If you were to look out to the horizon of the clean energy field right now, you would see the hazy outlines of nuclear reactors. President Barack Obama announced this week that two new nuclear plants will go up in Georgia, built on the promise that the federal government will guarantee $8.3 billion in loans-nearly the entire estimated cost of the project.
"It is a slap in the face to environmentalists," says Matthew Rothschild at The Progressive. "Though these will be the first nuclear reactors constructed in more than three decades, Obama still labeled them, somehow, as part of the "technologies of tomorrow.""
The president's announcement wasn't the only environmental downer this week. Expectations for the next international climate negotiations, to be held in Mexico at the end of 2010, are already low, and yesterday Yvo de Boer, the United Nations' top climate negotiator, said he would step down this summer and join the private sector. To top it all off, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) now faces sixteen lawsuits that would block its ability to decrease carbon emissions, including one backed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R).
A nuclear error
Although the Georgia reactors would be the first new nuclear construction in the country in decades, they mark the beginning of what the Obama administration hopes will be a shift towards nuclear energy. In the 2011 budget, President Obama proposed an expansion of the loan guarantee program that funds projects like these from $18.5 billion to $54.5 billion.
These nuclear projects deserve close scrutiny. At AlterNet, Harvey Wasserman details the problems with the Georgia reactors. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) already rejected the initial designs for the plant. That means the estimated cost could well exceed the projected $8.5 billion, which Wasserman says, was low at the start.
"Over the past several years the estimated price tag for proposed new reactors has jumped from $2-3 billion each, in some cases to more than $12 billion today," he explains.
In the past, energy firms like The Southern Company, the Atlanta-based group that is building the plants, could only imagine securing funding for new nuclear projects. These projects have a high risk of failure, and private investors do not dream of touching them.
Inter Press Service's Julio Godoy reviewed several European studies on the feasibility of financing nuclear plants. One study from Citibank concluded that "the risks faced by developers ... are so large and variable that individually they could each bring even the largest utility company to its knees financially," Godoy reports. These risks include uncontrollable construction costs, long delays, and the possibility of low power prices that would not support that plants' operation.
That's one reason that green advocates disapprove of nuclear energy: The money could be better spent elsewhere. "People tend to think that environmentalists have some sort of allergic reaction to nuclear because they're scared of radioactive waste and unsecured nuclear materials," writes Aaron Wiener at The Washington Independent. "But when it comes down to it...It's simply a bad investment to pour billions of taxpayer dollars into a nuclear sinkhole when proven technologies such as wind and solar would provide guaranteed benefits."
Wind to fly on
While the administration lavishes attention on nuclear, other clean energy industries are trying to move forward. In Wisconsin, a Spanish company is opening up a plant to build wind turbine components, which will bring much-needed jobs to the Milwaukee area, as Kari Lydersen reports for Working In These Times.
There's always the threat, however, that gains like this will be rolled back by competition from China. Clean energy jobs can still be sent overseas, Lydersen points out. She argues that the United State could be providing a boost to the solar and wind industry in order to keep jobs here.
"Manufacturing in the United States could be driven both with incentives to the actual producers - like the tax break to Ingeteam [the Spanish company building the Wisconsin plant] and support for renewable energy through renewable energy portfolio (RPS) standards and other incentives," she writes.
China as competition
From a purely environmental perspective, China's headway into green technology is not a problem. Mother Jones' Kevin Drum reminds us that the whole world can benefit from advances in clean energy, wherever they happen. Climate change is, after all, a global crisis. But Drum concedes that fear of Chinese competition does serve some purpose:
"I've lately become more receptive to the idea that, for better or worse, the only way to get Americans to take this stuff seriously is to kick it old school and start hauling out that old time Cold War evangelism," he says. "Frame green tech as a matter of vital economic and national security superiority over the Reds and quit worrying overmuch about whether that's really technically accurate. Just figure that it's close enough, it's language everyone understands, and it'll do a better job of motivating development than a couple hundred more PowerPoints about receding glaciers."