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Eisenhower and the Road Not Taken: A Cautionary Tale for Obama

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Message HPatricia Hynes
Throughout January 2011, a suite of overlapping articles has extolled President Dwight D. Eisenhower's prescience about the "continuing imperative" of disarmament, the rise since World War II of a "permanent war-based industry dictating national policy," and the need for citizen vigilance and engagement to curb the "military-industrial" (and Congressional) complex.   In his brief January 1961 farewell address, the two-term president also warned of the undue influence of the scientific-technological elite and their quest for magic bullets to cure every ill; of the loss of independent intellectual pursuit in "the free university" with the rise of government research grants; and of mortgaging the future by overconsuming finite resources in the moment.   Manifold insight, indeed.  

Yet eight years prior to his farewell address, Eisenhower made a fateful decision which set our country and the world on a course from which we must find our way back.

The road not taken

As background: In 1951 President Truman created a blue ribbon commission to evaluate and propose a plan for the U.S. energy future. The 1952 Paley Commission Report, named for the commission chair, proposed that the U.S. build the economy on solar energy sources.   The report also offered a strong negative assessment of nuclear energy and called for "aggressive research in the whole field of solar energy" as well as R&D on wind and biomass. In 1953 the new President Eisenhower ignored the report recommendation and inaugurated "Atoms for Peace," touting nuclear power as the world's new energy miracle that would be "too cheap to meter," according to Lew Strauss, Chair of Atomic Energy Commission.   Fundamentalist faith in nuclear energy abounded.

In this same period, photovoltaic solar cells (PV) were developed by Bell laboratories for the new space program and used to power the Vanguard satellite.   Our country was poised to make energy breakthroughs in PV; but, with the magic, millennialist bullet of nuclear power, photovoltaics were consigned to power miniscule cells in watches and calculators. The revolution in solar-derived energy, which should have joined the one in personal computers and the Internet, was aborted.   When it revived much later, it did so elsewhere: in Denmark, Germany and Japan yielding green jobs, industry, technical expertise, infrastructure, and market niche for renewable energy technologies.  

Why the early myopia in energy policy?   Scientists of the 1950s were seduced by the omnipotence of atomic fission and fusion, writes energy policy expert Hermann Scheer and author of the groundbreaking book, Energy Autonomy.   An "arrogant fossil/nuclear worldview emerged," which dismissed solar energy as backward and pre-industrial; as an "ideological fixation and technological pipedream" -- precisely, Scheer posits, what the proponents of nuclear power themselves were guilty of.

How clean is clean?

Today, despite decades of mega investments in and subsidies for nuclear energy (estimated US$1 trillion from 1950-2007) compared to those for renewable technologies (estimated $US 40 billion 1970s-2007), and also worldwide agency and government policy support for nuclear energy, solar-derived technologies have outpaced nuclear power in rate of growth, cost-effectiveness, and job creation. Even so, policy talk about a "nuclear renaissance" abounds nationally and internationally, given the growing specter of climate change. Nuclear power is touted as a zero carbon energy source and then bundled in with renewable energy technologies as the mix of clean energy technologies we must pursue to eliminate climate-change driving CO2 emissions.   With nuclear in the mix, one wonders "How clean is clean?"

Nuclear energy is a wolf in zero carbon clothing whose adverse environmental health, international security, and economic impacts far outweigh its energy benefits. In its full life cycle, nuclear power generates radioactive tailings at mine and mill sites which endanger indigenous communities; generates the suspected carcinogen and mutagen depleted uranium (DU) now used in weapons and warfare; and creates long-lived and highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel with no disposal solution, for future generations to cope with. Nuclear power plants routinely release small amounts of radioactive isotopes during operation and they can release large amounts during accidents. For this latter reason, a 2003 expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences recommended that potassium iodide pills be provided to everyone 40 and younger who lives near a nuclear power plant to protect against exposure to radioactive iodine.

In this era of unconventional war, nuclear power plants are vulnerable to sabotage and attack; and existing evacuation plans in case of a nuclear power plant accident are widely regarded as unrealistic paper exercises. Energy reliance on water-intensive technologies, such as nuclear power, is an ill-fated relationship, as illustrated in the summer 2003 heat wave that gripped half of Europe and caused a record number of deaths. The prolonged heat wave triggered a water shortage resulting in insufficient water for electricity production for air conditioning. Hydropower production declined and nuclear power plants shut down causing industrial activity shutdowns, computers crashes, and harvest failures. Finally and ominously, nuclear power reactors generate the fissile materials enriched to fuel nuclear bombs and inevitably create the risk of nuclear weapons development. Thus, atoms for peace are ineluctably atoms for war and terrorism.   Else, why would Interpol, Europol and other international organizations have initiatives to counter nuclear terrorism? As the UNESCO study on the Ethics of Nuclear Energy Technology states: nuclear energy-using countries, which enrich their own uranium" [are]..nearly de facto nuclear weapons possessing states."


Carbon-free, nuclear-free future

What, then, are the possibilities for an energy sufficient carbon-free future? A critically acclaimed study, Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy, prepared by the Nuclear Policy Research Institute and the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, lays out a carbon-free and nuclear-free roadmap for U.S. energy policy. The study analyzes more than 25 available and nearly available renewable technologies, green building design, high efficiency vehicles and fuels for readiness for large-scale use, next steps for large-scale implementation, and CO2 abatement costs. The overarching finding is that "a zero-CO2 energy economy can be achieved within the next thirty to fifty years without the use of nuclear power." Further, the study found that eliminating CO2 emissions can be achieved with "available or foreseeable technologies," at affordable cost, without buying carbon credits from other countries, and with phasing out oil imports within 25 years.

Historically, renewable energy systems have not been given market and public policy parity with nuclear power. Even without market equity, solar-derived renewables now provide the same percent energy as nuclear power in the United States and are on an industrial growth curve, with prices rapidly dropping while those of the 60-year old nuclear industry soar.   No new nuclear plant has come on line in the United States since 1974.   Consider the 2009 statement by Jon Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, that new coal and nuclear plants are unnecessary and a poor choice of energy investment compared to renewables.


Obama at the crossroads

Thus far the Obama Administration has lingered at the crossroads, taking the politically safe, pseudo-scientific position that our energy future is a mix of "clean" nuclear and renewable energy technologies.  It's time for the Obama Administration and Congress to take the road not taken in 1953. Update and expand the wise, feasible recommendations of the Paley Commission. Give renewable energy systems market priority using all the mechanisms of public policy: investment in research and development, tax credits, green job training, technical assistance to businesses, standards for new building and renovations, and public sector conversion of buildings and vehicles to renewables.

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H. Patricia Hynes, a retired Professor of Environmental Health from Boston University School of Public Health, is on the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice
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