Dear EarthTalk: Radioactive rain recently fell in Massachusetts, likely due to Japan’s nuclear mess. Given the threats of radiation, wouldn’t it be madness now to continue with nuclear power? How can President Obama include nukes as part of a “clean energy” agenda?
— Bill Mason, Hartford, CT
In the wake of the Fukushima disaster in Japan, countries around the world that were growing more bullish on nuclear power are now reconsidering their future energy investments. Germany has shut down seven of its oldest nuclear reactors and is conducting safety studies on the remaining facilities; those that don’t make the grade could be closed permanently. Meanwhile, in earthquake-prone Chile some 2,000 demonstrators marched through the capital to protest their government’s enthusiasm for nuclear power. And China, the world’s fastest growing nuclear energy developer, has suspended the approval process on 50 nuclear power plants already on the drawing board, and begun inspections on 13 existing plants.
But despite calls to shutter the U.S. nuclear program, President Obama remains committed to the industry despite his stated opposition to it pre-election. In December 2007, Obama told reporters at a campaign stop in Iowa: “Until we can make certain that nuclear power plants are safe…I don’t think that’s the best option,” adding that he was much more keen on solar, wind, biodiesel and other alternative fuels.
According to investigative journalist Karl Grossman, Obama changed his tune on nuclear as soon as he took office, “talking about ‘safe, clean nuclear power’ and push[ing] for multi-billion dollar taxpayer subsidies for the construction of new nuclear plants.” Right away, Grossman says, Obama brought in nuclear advocate Steven Chu as energy secretary, and two White House aides that had been “deeply involved with…the utility operating more nuclear power plants than any other in the U.S., Exelon.”
Undeterred by the Japanese nuclear disaster, Obama pledged just two weeks following the initial explosions at the Fukushima Dai-ichi facility that nuclear power should be revived in the U.S., as it provides “electricity without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.” He added that he requested a comprehensive safety review by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to ensure the safety of existing facilities. “We’ll incorporate those conclusions and lessons from Japan in designing and building the next generation of [nuclear] plants,” Obama added.
But just because nuclear energy isn’t a fossil fuel doesn’t make it green, given the ongoing risk of radioactivity. Also, reports the non-profit Beyond Nuclear, “Nuclear power is counterproductive to efforts to address climate change effectively and in time…funding diverted to new nuclear power plants deprives real climate change solutions, like solar, wind and geothermal energy, of essential resources.”
Indeed, if policymakers were able to divert the hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to the U.S. nuclear industry every year to solar, wind and geothermal developers, there is no telling how quickly we could innovate our way to sustainable non-polluting energy independence and put the specter of nuclear power that much further in our rearview mirror. But it looks like as long as Obama remains in office, nuclear will remain a big part of our near term energy future, damn the torpedoes.