It is fast becoming one of the most important issues of the 2008 presidential campaign. Oil prices are expected to rise to even higher levels as the United States dependence on foreign crude is becoming increasingly unstable. And the perceived threat of global warming is making even the most skeptical of politicians nervous. The future of planet Earth, they claim, is more perilous than ever. Al Gore has made an impact.
But 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, not only in the US, but all over 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.
Barack, for the second quarter in a row, has surpassed the fundraising prowess of Hillary Clinton. To be sure small online donations have propelled the young senator to the top, but so too have his connections to big industry. The Obama campaign, as of late March 2007, has accepted $159,800 from executives and employees of Exelon, the nation's largest nuclear power plant operator.
The Illinois-based company also helped Obama's 2004 senatorial campaign. As Ken Silverstein reported in the November 2006 issue of Harper's, "[Exelon] is Obama's fourth largest patron, having donated a total of $74,350 to his campaigns. During debate on the 2005 energy bill, Obama helped to vote down an amendment that would have killed vast loan guarantees for power-plant operators to develop new energy projects the public will not only pay millions of dollars in loan costs but will risk losing billions of dollars if the companies default."
"Senator Obama has all the necessary leadership skills required to be president,'' says Frank M. Clark, chairman of Exelon's Commonwealth Edison utility.
These gracious accolades come from one of Exelon's top executives, despite the fact that Obama proposed legislation in 2006 that would require nuclear plant operators to report any hazardous leaks. While introducing the legislation Obama noted the failure of Exelon to report a leak of radioactive tritium into groundwater near one of their Illinois plants. But the senator's criticism of nuclear power goes only so far.
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 CO2 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 CO2 emissions by 30 percent. But the true villain behind global warming is carbon. Existing nuclear plants save only about 5 percent of total CO2 emissions, hardly a bargain given the costs and risks associated with nuclear power. 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 CO2-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 atomic 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 Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book is End Times: the Death of the Fourth Estate, co-written with Alexander Cockburn. St. Clair's new book on the environment, Born Under a Bad Sky, will be published in December.
Joshua Frank is co-editor of Dissident Voice and author of Left Out! How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush (Common Courage Press, 2005), and along with Jeffrey St. Clair, the editor of the forthcoming Red State Rebels, to be published by AK Press in March 2008.