The eyes of the world are now on the US Senate. Our oil-endangered species anxiously awaits even a tiny American step toward fighting global warming and saving the planetary environment.
But the battered and embattled Energy Bill now being held hostage by the Republican neo-con minority hides two huge victories tentatively won by the No Nukes/safe energy movement. If those victories hold, the odds on human survival could take a quiet but huge leap forward.
The key issues now in the Energy Bill's limelight are big tax break/subsidies for the fossil fuel industry, and a Renewable Electricity Standard that would require a certain percentage of our electric power to come from green sources such as wind, solar, bio-fuels and more.
The centerpiece of the bill has become new standards for motor vehicle fuel efficiency. This could still go down. But the auto industry, and its labor unions, seem to have signaled through Congressman John Dingell (D-MI) that they're willing to accept what's currently in the package, or something similar. (That such standards have already been largely achieved or even exceeded in China, Japan and Europe may have something to do with this accession.)
As for the fossil subsidies, George W. Bush and his minions in the media and Congress are screeching that the grotesque profits being rolled up by their coal, oil and gas cohorts are simply not enough. The only hybrid the neo-cons will now buy is the one mixing that with the notion that truly green power will somehow raise electric rates. Nothing strikes greater terror amongst of the Barons of Old Energy than the vision of an electric grid powered by community-owned wind farms and rooftop solar panels, stretching from sea to shining sea.
But the multi-trillion-dollar transformation from the King CONG madness of Coal, Oil, Nukes and Gas is already underway. The brave renewable world will be powered entirely by natural fuels. Google's deep-pocket leap into that great green sunrise marries the computer revolution that transformed the world of information in the 1990s with the clean power revolution that will remake the energy business of the new millennium.
The entrenched Barons of Oil are a formidable barrier to that transformation. But peak oil has come, peak gas is past, and the ghastly costs of coal are too obvious to ignore. It has become all too clear that very soon we will say goodbye either to fossil fuels or to our ability to live on this planet.
As for nuke power, after 50 years of proven failure, a hugely funded counterattack has been launched to somehow revive this Titanic technology. It's a desperate last gasp for an uncompetitive technology staring at extinction.
In the half-century since the first commercial reactor opened at Shippingport, Pennsylvania, the industry has found no solution for its radioactive waste problem. It can't get liability insurance. It can't protect its reactors from terror attacks, or from errors by its own operators.
Nor can it get its own financing. And here's where the Energy Bill hides our most crucial green victories.
This past summer, US Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM) slipped an obscure sentence into the Senate version. It would allow the Department of Energy to issue unlimited guarantees for building new atomic reactors. By its own admission, the industry wants $25 billion for 2008 and $25 billion for 2009, with untold billions to follow, free of Congressional oversight.
The ploy underscores what's long been known on Wall Street: the Peaceful Atom is the most expensive technological failure in human history. Even under optimal circumstances, no new reactor could come on line in this country in less than ten years. A "new generation" plant under construction in Finland is already two years behind schedule and $2 billion over budget.
The American nuke pushers continually invoke France's 59 reactors, but never mention that they are all owned by a government with a very big export agenda. The French industry is in fact a loss-leader, untroubled by such details as cost, independent regulation, waste disposal or media scrutiny.
The US industry has already punctured its own myth of "efficient standardized designs" by submitting scores of major changes to blueprints it has already run by regulators. Its cost estimates and construction schedules have already been deemed absurdly optimistic by such independent observers as Moody's.
Most importantly, every passing moment renders nuke power significantly less competitive with advancing green technologies that have long since passed it by. In an intense two months, anti-nuke/safe energy forces rallied through the www.nukefree.org web site and a wide range of environmental and internet allies. Mixed in came support from free market groups like the Cato Institute and Forbes Magazine, which dislike a technology that can't compete after five decades on the federal dole.
Spurred on by a music video featuring Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Keb Mo and Ben Harper, more than 120,000 signatures poured in against the nuke loan guarantees. On October 23, the petitions were submitted with Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA), Shelly Berkeley (D-NV) and John Hall (D-NY), and the core of the environmental movement on hand.
Under the leadership of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the subsidies were dropped from the Energy Bill. At the same time, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), as Chair of the Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works, deleted a laundry list of nuke handouts from the Global Warming Bill being championed by Senators Joe Lieberman (D-CT) and John Warner (R-VA).
The victories are not etched in stone. Nuke backers could inject the guarantees into the hectic negotiations now roiling the Energy Bill. Those handouts could resurface in the Lieberman-Warner Bill, which will be voted on next year.
Domenici says he'll continue to push for nukes until he retires from the Senate next year. Rumors are now flying that he is already pushing for the guarantees to be included in the upcoming omnibus appropriations bill, where the complexities of the legislative process will make the battle even fiercer and more delicate than in the Energy Bill. Key votes on that could be coming within days. As always, stopping nuke power will require our full and immediate attention.
For the stakes couldn't be higher. New reactors are indeed on order and under construction in Russia, China, India and elsewhere. But except for France, the major economic powers of Europe---most importantly Germany, Spain, Sweden, Denmark and Italy---have turned their collective back on nuke power. The global take-off toward renewable energy would gain serious----perhaps definitive---altitude from an American decision to not build more nukes.
Which is the hidden big picture behind these radioactive loan guarantees. Despite all the "nuclear renaissance" hype, no new reactors will be built in the United States without taxpayers footing the bill, a la France.
If that underwriting is stopped here, the flight toward a green-powered planet might rise to unstoppability. And our species just might find a way to solve the climate crisis and survive on this planet.
Harvey Wasserman edits the www.nukefree.org web site and is senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service. He is author of SOLARTOPIA! Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030.