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Esther J. Cepeda

Esther J. Cepeda

Posted: August 14, 2008 12:12 AM

Nuclear Power Could Fuel Chicago's Economy


John McCain just put it right out there last Wednesday: the answer to our pressing energy needs? Go nuclear.

While on the hustings in Michigan, and while ridiculing Barack Obama's suggestion to keep car tires inflated for better gas mileage, McCain suggested that 45 nuclear power plants built by the year 2030 would help decrease America's reliance on oil, sending shudders of revulsion over anyone who still has images of 1986's Chernobyl nuclear reactor disaster chemically burned on their brains.

Let's for a moment, set aside the Simpsonian three-eyed fish your mind's eye has conjured and give it a think: maybe these wouldn't be "your father's nuclear plants." And maybe there's more to gain than cheap energy: like scores of good old American jobs.

Months before Chicago-based energy giant Exelon announced their comprehensive plan to offset or eliminate over 15 million metric tons of greenhouse gases - the equivalent of taking almost three million cars off roads and more than Exelon's own carbon footprint - by 2020, John Rowe, the company's President and CEO, was getting nuclear power on Chicago's radar.

At a May Executives' Club of Chicago breakfast, Rowe pitched his plan to corporate America's elite. After ticking off reasons why natural gas reserves and coal coupled with wind, solar, and water power schemes are both unsustainable and too expensive he pitched nuclear (which I'm very happy to report he pronounced correctly) energy.

"I can't imagine society dealing with carbon without nuclear energy...to sustain [American's] way of life," he said. "The alternatives range from being substantially inconvenient to catastrophic."

In a room full of investment bankers and business wonks twisting in their seats, Rowe admitted the very term "nuclear" was enough to turn people off, but he insisted it was the only foreseeable path to energy independence. A path fraught with challenges but loaded with opportunities as well.

"One plant costs five to seven billion dollars and eight years to build, and even if we started now the new ones wouldn't replace those out of service - we need hundreds of new plants," he said.

And that's where the opportunity comes in. According to Rowe, a guy who has invested heavily in Chicago schools - many of them in rough inner-city neighborhoods - a nuclear push would require human capital on an epic scale. "We can design and operate them, but who will build them?" he asked. "We need people to build these things, everything from PhDs to welders to make it happen. We need people."

Imagine if you will the full weight of Chicago's corporate and governmental resources trained on a city full of young brown and black student cash cows - millions of dollars poured into neighborhood schools in 'hoods and townships across Illinois designed to build the next generation of resident engineers and skilled laborers tasked with building the next generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants across America!

Savor it: Chicago, epicenter of the world's sustainable energy brain and brawn trust.

Hey, it could happen...because at the end of the day it's all about making money. And at the end of Rowe's speech it was apparent that it's also about leveraging influence.

Peruse the latest polls on voter attitudes toward pro-nuclear candidates and you'll find no surprises: a July USA Today/Gallup poll found - shock! - that more Republicans (58 percent) feel favorably toward a pro-nuclear power plant candidate than Democrats (51 percent). They were certainly similar in May.

Rowe was clear on this point: "It's not going to be cheap and convenient but it will be a lot less [costly] if we face these issues squarely. And we need the political will to get these things done."

Perhaps McCain, and Chicago's corporate ruling class, were listening.

Follow Esther J. Cepeda on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@ejc600words