THE BLOG
04/25/2007 11:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Spin Over the "Joint Nuclear Energy Action Plan"

I suppose that those of us who troll this site regularly are used to having President Bush pull the wool over our eyes.

But in my over 20 years in journalism -- including a stint as an editorial writer and book editor that blessed me with the trade's brassiest awards, from the Pulitzer Prize on down -- I have never encountered a slicker spin than the administration's announcement today, April 25, of a "joint nuclear energy action plan" between the United States and Japan.

Though the plan won't bequeath you immortality, according to the official announcement here, it will "safely and securely, allow developing nations to deploy nuclear power to meet energy needs" and shower lavish financing on companies that agree to "construct... nuclear power plants in the United States for the first time in 30 years," including a promise that U.S. taxpayers will generously compensate any companies that lose money on the deals.

The plan, the biggest deal that Bush's $405-million "Global Nuclear Energy Partnership" (GNEP) has scored to date, also makes a host of other promises, from "reducing the number of required ... waste depositories to one for the remainder of this century" to "enhancing energy security, while promoting non-proliferation."

Nuclear experts, including those in federally funded agencies such as the National Academy of Sciences and the Government Accounting Office, have said it will be decades before their program can make good on any of those commitments. Both agencies are now studying Bush's latest plan, but neither will be published until early next year.

This information gap, I fear, will lead most mainstream reporters to simply parrot the administration's portrayal of GNEP as some kind of talismanic cure-all, at least from now until President Bush seals the deal by shaking Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's hand at the White House on Friday (April 27).

Had reporters done their due diligence, they would have found that earlier this week, Robert Alvarez, President Clinton's top energy advisor from 1993-99, released a study documenting the many ways in which the Administration's nominally "environmentally friendly" GNEP program could become a deadly and costly fiasco. Published by the Institute for Policy Studies, Alvarez's report is available here.

Alvarez's highly technical study may not be anywhere as juicy as the details elsewhere on this site about why Rosie O'Donnell was fired, but the study boils down to three points

  • GNEP would allow large quantities of cesium 135 -- a radionuclide with a half life of 2.3 million years -- to be disposed in the near surface and pose serious contamination problems for many thousands of years. As Alvarez puts it, "You can't just park some of the most highly radioactive wastes in the world at a landfill and assume that by so doing you have kept them safely removed from humans for the next 2.3 million years."
  • Despite the Energy Department's claims that recycling of reactor spent fuel will solve the nuclear waste disposal problem, a small fraction is likely to be recycled. Uranium constitutes more than 95% of the materials in spent nuclear fuel by weight. But, it will require costly treatment for reuse in reactors - estimated in the billions of dollars. As a result, DOE's plans include the landfill disposal of tens of thousands of tons of recovered uranium.

You might assume -- as most of my good friends are wont to do -- that you are too small and powerless to stop the GNEP juggernaut, I have news for you:

But you'd be wrong.

The Bush administration had asked Department of Energy officials to bar citizens from commenting on GNEP after April 4. But nuclear safety proponents successfully pressed officials to extend the deadline to June 4, leaving all Americans free to submit their views either to their federal legislator or directly to the administration by contacting Timothy A. Frazier by phone (866-645-7803) or email (GNEP-PEIS@nuclear.energy.gov).

So far, the nation's legislators and many reporters have been asleep at the nuclear reactor control panel.

You can help wake them up by asking them to zero out the budget for the GNEP program that Alvarez's study shows to be ludicrously impractical.

Or you could go further and suggest that the leftover funding be diverted into the scores of demonstrably cost-effective and environmentally safe energy-generating alternatives, such as geothermal and hydropower, that the president -- incredibly enough -- is now actually pressing legislators to de-fund in next year's budget.