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Harvey Wasserman

Harvey Wasserman

Posted February 9, 2009 | 11:07 AM (EST)

$50 Billion Debate vs. Pro-Nuker Patrick Moore on Democracy


A coalition of environmental groups are calling on senators to remove a controversial provisions from the $900 billion stimulus bill that could lead to the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants. We recently hosted a debate between independent journalist and longtime anti-nuclear activist Harvey Wasserman and Patrick Moore, a Greenpeace co-founder and member of the pro-nuclear Clean and Safe Energy Coalition. The transcript follows:

Amy Goodman: As the Senate continues debate on President Obama's $900 billion economic stimulus plan, a coalition of environmental groups are calling on senators to remove a controversial provision that could lead to the construction of a new generation of nuclear power plants.

The Senate bill includes a proposed $50 billion in federal loan guarantees that would likely go to nuclear power and liquid coal technologies. The amount is just a fraction of what the nuclear power industry is seeking. Last year, the industry asked Congress for $122 billion in loan guarantees in order to build twenty-one new nuclear reactors.

No nuclear plant has been built in the US since the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979. Critics of the proposal question the safety of nuclear energy, doubt the federal loan guarantees would provide much of an immediate stimulus to the economy. But supporters of nuclear energy say nuclear should be considered a clean, safe and emissions-free source of power.

We're joined now by two guests to debate the issue. In the early '70s, they were both prominent members of the anti-nuclear movement. Today, they take opposing views on the future of nuclear energy. Harvey Wasserman is with us, an independent journalist, longtime anti-nuclear activist. In the early '70s, he helped found the grassroots movement against nuclear power in the US and helped coin the phrase "No Nukes." He joins us from Ohio via DN! video stream. Patrick Moore is with us. He's co-founder and former leader of Greenpeace. He now serves as co-chair of the pro-nuclear Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, known as CASE. He's joining us from Boston.

Let's start with you, Patrick Moore. Why do you support this provision in the stimulus plan?

Patrick Moore: Well, first, it's important to set the record straight on when the last nuclear plant was built. There were forty-seven nuclear plants commissioned in the 1980s. Three Mile Island was in 1979. So it's not as if Three Mile Island really marks the end of building nuclear in the States. About nearly half the plants in the United States were built after Three Mile Island or commissioned after Three Mile Island.

I support nuclear power simply because I think we all made a big mistake in the 1970s by confusing nuclear energy with nuclear weapons. Greenpeace started against US hydrogen bomb testing in Alaska. We were all scared as young people back then, myself at the University of B.C. doing a Ph.D. in ecology, that we were going to be wiped out by an all-out nuclear war. And we thought everything nuclear was evil. That would be as foolish as thinking that nuclear medicine was evil.

Nuclear medicine is a very beneficial use of nuclear technology, and the medical isotopes that are dangerous otherwise are used to diagnose and cure many, many millions of people every year. Those medical isotopes are made in nuclear reactors in the same way that we can make electricity in nuclear reactors, and I don't think we should mix the destructive versus the beneficial uses of nuclear technology up in the way we did back then.

AG: Harvey Wasserman, why are you opposed? Why do you want this out of the stimulus plan?

HW: Well, there's no reason for the United States taxpayers to get stuck with another $50 billion tab for building new reactors that Wall Street won't fund. Nuclear power has failed utterly in the marketplace, and it's back at the taxpayer trough trying to get more money.

And this is a time when we actually need stimulus in our economy, and no nuclear plant that's funded now with taxpayer money could come online for at least a decade. It's a complete waste of money. It has no business being in the stimulus package, and people need to call their senators and Congress people to stop this from happening. It's a real perversion of the stimulus package. And the Senate may vote on this as early as this week, possibly next week, and we have a very difficult struggle to get rid of this $50 billion boondoggle going into the stimulus package. It has no business being there.

And what's more, the reactors that would go under construction will be dangerous. They will be terror targets. We have had experience with atomic reactors causing cancer, leukemia, birth defects in the nearby neighborhoods where they've been built. We have fifty years of experience with atomic power, and it's all been bad. So, we have wind and solar and tidal and geothermal technologies that are ready to move ahead, along with the restoration of mass transit and the increasing efficiency in our economy. This is where our energy money needs to go, not to a failed twentieth century technology that cannot get private funding and, by the way, that cannot get private insurance.

