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Obama’s Push For Nuclear Energy Presents Several Problems

, February 17, 2010

President Obama announced an $8.33 billion federal loan for construction of a nuclear reactor in Georgia yesterday. Energy Secretary Steven Chu later elaborated that the Georgia project is the first of "at least a half-dozen, probably more, loans." While the backing of nuclear plant construction is an attempt to create bipartisan support for clean energy, the announcement has drawn criticism from both fiscal conservatives and environmental activists. Both cite the nuclear industry's history of hundreds of billions in budget overruns, and the cost of maintaining abandoned plants. Even the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) warned that the risk of default on new nuclear plants could be as high as 50 percent. Chu responded to the CBO concerns that he expects the risk of default to be "far less than that," without providing a figure.

The Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit science advocacy group, said that the new construction would "shift unacceptable risks from the nuclear industry to U.S. taxpayers" and called the federal loan program "a prime example of pork-barrel politics on behalf of special interests."

 

Environmental critics also argued that no safe plan for storage and disposal of nuclear waste currently exists, which means that nuclear energy is clearly not “green.” 2,000 tons of radioactive waste is added every year to the more than 70,000 tons already stored at sites around the country.

Several plans to deal with the nuclear waste have failed in recent years. In 2006, the George W. Bush’s Department of Energy proposed the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP). This international plan sought to increase and promote the use of nuclear power in both the U.S. and abroad, by offering foreign countries to opportunity to import their nuclear waste into the United States, at which point this “spent fuel” would be reprocessed further for American power uses. GAP teamed up with other groups to take a stand against this badly thought-out plan. GAP produced two reports on GNEP, Risky Appropriations: Gambling US Energy Policy on the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership and Radioactive Wastes and the Global Energy Nuclear Partnership, which detailed the insurmountable flaws with the program. These included the lack of any economic analysis of the costs and benefits, that none of the proposed GNEP technologies and processes existed in commercially viable applications, and that GNEP would likely worsen the radioactive waste disposal problem and make the United States the dumping ground for nuclear waste from the other participating nations. In April 2009, the Department of Energy, after receiving much resistance to GNEP from the public interest and environmental community, announced the cancellation of any domestic part of the plan.

Also in 2009, the Obama administration scrapped a Bush administration plan to create the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada after concerns were raised over safe cross-country transfer of used nuclear material. The spent material remains radioactive for thousands of years. However, both critics and enthusiasts of nuclear power agree that keeping the material at nuclear plants, which is the current solution, is not viable long term.

"We haven't found a solution for the 100 nuclear power plants operating," said a representative from the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. "And waste is building up on-site, with no solution."