America's New Nuke Showdown Starts Now!
As Fukushima continues to leak and smolder, what may be the definitive battle over new nukes in America has begun.
The critical first US House vote on a proposed $36 billion loan guarantee package for reactor construction may come as early as June 2. Green power advocates are already calling and writing the White House and Congress early and often, gearing up for a long, definitive showdown.
Germany and Japan have made their decision---the "Lethal Atom" has no future.
The coffin nail is Fukushima. Substantial radiation still leaks from three or more of its six reactors. Volatile fuel rods are dangerously exposed. Various containment and fuel pool structures are compromised. Heat and radiation still pour into our global eco-systems, with no end in sight.
Thankfully, a global citizens movement helped lower the amount of plutonium-based MOX fuel loaded into Unit Three. Without that, Fukushima's emissions would be far more lethal.
As it is, fallout continues to be detected across Europe and the United States. Fukushima is now rated on par with Chernobyl, by some estimates the killer of more than a million people.
For Prime Minister Naoto Kan, Japan's energy policy must now "start from scratch," with a sharp turn to green technologies. More than a dozen proposed reactors will not be built. Some existing ones---including at least two at Hamaoka---will join the six at Fukushima on the shut-down list, at least for the time being. Three more are still closed from a 2006 earthquake at Kashiwazaki.
Germany's Solartopian turn is even more radical. Long a nuclear advocate, center-right Prime Minister Angela Merkel has ordered seven old German nukes shut immediately. The country's other ten may run until 2021.
But a top Merkel-appointed commission sees this as a global game changer. "A withdrawal from nuclear power will spur growth, offer enormous technical, economic and social opportunities to position Germany even further as an exporter of sustainable products and services," says a 28-page report. "Germany could show that a withdrawal from nuclear energy is the chance to create a high-powered economy."
Both Japan and Germany---the world's third- and fourth-largest economies---have already made substantial investments in green technology. Much of that was developed in the United States, which has paid a heavy price economically and ecologically for its atomic addiction, and now stands to lose even more ground in what will clearly be the energy growth center of the new millennium.
Some $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for new reactor construction was put in place under George W. Bush. In 2007 the nuclear lobby tried to add $50 billion. The industry has spent some $645 million---$64.5 million per year---over the last decade twisting Congressional arms.
But a nationwide grassroots movement rose up to stop them. In every year since 2007 citizen action has beaten a variety of attempts to slip the industry more handouts. Local movements movements throughout the US focused growing demands for the shut-down of old reactors. In Vermont, a March, 2012 drop dead date looms ever larger, forced by a wide range of political pressures that could start an avalanche of closures.
Yet just last year Obama dropped $8.33 billion in loan guarantees on a bitterly contested double-reactor project in Georgia. Two other reactors are scheduled for South Carolina, where ratepayers are expected to foot the bill as construction proceeds.
But $36 billion in proposed new guarantees were stripped out of the Continuing Resolution that's funding the government for 2011. Now Obama wants them for 2012.
Ironically, the leading candidates for the money have collapsed. A Japanese-financed project for Texas and a French one in Maryland are all but dead. Financial, licensing, siting, design and political problems have decimated the remaining list. The pressures on old and new US reactors, and the collapse of the industry in Germany and Japan, appear on the brink of pushing a failed technology into the scrap heap of history.
But the budget is now headed to Congress, guarantees and all. First stop is a House Appropriations sub-committee, where a vote could come as early as June 2.
Fukushima has changed the nuclear map. Italy and Switzerland have put proposed projects on hold. China, the biggest potential future market, has said it is re-evaluating its atomic future, especially with radiation pouring into it from nearby Fukushima.
But Obama has all but ignored the accident. He gave an early national address telling the American public not to worry about Fukushima's radiation. Despite widespread reports of contamination here, the feds have provided no systematic monitoring of fallout and no guidance on what to do about it.
Amidst a heavy budget crunch, the administration must now justify lavishing taxpayer money on an industry that can't get private financing or meaningful liability insurance, can't compete in the marketplace and can't deal with its wastes.
As evidenced by the sharp green turns in Germany and Japan, renewable technologies have come of age. The Solartopian vision of a green-powered Earth has now definitively attracted two of the plant's four largest economies.
In short, we are at the tipping point where renewables are cheaper and more attractive to national-scale investors than nukes.
Without these guarantees, America's nuclear industry has future prospects ranging from slim to none.
The ante is being raised in Vermont, New York, California and in other states where fierce battles rage to shut existing reactors, many of which are on earthquake faults and virtually identical to those now spewing at Fukushima.
So now we are engaged in what may be the final, definitive battle over the future of atomic power in the United States.
Over the next few months, millions of dollars will pour from the industry's lobby into the coffers of Congresspeople willing to vote them billions. The White House shows no signs of turning away from that particular tsunami.
But against all odds, a grassroots green-powered citizens movement has been holding its own. If it does so again this year, a sustainable future may finally be within reach.