The United States government and the taxpayers are still on the hook for the financial impacts of any major catastrophic meltdown. The public was told in 1957 that soon private insurers would come forward and insure nuclear power plants against major disasters. That has not happened. And to this day, the taxpayer is on the hook if we have a catastrophe by terror or error, and it seems to me that that needs to end.

AG: Patrick Moore?

Patrick Moore: Well, actually, Amy, there's 104 nuclear power plants operating clean and safely every day in the United States, more than any other country in the world. Nuclear energy provides 20 percent of US electricity, and that amounts to nearly 75 percent of the clean energy now being produced in the United States.

It is simply impossible to run the world on wind and solar energy. They are intermittent. They don't work when the wind stops blowing or the sun stops shining, and we need backup power, base load power that's there 24/7. Unless we build nuclear plants, we've got to keep building coal plants and more gas plants, which are fossil fuels that release greenhouse gas and cause air pollution. The whole reason for the nuclear renaissance around the world is energy security and climate change and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions into the air. And Harvey and the rest of the people in my old organization of Greenpeace are stuck in the 1970s mentality. They have to come forward in time and think about what it is we can actually do.

We're not going run the country on tidal power, Harvey. It's just -- that's a pie in the sky, and so is a lot of the other stuff about running the country on wind and solar. They have their place in the scheme of things, but they cannot run the country.

So how are we going to produce the thousands of megawatts of power we need every day, especially when we're going to start charging our cars, our batteries in our plug-in hybrids, which doesn't make any sense to charge a plug-in hybrid on a coal-fired power plant or a gas plant. It makes a lot of sense to charge it on hydroelectric, nuclear and wind, when the wind is blowing. But, you know, you've got to have something for when it isn't, the two-thirds of the time when it isn't. Unfortunately, every time you build a wind farm, you have to build a gas plant to back it up. And that's going to make --

AG: Alright, let's get Harvey Wasserman's response to Patrick Moore.

HW: Well, Patrick, unfortunately, hasn't advanced much since he's signed up with the nuclear power industry. Nuclear power is a failed technology. We have $50 billion lined up in the Congress that needs to stop and not come out of the taxpayers' pocket, because, among other things, the reactors that these $50 billion would fund cannot come online in less than a decade. We need the answers to our energy solutions now. It's nuclear power that's really pie in the sky. It's a failed technology.

The first reactor went online in 1957 in Shippingport, Pennsylvania, and we have a half-century of experience with this. The nuclear industry still cannot get private insurance against a major catastrophe. You do not have to take out insurance on a wind farm against an accident or a terror attack that will destroy an entire city.

We need to build technologies that will come online, will bring us energy within a year or two, and that's wind, solar, tidal, geothermal, increased efficiency. The plan is there. Take a look at Carbon-Free, Nuclear-Free by Arjun Makhijani. There's plenty of other things, my own Solartopia book. We all have plans--

AG: Harvey, Harvey --

HW: -- that are very clear, but [inaudible] work.

AG: Steven Chu, President Obama's Energy Secretary, seems to agree with Patrick Moore. Among the things he said was -- this is Steven Chu -- "There is certainly a changing mood in the country, because nuclear is carbon-free, that we should look at it with new eyes."

HW: That's fine, but the fact is that we disagree with Steven Chu on that, and you also have to pay for these reactors. The Seabrook nuclear plant, Shoreham, Three Mile Island itself, Diablo Canyon in California, these reactors came in at more than 500 percent over budget. The average construction cost for a new nuclear plant in the last century, in the twentieth century, was twice as high as originally estimated. There are reactors now that are supposedly going to go under construction in Florida whose price -- estimated price has tripled, prior to even digging the first shovel at the construction site.

AG: Patrick Moore, what are you going to do with the nuclear waste?

PM: We're going to recycle it and use the 90 percent of the energy that's still in it. One of the great secrets that's been kept from the American people is that the used nuclear fuel, which does contain a small amount of waste that needs to be taken out of it before it can be recycled--the used nuclear fuel that is now at all the reactors around the country is one of the most important future energy resources, which is domestic, for the United States. There's twenty times as much energy in that used fuel as was produced in the original cycle when it went through the first time. But let me answer Harvey's point about tax --

AG: Wait. On that issue of --

HW: Amy, by the way --

AG: On that issue of waste, I want to ask -- get Harvey Wasserman's response to that.

