The nuke power industry is back at the public trough for the fourth time in two years demanding $50 billion in loan guarantees to build new reactors.
Its rust-bucket poster child is now the ancient clunker at Oyster Creek, whose visible New Jersey rust and advanced radioactive decay are A-OK with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which just gave it a twenty-year license extension.
The industry's savior may be France, whose taxpayer-funded EdF and Areva Corporations may be poised to build their own reactors on US soil using French and American taxpayer money.
And President Obama's first big test on nuke power may be how he fills a vacancy -- and the chair -- at the NRC.
The latest demand for a $50 billion taxpayer handout has been sleazed into the Senate budget bill. It has already been kicked out of the Stimulus Package, and George W. Bush's Energy Bills of 2007 and 2008. Bush did get $18.5 billion in guarantees into his 2005 Energy Bill, but that is being being challenged.
This latest bailout incarnation has been widely tagged "nuclear pork" even in the right-wing Washington Times, which says the Senate accepted it "without debate, explanation or a recorded vote." The amendment came from Sen. Michael Crapo (R-ID) with support from Budget Committee Chair Kent Conrad (D-ND). Crapo says the guarantees are part of a program created in the 2005 Bush Energy Bill is aimed at "clean energy" programs, not just "advanced" nuclear power. But no Congressional experts take that disclaimer seriously.
No independent financiers will take an un-subsidized flier on new reactors. Nuke operators can't get private insurance on a major melt-down. With the proposed Yucca Mountain dump all but dead, the industry -- after fifty years -- has no certified place to take its high-level radioactive waste.
Guarantees are also part of a bill supported by Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) and Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees energy spending, and has been working with Securing America's Future Energy (SAFE), a pro-nuke cabal of business and retired military leaders.
Green energy groups such as Friends of the Earth, Nuclear Information & Resource Service, Beyond Nuclear, NukeFree.org, Greenpeace, Physicians for Social Responsibility and others are gearing up for yet another Congressional fight. If they win this time, they'll have to fight it out again and yet again as the industry gloms onto new bills on a "clean energy bank," global warming, reprocessing and more. "The $50 billion in nuke loan guarantees proposed in February's economic stimulus bill were taken out in House-Senate conference following a national outpouring of opposition," says Michael Mariotte of NIRS. "With a similar outpouring, we can defeat these again in the conference committee that will meet after the Easter recess."
Mariotte says green energy groups are organizing a national write-in campaign to begin next week, and a call-in effort for April 27, the day after the anniversary of the 1986 Chernobyl catastrophe. No one doubts the industry will pour on one legislative scam after another in its desperate attempt to get taxpayer money as it is being priced into oblivion by rapid advances in renewables and efficiency.
Reports are also circulating that France's heavily subsidized reactor pushers, EdF and Areva, may use newly purchased stakes in Constellation and other US utilities to strong arm their way into the American electricity market. Among other things they may use French taxpayer money to build reactors on American soil. Their foreign ownership status may insulate them from even the infamously lax NRC regulation. The Atomic Energy Act prohibits "foreign ownership, control or domination" of a US reactor project, but the industry will try to work around that. As the over-priced, inefficient French fleet wobbles at home without meaningful regulation, and with no solution to its waste problems, the EdF/Areva reactor pushers apparently view the US as virgin territory.
Indeed, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission has just granted a 20-year license extension to America's oldest reactor. The Oyster Creek plant opened in December, 1969 with an expected design life of forty years. It now has visible rust around its core and has been constantly plagued by errant releases of hot water and lethal radiation.
Perched 50 miles east of Philadelphia and 75 miles south of New York City, Oyster Creek could not be licensed at all by today's standards. Its reactor containment was never required to withstand a jet crash and is far flimsier than the lid that blew off Chernobyl Unit Four in the Ukraine in 1986, releasing massive quantities of radiation into the surrounding countryside. Because Oyster Creek's old core is laden with far more residual radiation, a breach could blanket the densely populated American northeast with an apocalyptic cloud of death and destruction.
Owned by the Chicago-based Exelon Corporation, Oyster Creek has been bitterly opposed by area residents and nuclear experts who fear its vital internals are crumbling. The re-licensing process did not require a test of metals in the core, which can become dangerously embrittled after decades of exposure to super-hot water and intense radiation.
In 1991, Massachusetts' elderly Yankee Rowe was shut by lightening. Congressional pressure then demanded an embrittlement inspection that the reactor's owners would not do.
Parallel issues have been contested in bitter re-licensing fights at Minnesota's Monticello, Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island Unit One, Vermont Yankee and Indian Point, 45 miles north of New York City. The first terror jet to hit the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 flew directly over Indian Point, whose elderly containments could not withstand an airplane's impact.
But the NRC's willingness to re-license the rickety, trouble-plagued Oyster Creek signals a willingness to ignore a wide range of serious health, safety and environmental concerns.
Thus pushers of the "Peaceful Atom" are pumping hard for taxpayer handouts and against meaningful regulation, even for the oldest and most decrepit reactors still pumping radiation into the American landscape.
Fittingly, there is now a vacancy on the five-member NRC that President Obama could fill. He could also appoint a new chair. The number of Commissioners over the past three decades who have been at all responsive to legitimate safety and health concerns has been miniscule. An independent-minded appointee would signal that the administration is serious about the health, safety and environmental issues that cut to the core of the "Peaceful Atom."
But whomever Obama appoints, it's painfully clear that history's most expensive failed technology is not going away without a long, hard fight.
Harvey Wasserman edits the NukeFree.org website. His SOLARTOPIA! OUR GREEN-POWERED EARTH is at www.solartopia.org.