. Transporting and storing coal is a headache.

    I thank the authors for the article. Continuing dialogue will eventually lead to the public realization that new nuclear plants are necessary.

  10. Max Shields said on October 27th, 2008 at 8:56pm #

    Marcel F. Williams,
    Look at Lester Brown’s work on the cost/benefits of nuclear vs renewable. It’s clear from his and many other energy researchers that nuclear is cost-prohibitive if used in any significant way as a substitute for fossil. Given the infrastructure requirements of nukes it is almost unfathomable that one could compare those costs, plus security, plus waste disposal to a relatively simple wind farm. Numbers can be tossed out. I’d suggest a dose of reason as a corrective measure.

    The question of energy use must be looked at from the perspective of consumption. Solutions away from fossil are meaningless unless the vital issue of consumption and the industrial use of resources are altered dramatically.

    Alan Larson you must first answer your own question – what are your qualifications to question my numbers and replace them with what appears to be your own opinions?

    That said, the 750 nukes is based on the current and continued demand for electrical energy using fossil. Nukes do not replace the demand for massive transporation needs which today is based on oil. So, if you were to replace our fossil demands with nukes the estimate given today’s technology is roughly 750 nukes (we have somewhere just above 100 today; all of which require massive doses of subsidization as they are down as much as up).

    Alan this is not simply an engineering problem. It is a human problem which requires more than a technological fix. You cannot deal with this problem unless you are willing to look at consumption and the uneconomics of growth. “Engineering” is not going to cure the fact that our economic mantra of growth is more costly by any measure than simply to stop growing and re-think our economics to one within a sustainable model.

    Like so much we have some decades ago begun the journey on the long emergency. Such journies are easily dismissed because the status quo is such an easy path to continue on. You either intuit the insanity of endless growth, or you simply assume that what is is just what is meant to be.

    If you consider our way of life, the massive waste and consumption we perform minute by minute has existed less than a nano second in the history of human kind; and yet we amazingly see it as if there is something innately human about it.

    What a foolish lot we are!

  11. Max Shields said on October 27th, 2008 at 8:59pm #

    I would also suggest you not fall for the folly of comparing US consumption with France. France is a spec of a country, and uses far less energy per capita than the US. The use of nukes, in my opinion, is unwise, but France has not developed a better technology as much as a very limited use in a country with significantly less energy demands.