HW: Oh, by the way, that's utter nonsense. Talk about pie-in-the-sky technology. The recycling of nuclear fuel has been a disaster in Britain, France and Japan. It is not workable technology. It creates much more toxic nuclear waste than was originally dealt with. And it's not economic. We have experience with attempting to reprocess nuclear fuel, and it has failed. That's why the $50 billion in this stimulus package has got to come out.

PM: And that's one of the reasons I left --

AG: Patrick Moore?

PM: One of the reasons I left Greenpeace is because people like Harvey spread this misinformation. The French are fueling twenty-two of their fifty-nine nuclear reactors on recycled fuel. Just go to COG La Hague. They've got a huge facility there. Japan has also built a $30 billion facility to fabricate and recycle fuel.

But on the point of taxpayers, every other country but the United States has state-owned electrical utilities -- Canada, France, Britain, you name it. The government takes 100 percent of the risk on electric utilities, because they are perceived as a monopoly and a national security issue in most countries. The United States is the only place where private capital is expected to pay for electricity infrastructure.

And the only reason wind and solar are being built is because of mandates and extremely high costs being paid to these technologies. It's political. If there was no subsidy for wind and solar, there would hardly be any wind and solar. People would be building base load power like nuclear and fossil fuels. But, you know, I'm not in favor of continuing to build coal plants. I think 50 percent is enough. That's how much electricity in the US comes from coal. And again, it doesn't make sense to charge a plug-in hybrid or run a ground-source heat pump on a coal-fired power plant. It just puts the pollution somewhere else.

HW: No, but it does --

AG: Harvey Wasserman?

HW: It does make sense to run them on wind farms. And Patrick, who is Canadian makes a good--and will not be paying, by the way, for the $50 billion bailout that the nuclear industry wants in advance here. And by the way, the congressional budget office has warned that 50 percent of the nuclear utility--the utilities that build nuclear plants will go bankrupt.

And he has -- Patrick has pointed out, you know, that the nuclear utilities in Europe are all government-owned. All this hype about the French reactors putting out so much energy obscures the fact that these are owned by the government. It is a national socialist form of electric generation. We don't want that in the United States.

And by the way, don't go anywhere near the La Hague reprocessing facility. Every country in Europe has asked France to shut down this reprocessing facility, because it's such a major polluter. It has put huge quantities of radioactive waste into the water bodies around it, and every other country in Europe is asking that this reprocessing facility at La Hague be shut down. The same with Sellafield in England, and the Japanese plant also, the reprocessing plant, has tremendous problems.

Reprocessing nuclear fuel is pie in the sky. We don't want this $50 billion rider stuck into the stimulus bill. People need to call their senators and Congress people and get it out. Patrick, you pay taxes in Canada. You want to pay for it up there, that's your issue, but don't tell us here in the United States that we've got to pay another $50 billion for a failed twentieth century technology that can't stand on its own.

AG: Patrick Moore, your response? Your response on the French plant that you just recommended?

PM: Well, first off, that's total misinformation that other countries are asking France to turn it off. It's just completely ridiculous. Most of the countries in Europe depend on nuclear energy for their electricity -- Slovakia, 60 percent; Belgium, 65 percent; France, 80 percent.

HW: That doesn't speak to reprocessing. Speak to reprocessing.

PM: Yeah, but that's the only way -- it's the only way to get the energy out of the used fuel, Harvey, and people are doing it around the world. The United States is thirty years behind.

HW: At huge cost. It's extremely expensive. It doesn't work. We have a $50 billion boondoggle coming down the line here.

PM: Do you think that if -- do you think that if it was --

HW: It's got to get out of this stimulus package.

PM: Do you think that if it was too expensive, the French would have 80 percent of their electricity coming from nuclear? They have a very --

HW: Yes, because it doesn't work in the marketplace. The French industry is national socialism. It's owned by the government. There is not -- the private money in the French industry is minuscule. The French reactors cannot compete in the marketplace.

PM: Since when have you become a champion of capitalism, Harvey?

AG: We're going to have to leave it there. We started with Patrick Moore, so we ended with Harvey Wasserman. And I want to thank you both for being with us.

HW: Thank you, Amy. Very good.

AG: Patrick Moore, co-chair of the pro-nuclear Clean and Safe Energy Coalition, based in Boston. Harvey Wasserman, independent journalist, well-known anti-nuclear activist.