Reciting his boilerplate clean-energy language in the State of the Union address Wednesday night, President Obama managed to say one thing that stood out. He called for “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”
Well, that’s new. Throughout his presidency, Obama has gone out of his way to avoid mentioning nuclear power at all, though he has delivered numerous speeches around the country touting the virtues of clean-energy technologies such as wind and solar. Judging by its conspicuous absence from these talks, nuclear power has clearly been out of favor with this president.
According to the White House website, President Obama has only made public reference to nuclear energy three times before last night. Two of those were cursory observations that the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill could be a boon to development of low-carbon technologies, including nuclear power. The other was a puzzling mention in a major address delivered last April in Newton, Iowa. Obama stated that we will need supplies of oil and natural gas in the short term, because we won’t transform our energy economy overnight. To that he added, “We also need to find safer ways to use nuclear power and store nuclear waste.”
But here Obama made a troubling transition. The next sentence out of the president’s mouth was: “But the bulk of our efforts must focus on unleashing a new, clean-energy economy that will begin to reduce our dependence on foreign oil, will cut our carbon pollution by about 80 percent by 2050, and create millions of new jobs right here in America.”
Got that? Nuclear is part of the ancien régime — like oil and coal and natural gas — that Obama’s green revolution would overthrow.
That’s an odd position to take about the only viable technology capable of producing reliable, industrial-sized amounts of zero-emissions power. Either it betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about energy basics, or it suggests the president’s pledge to move to a green economy is more about serving Democratic constituencies (environmentalists and labor unions) than about curbing emissions to save us from global warming and rising sea levels.
Also, his administration seems to disdain the thought of doing what’s needed to construct the new generation of nuke plants he called for last evening. The most galling evidence is the handling of the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository, construction of which was approved by bipartisan majorities in Congress in 2002. The Obama administration is starving the Yucca Mountain project of funding, and has hinted at sabotaging the license-application process that’s already underway before the independent scientific assessors at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Legions of scientists have exhaustively studied Yucca Mountain for three decades. They overwhelmingly conclude it to be a safe, secure location to house the nation’s spent nuclear fuel. There is probably no better example of a true scientific consensus on any major political issue.
The administration has never explained why Nevada’s Yucca Mountain is unacceptable, because it can’t. However, it does want to help avowed Yucca foe Harry Reid in his tough reelection bid this year. Shuttering Yucca Mountain does that. Undermining sound science to keep a Senate seat arguably makes for smart politics, but it’s terrible (and grossly irresponsible) policy.
Last March, Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced that he would convene a “blue-ribbon panel to develop a long-term strategy that must include the waste disposal plan” as a way to compensate for abandoning Yucca Mountain. “I don’t want to suggest what this blue-ribbon panel might determine, but let me stress this will be done this year,” Chu told a Senate committee. Much like Obama’s promise to close Guantanamo Bay within one year, that hasn’t happened. No blue-ribbon panel has been convened, and waste policy is in disarray. This threatens the viability of nearly two dozen proposed commercial nuclear reactors that are on the drawing boards. It also leaves taxpayers exposed to tens of billions of dollars in liabilities to electric utilities, which have shouldered the burden of dealing with nuclear waste for years while the feds have been collecting a surcharge from ratepayers.
So why tout nuclear power now? Former Democratic National Committee chairman Ed Rendell told Sean Hannity last night that the nuclear line was a bone thrown to Republicans in the name of bipartisan outreach. Along with opening up limited areas offshore for oil and gas drilling, saying yes to nuclear power is a bid to attract some GOPers to support the president’s manifestly unpopular initiatives, such as cap-and-trade.
It really is just politics. To this White House, nuclear power is merely a horse to be traded. If it truly is the case that the administration is casually ambivalent about nuclear power and its potential for generating gobs of green energy, then it would seem Obama and company are even less worried about global warming than the so-called skeptics they chide.
In 2007, Obama explained he was running for president “because I don’t want to wake up one morning four years from now . . . to see that the oceans rose another few inches and the planet has reached the point of no return because we couldn’t find a way to stop ourselves from buying oil from dictators. I don’t want to see that.” Given how he deals with nuclear power, one can only conclude he didn’t mean a word of it.
– Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.