Barack Obama is about to address a nation whose greatest potential liability is its Disneyesque illusion of atomic power.
Despite the nation's huge debts and fears of foreign terror, America's 104 licensed reactors are the most dangerous threat to our future. After a half-century of operations, the industry still cannot get more than $11 billion in private insurance against possible accidents whose human and property damage could easily run from mere trillions to the simply incalculable.
In the face of terror or error, earthquake or tidal wave and more, every tick of the atomic clock marks a moment in which a single glitch at a single reactor could forever bankrupt the nation.
Escalating decay at clunkers like Vermont Yankee, New York's Indian Point and so many others define our worst untold crisis.
Yet Obama may ask Congress to bilk taxpayers to build still more.
In the 1950s a cartoon called "Our Friend the Atom" portrayed atomic energy as a "too cheap to meter" savior with no apparent problems. Our very houses would be built with uranium whose glow would provide heat and light on the spot. Atomic airplanes would soar through the sky. Hiroshima-sized "devices" would dig our canals and divert our rivers.
Radioactive waste, lethal emissions, ecological dysfunction, soaring costs, human error, the threat of terror---none had a role in the carefully sanitized Hollywood myth of nukespeak non-realities.
Today the fantasy has been deepened. Nuke waste is "stored energy." Three Mile Island was a "success story" where "nobody died." Chernobyl "killed 31 people." Reactors are an economic disaster because of "over-regulation."
The industry's apparently endless cash still pays for such happy-faced illusions of a technology that has spawned some 450 potential Chernobyls worldwide. Hyped to the hilt, showcase projects in Finland, France and elsewhere are melting amidst interminable delays and astronomical cost overruns. Proposed new US reactors have doubled and tripled in projected price well before the first shovel is turned.
Meanwhile, an energy industry that has disputed climate science for decades now sells its atomic product as the "ultimate cure."
Its backers have demanded---and got---exemption from liability for the full destruction that could be done by future melt-downs or explosions.
And they now want untold billions in loan guarantees. Since 2007 a highly effective grassroots movement has kept the fund at $18.5 billion. With estimates for a single reactor now soaring to $10 billion and more, the industry demands $50 billion, $100 billion, whatever.
Rub the genie's bottle and you might get a firm number. Wish upon a star and you might hear what just one melt-down could actually cost.
In 2010 Obama granted the first $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for a two-reactor project in Georgia. Its price is already soaring. Electric rates there and in any other state that goes nuclear are destined for the twilight zone.
Obama needs to tell it straight---only a total commitment to renewables and efficiency will get this country back on track. The Disneyesque illusion of a "safe, clean, cheap" nuclear industry is a veritable herd of oxymorons.
A powerful, effective national grassroots movement has kept more billions from being dumped into this bottomless pit of bound-to-lose guarantees. We can write Obama asking him to keep the atomic error out of Tuesday's speech. But whatever Obama says, we must win again in 2011. Disneyesque illusions aside, atomic power is about to be transcended by green technologies that are cleaner, cheaper, safer and essential to our real survival.