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A Nuclear 'Renaissance' Will Burn Us All

On September 2nd, the online energy investment publication ‘Energy and Capital’ ran a pithy little piece in its
‘e-Newsletter’ sporting this intriguing intro:

“We're on the cusp of a nuclear energy revolution. And the chance to reap easy profits from the sector couldn't be easier. The industry is ripe for safety, cost, fuel, and waste innovations. And the companies that fill those gaps could make billions - or trillions – of dollars. That's why Bill Gates is privately funding a nuclear reactor start-up …”

Investor classes – including ‘liberals’ -- go ga-ga over nuclear

I am not an investor myself, but as editor of an energy publication, I do try to keep up on the latest developments in the energy world and, of those who populate this world, the investor class is a particularly intriguing bunch.

Having been whipped into a nuclear feeding frenzy by a stunning array of corporate pundits, columnists, consultants and investment advisors who perpetrate the myth that nuclear power offers massive returns, many are foaming at the mouth over the so-called ‘nuclear renaissance.’

And let’s not fool ourselves. It’s not just right wing conservatives who froth and drool at the mention of easy money. The investor classes have always welcomed opportunists of all political stripes. When it comes to ‘portfolio enhancement,’ there are plenty of ‘Bill Gates-style liberals’ to be found. These liberal corporatists might wax progressive in proper company, but when it comes to their investments, they have no problem assuming a palpably corporate mentality. Today their numbers include a dazzling lineup of ‘neo-environmentalists,’ who march in lock step with the nuclear industry. This group is more than happy to recite the mantra that “nuclear power must be incorporated into the energy mix,” as part of the solution to climate change.

Oh, these ‘realists’ will readily admit that “environmental concerns are always an issue,” but they will hasten to add that, “this is not your mother’s nuclear power,” while uttering some absurd nuclear factoidal fantasy, such as (my personal favorite) “uranium fuel can now be recycled safely.” Never mind that this statement is demonstrably false. Nuclear enthusiasts hoping to profit from the ‘nuclear renaissance’ can’t be bothered by such minor details. They’re far too busy parroting industry talking points or reciting verses from the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI) playbook.

As with the now infamous former Greenpeace activist (and longtime corporate consultant) Patrick Moore, who in 2006 traded in his anti-nuclear status to become a mouthpiece for the NEI front group known as “The Clean and Safe Energy Coalition,” these liberal corporatists can’t quite shed their corporate skins – even in the interest of what used to be called “the greater good.”

Many of these corporatists come from the same mold as those who, during the last presidential election, conveniently ignored President Obama’s political record (including his loyalty to the nuclear industry), presumably for “the greater good,” which to this bunch just happens to be synonymous with a nice thick portfolio.

Setting the record straight on nuclear power

It may well be true that atomic energy – if viewed in a vacuum -- is ‘emissions free.’ At least that’s what ‘neo-environmentalists’ and ‘energy experts’ will tell you.

But these nuclear proponents fail to look at the big picture.

They conveniently forget to include in their assessment the ‘upstream’ (health and environmental) costs of uranium mining and the ‘downstream’ costs of accidents, not to mention the still unresolved issue of transporting and storing nuclear waste (since it can’t be disposed of).

“Nuclear power is receiving growing attention from governments seeking ways to cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” wrote the European Commission in a 2008 environmental policy paper. “However, there is little detailed analysis of the true carbon costs of the nuclear industry.”

The paper goes on to lay out the environmental costs of uranium mining and milling in terms of energy, water (a significant and growing concern) and chemical consumption, as well as GHG emissions, using sustainability and technical reports and historical records of uranium finds.

“Exploiting uranium reserves suggests that environmental costs will increase over time as high grade ore deposits decline and the industry turns to lower grade ore or deeper deposits. Extracting uranium from lower grade ore not only means higher energy costs and greater CO2 emissions, but is likely to increase pressure on water resources.”

Here in the US (which already gets approximately 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants), Big Utilities are thinking about new reactors for the first time since the Three Mile Island meltdown. This, despite global concerns over nuclear proliferation, local concerns about accidents or terrorist attacks and the intractable problem of radioactive waste. Today France gets nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nukes, and Russia, China and India are all gearing up for nuclear renaissances of their own.  

Yet, nuclear opponents – or at least those who are still standing -- know that the so-called ‘nuclear renaissance’ is little more than a corporate packaging gimmick run amok, and that it is hardly a solution to climate change. Those who think it is might want to consider a story posted at the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) website. The headline (and sub-head) from an August 5th Constellation Energy news release, reads as follows:

NUCLEAR RENAISSANCE IN DISARRAY: FRENCH MOVE TO SET ASIDE FUNDS FOR
ANTICIPATED LOSSES AT TROUBLED CALVERT CLIFFS REACTOR, EVEN AS
PRESSURE GROWS FOR $8-$10 BILLION US BAILOUT

Case for Proposed EPR Reactor Grows Worse by the Week With Unresolved Safety Issues,
Rising Costs and Doubts Raised by Former EdF CEO; Are U.S. Taxpayers About to be
Stuck With “the Last Tickets for the Titanic?

The piece features this quote from NIRS executive director Michael Mariotte: “The French and their US junior partners in Calvert Cliffs thought they could put the squeeze on Congress to get what they want, but really they are on the verge of collapsing under their own weight. What this means for the much-hyped ‘nuclear renaissance’ is clear:
There will be no large-scale nuclear revival in the US. Too many in Congress think that simply betting US tax dollars on UniStar/Constellation to build Calvert Cliffs-3 will solve these problems. But the problems are so deep-set that, even if the government puts up $10 billion or more, it will likely only temporarily salvage the project, which even Constellation Energy is no longer committed to carrying out …”

Then there’s Entergy’s Indian Point nuclear plant, which operates just 24 miles north of New York City.

Entergy, owner of Vermont Yankee and at least 10 other reactors, has been plagued with numerous mishaps, including a cooling tower collapse, a transformer fire and a multitude of leaking pipes. Recently an unregulated (and uncontrolled) leak of radioactive waste from the reactor created an underground plume of contamination that migrated all the way to the Connecticut River. The leak reportedly originated in underground piping that had never been acknowledged by Entergy, much less inspected.

Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, has called Entergy’s Indian Point Nuclear Plant “as fat a terrorist target as you can imagine.” And, as for the economics, Lovins put it simply and succinctly back in 2008: “The nuclear revival that we often hear about is not actually happening. It is a very carefully fabricated illusion ... there are no buyers. Wall Street is not putting a penny of private capital into the industry, despite 100-plus percent subsidies.”

Perhaps most presciently, he adds: “Basically, we can have as many nuclear plants as Congress can force the taxpayers to pay for. But you won’t get any in a market economy.”

These concerns have done little to dampen the enthusiasm of the investor classes who, like the ‘Drill Baby Drill’ crowd, seem imprisoned by the limits of their own imaginations. Along with a slew of ‘liberal’ politicians, they have wholeheartedly embraced nuclear power as a ‘clean alternative’ to coal and natural gas.

All these investors understand is that nuclear power is a “hot commodity.”

What they don’t understand is just how hot it might be.
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