Grant this much to President Obama: he does not pander to mass opinion. In his first year in office, he stood with Wall Street even after its reckless greed produced an economic collapse that left most Americans calling for bankers’ heads. Now, even as the Fukushima power station threatens to unleash the greatest nuclear catastrophe since Chernobyl, Obama continues to champion an expansion of nuclear power in the United States. On day five of the Fukushima disaster, the Obama administration reminded Congress that it wanted to triple the amount of taxpayer-funded loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants—and this is after having reduced renewable energy loan guarantees by half last autumn.
If anything demonstrates the blind spots in Obama’s oft-stated support for clean energy—and the nation’s need for a bold alternative vision—it is his response to the Fukushima crisis, which at press time had made tap water in Tokyo, nearly 200 miles away, unsafe for infants to drink. The Fukushima disaster has led such previously firm proponents as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the government of China to announce that they will halt or pause planned expansions of nuclear power; but it’s full speed ahead for Barack Obama.
Testifying to Congress on March 16, when partial meltdowns were reportedly under way at three of the six reactors at Fukushima, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that US nuclear plants are safe and that the president wants to build more of them. Indeed, Chu added, the administration is proposing $36 billion in taxpayer-guaranteed loans to entice private industry to do just that. What’s more, this $36 billion would be over and above the existing $18.5 billion in loan guarantees approved under the Bush administration.
As health, education and other social services are being sacrificed on the false altar of deficit reduction, $54.5 billion is a massive amount of money. Worse, Obama is shoveling money at nuclear at the very time he has diverted funds from renewable energy. As ABC News revealed in November, the Obama administration last year “quietly drained” more than half of a $6 billion fund intended to provide loan guarantees for cutting-edge wind, solar and other renewable energy projects. Instead, the funds helped to finance the “Cash for Clunkers” program and an unrelated education initiative.
An internal White House memo, obtained by ABC, warned that green-energy supporters would be “upset” by the diversion. Actually, “livid” is the word chosen by Richard Graves, who volunteered for candidate Obama in 2008 and now blogs for the youth-run website It’s Getting Hot in Here. Calling Obama and Chu “tone deaf,” Graves pointed out that they are allocating many times more money for nuclear than for renewable energy. “Are they just trying to piss us off and lose the next election?” Graves asked on behalf of young climate activists. “Because, they are doing a heckuva job.”
“The administration’s [clean] energy…. policy is not about picking one energy source over another, in fact it is about setting a bold but achievable clean energy goal, and providing industry the flexibility on how best to increase their clean energy [production],” responded Clark Stevens, a White House spokesman. Separately, the administration has claimed that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in February 2009, made “the single largest investment in clean energy in U.S. history,” funding more than 7,000 projects and leveraging $21 billion in private and federal investments.
Obama’s nuclear boosterism is part of a larger meta-narrative dominating discussion of the Fukushima disaster here in the United States. Yes, Fukushima is scary, the narrative goes, but it is far away, our own nuclear plants pose little danger and, besides, neither our economy nor the fight against climate change can succeed without more nukes. Even the usually sensible nonprofit journalism enterprise ProPublica is publishing articles implying that anything less than a Chernobyl-scale disaster amounts to only “limited” impact.
The supreme tragedy here is that more nuclear power is not only unnecessary but downright unhelpful to securing America’s, and the world’s, economic and environmental future. Countless studies have shown that the enormous financial cost and long construction times of nuclear power plants make them the costliest, slowest way to supply electricity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (which is exactly why investors demand loan guarantees rather than risk their own money to build new nukes). From society’s point of view, it is far more effective to invest in energy efficiency in the short to medium term while accelerating the development and mass deployment of solar, wind, biomass, geothermal and other truly green energy sources. Authoritative studies commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace International have shown that the United States and the world could leave both fossil fuels and nuclear power behind and shift to a green energy foundation by 2050 if the right mix of government policies were adopted.
But such tactical choices raise a larger political question: can we establish energy policies that serve society as a whole and not merely corporate and bureaucratic interests? At Fukushima, the corporate mindset led the plant’s operator to delay at least fourteen hours before pumping seawater onto the overheating reactors, and even then it did so only after a direct command from the Japanese prime minister, according to the Wall Street Journal. Seawater, after all, would permanently ruin the reactors and thus render the company’s assets worthless. Instead, the seawater delay encouraged a disaster that has blackened, yet again, nuclear’s reputation, as well as the odds of its renaissance. Nevertheless, nuclear boosters are right: something must take nuclear’s place. Let’s make sure that something is truly green.