Spooked by nukes

    Does Barack Obama have bad luck on the energy front, or what? Last spring he endorsed an expansion of offshore oil drilling – and two weeks later, BP fouled the Gulf of Mexico. Obama has also been touting an expansion of nuclear power – yet now we have three Japanese reactors exploding on cable TV.Let us stipulate (or assume) that the domestic advocates of nuclear power, much like the rest of us, are primarily focused right now on the death, dislocation, and devastation that continues to rock Japan. Everything else is secondary. Nevertheless, one can’t help but notice that the White House and its pro-nuke Republican allies have been laboring in recent days to reassure Americans that exploding reactors and leaking radiation could never happen here.Nuclear power expansion has been one of those issues where the president has sought common ground with the GOP; when he touted nuke plants in his 2010 State of the Union speech, Republicans in the chamber actually cheered. Obama has suggested spending as much as $54 billion on federal loan guarantees to build more plants, and Republicans, perfectly happy with that kind of “socialism,” have crafted an energy plan that envisions 100 new plants in the next 20 years. Which is quite ambitious, given the fact that no domestic nuke plants have been built in the past 30 years.So you undoubtedly see the problem: The Japanese disaster is a PR nightmare, the worst since March 1979, when the nuclear industry and its defenders absorbed the one-two punch of Three Mile Island and the cinematic release of The China Syndrome.For the moment, soothing statements from the White House – “We do see nuclear power as continuing to play an important role in building a low-carbon future, but be assured that we will take the safety aspect of that as our paramount concern” – can’t possibly trump the cable video footage, the headline bombardment, and the reactor crises that are playing out in excruciatingly real time. (Tokyo Electric Power, which operates those reactors, is soothingly apologizing “for causing concern and inconvenience.”)This is woefully unfortuitous timing, particularly for Obama and the other Democrats who have endorsed nuke expansion as a “clean energy” alternative. The GOP certainly won’t soften its longstanding support for nukes just because Japan may be facing a reactor meltdown (Sen. Mitch McConnell on Sunday: “I don’t think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy”), but the Democrats are another story. They already seem a tad less resolute; witness Joe Lieberman, a pro-nuke guy, who said Sunday that “we’ve got to quietly – quickly put the brakes on, until we’ve absorbed…what’s happening in Japan,” and Congressman Ed Markey, a longtime nuke skeptic, who has been emboldened by this crisis to call for a moratorium on nuke construction in seismically active areas, “to step back and do a complete reexamination.”At minimum, the domestic momentum for more nuclear is bound to be slowed, if only because the authorities will now be compelled to ask a lot more safety questions during the long permit process. We currently draw 20 percent of our electricity from104 nuke plants, and with the exception of five reactors now in the pipeline (a Tennessee Valley Authority unit, plus four in Georgia and South Carolina), it’s hard to envision a wholesale construction boom, no matter what Obama and the Republicans may intend.In California, several existing nuke plants are situated near the San Andreas fault; they were built to withstand a 7.5 quake, whereas Japan’s was a 9. Should we be renewing those operating licenses? Or, in terms of California’s power needs, can we afford not to? Indeed, the big impediments to a nuclear future were obvious long before the Japan crisis. It’s wildly expensive to build and operate nukes, even with massive federal outlays, and for that reason alone many energy experts denounce nukes as an inefficient waste of money and resources; as physicist Amory Lovins once quipped, nuclear power is an exceedingly costly way to boil water, “the thermodynamic equivalent of using a chainsaw to cut butter.”And we’re still dealing with our own unresolved environmental hassles. Candidate Obama, during his ’08 campaign, said that “before an expansion of nuclear power can be considered, key issues must be addressed, including security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation.” Yet lately, as president, he has been throwing billions at nukes before tackling those key issues.For instance, there’s still no solution to the radioactive waste storage problem; we’ve been talking about that issue since the era of disco. The current plants annually produce 2,200 tons of waste, all of which has to be stored on site. Do the math: That’s more than 60,000 tons over the past 30 years. And, in light of the Japan crisis, I would like to point out that some of the California nuke plants store their waste adjacent to earthquake faults.For awhile, it appeared that we would be storing our longterm radioactive waste inside Yucca Mountain in Nevada – an option that has sparked volatile opposition among Nevadans – but there’s no way Obama would support that now. Why not? Because Nevada is now a swing state, and he needs those not-in-my-backyard voters in 2012. And so we will muddle along slowly with the nukes, as the PR nightmare presumably dissipates.Bottom line? There are no easy answers on the energy front, no perfect options. If only there was enough switch grass to go around.

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