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Nuclear is not a panacea

nuke.jpgAt the Washington International Renewable Energy Conference, a global ministerial-level gathering held in early March in Washington, D.C., President Bush stated “We’ve got to get off oil. … [O]ur dependence on fossil fuels like oil presents a challenge to our environment. When we burn fossil fuels we release greenhouse gases. The concentration of greenhouse gases has increased substantially.”

That’s pretty amazing, coming from a guy whose administration has scoffed at the notion of conservation and stifles administration staffers who talk openly about the dangers of climate change.

The problem is what Bush said next.

“I believe developing nations ought to be encouraged to use nuclear power,” he said. “I believe it will help take pressure off the price of oil, and I know it’s going to help protect the environment.”

He also claimed that nuclear power is safe and should be expanded in the U.S. with the help of a federal risk insurance program and loan guarantees for nuclear power plant developers.

Bush has been always been bullish on taxpayer giveaways to corporations, especially to energy companies. Congress has pushed them too. In fact, in the 2007 appropriations bill, the nuclear industry got $20 billion in loan guarantees.

The industry has responded enthusiastically. In the past two years, the government has received five applications to build and operate new nuclear power plants in the United States, and the administration expects another 13 applications to be submitted this year. But watch out. The nuclear giants are successfully socializing the costs at your expense and privatizing the profits.

Still, Congress wants to keep feeding the beast.

The latest bone thrown the industry’s way is tucked in a bipartisan global warming bill introduced in October by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and John Warner (R-Va.). Called America’s Climate Security Act of 2007 (S. 2191), the bill is the first climate change legislation to have a serious shot at being passed. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works approved it in December 11-8.

The problem is, it shouldn’t pass.

The measure outlines an elaborate cap-and-trade system that would enrich the fossil fuel industry. It also would give $542 billion to “zero and low carbon energy technologies.” Gee. Wonder what that could be? That’s right: nuclear power.

Expanding nuclear power is a terrible idea. Contrary to assertions by the industry, nuclear power pollutes. It requires uranium mining, which contaminates groundwater and exposes workers to radon.

Then there’s the problem of highly radioactive nuclear waste. Nuclear waste is so hot that it must be stored on-site at nuclear plants for years before it can be moved anywhere.

Currently, dangerous radioactive waste is sitting at more than 100 plants around the country because there is no place to store it safely in the long term.

Yucca Mountain in Nevada has been designated as a waste repository, but it is plagued with problems. For one thing, it sits atop a drinking water aquifer in an earthquake zone. For another, if it were open, an unprecedented amount of radioactive waste would have to be shipped from all over the country by rail, road and barge. Radioactive waste would pass through as many as 45 states and the District of Columbia, putting it within half a mile of 50 million people.

Further, more nuclear power means more potential for nuclear weapons proliferation. As more reactors are built around the world, nuclear material becomes more vulnerable to theft and diversion. Sensitive nuclear technology such as uranium enrichment and spent nuclear fuel reprocessing are ostensibly employed to create fuel in power reactors, but they can be easily redirected to produce weapons-grade fissile material. Moreover, power reactors themselves produce plutonium, which may be used in bombs. Power reactors have also historically led directly to nuclear weapons programs in many countries.

The bottom line? Nuclear power is not financially sustainable. The industry simply cannot make ends meet without massive taxpayer handouts – we’re talking billions of dollars that could be far better spent to develop sustainable energy solutions.

Some in the progressive community speculate that it would be better for Congress to do nothing this year about climate change and wait until after the presidential elections to tackle it. Others say we cannot afford to wait.

Here’s a quick solution that we can embark on now: Rather than throw more money at the nuclear industry, we should invest in wind, solar and geothermal energy solutions.

We should provide incentives for people to buy energy-efficient appliances and expand mass transit so we can get vehicles off the road and reduce greenhouse gases. And we should initiate a national campaign to make all homes, businesses and manufacturing buildings energy-efficient, which would create millions of jobs.

Public Citizen is doing its part to halt the expansion of nuclear power. We are helping communities in Maryland, Texas and Virginia block new nuclear reactors. And we are pushing hard to direct government funds into sustainable energy.

Please do your part. Call the Capitol switchboard at (202) 224-3121 and ask to be connected with your senators. Tell them not to approve the Lieberman-Warner bill.

The flaws of nuclear power – excessive cost, security threats and long-lived radioactive waste – have not been solved. More nuclear reactors will only exacerbate these problems. We must avoid repeating history by bailing out this 20th century technology and instead focus on 21st century solutions that are clean, safe and sustainable.

(This commentary was also published in Public Citizen’s member newspaper. More articles from the latest edition of Public Citizen News can be found here.)