As dramatic photos of a 13-story apartment building lying on the ground in Shanghai make the rounds on the Internet, it's easy to look at the hollow pilings at the base of the building that have no rebar and say: "Yes, this craftsmanship is brought to you by the same folks that make your kid's toys and want to build your next car." It's harder to say: "Yes, this is China on steroids, trying to play catch up with the U.S."
What makes this problem more challenging is that China is picking up the worst of American technology along with its best. For example, to keep up with U.S. consumer demand, China has bought and imported the worst of our outdated, pollution-spewing, coal-fired power plants. American coal power plant owners made out like bandits in the sale and transfer of outdated technology. Under-regulated, their Chinese counterparts have made millions on their rapid manufacture of products for the U.S. market.
China has also picked up the American Dream of a "chicken in every pot, and a car in every garage." Their congested highways also underscore their success at the rapid transfer of this fossil fuel technology. However, while the U.S. has focused on bailing out an auto industry that still thinks 25 mpg is "fuel efficient," China is now steering itself toward a future powered by electric cars.
Back in the U.S., the failing nuclear power industry is holding its breath. With 104 licensed nuclear reactors reaching the end of their 30-year lifespan can the industry persuade both the U.S. and China that "untouchable" nuclear power with all its risks (untouchable without government intervention) is still a viable option for generating electricity?
As nuclear critic and author Harvey Wasserman reminds: there has not been a single nuclear reactor built in the U.S. over the past 30 years. And, after 30 years, there is still no safe storage option for its highly radioactive uranium-based fuel. Our reluctance to embrace Iran's nuclear power ambitions also reminds us that the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation from refined nuclear fuels is still lurking in the shadows. In fact, the other dirty little nuclear secret is the high cost of decommissioning outdated nuclear reactors.
Can the U.S. nuclear power industry turn to President Barack Obama for help? Does Obama's recent pledge of $8.3 billion in loan guarantees to help Atlanta-based Southern Company build two nuclear reactors in Burke County, Georgia, offer them any hope? Does it allow them to play a shell game with the Chinese?
Here's how the shell game could work. If the coal industry could sell outdated, pollution-spewing, coal-fired power plants to China, could the nuclear power industry do the same thing? Could they get rid of their unresolved and unfunded decommissioning headache with the same trick?
In fact, would a sale of our aging nuclear reactors to China solve part of our radioactive waste storage problem? Stay tuned. China may say "Thanks, but no thanks!" By now, they may be on to America's failed promise of "energy that is too cheap to meter" and are ready to Just Say NO.