The Obama Administration Must Abandon Its Nuclear Energy Policy

03/17/2011 12:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Wednesday, confirmed to Congress that the Obama administration would continue to propose more than $8 billion in loan guarantees for the construction of a new fleet of nuclear power plants. As Secretary Chu cautiously acknowledged the administration's budget request during congressional testimony, reactor number four at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power station was on the verge of melting down -- one of its spent fuel tanks completely drained of water.

It's confounding why and how the White House can continue to endorse this policy, given what we've witnessed in Japan, while everyone from Europe to China is backing away from nuclear power until they can reassess the dangers of a Fukushima-style event.

Originally, the administration's inclusion of nuclear as part of its comprehensive energy policy wasn't quite as head-scratchingly bizarre as its support for, say, the fairy tale of "clean coal." But it still indicated a major shift for the Democratic Party. Democrats are doing nuclear power now. Okeedokee. What's the idea here? Was it a political move -- a compromise in which a push for cleaner, safer energy sources would win some additional Republican support? Regardless of the political angle, it's clear now that the policy remains intact and they don't appear afraid to mention it in public, even while Fukushima disintegrates.

I was one of many supporters of the president who vocally disagreed with the policy, and for three specific reasons: 1) nuclear power is dangerous, 2) the lesson from The West Wing, and 3) the Republicans tend to deregulate things.

Having lived in Pennsylvania for 20 years, equidistant between the Limerick power plant and Three Mile Island, the thought of another meltdown always lingered in the back of my neurotic mind. It already happened once at TMI, and Limerick is built in an earthquake zone. While fossil fuel consumption, both in terms of immediate disasters and the impact of climate change, is remarkably deadly, nuclear power has registered an enormous death toll. Following the Chernobyl disaster, chromosomal abnormalities and neural tube defects have occurred. The actual death toll ranges anywhere from 4,000 to 500,000.

So, yes, there are fewer meltdowns than there are mine collapses and oil spills, but the death toll of one meltdown is far greater than other near-term energy-based fatalities.

During the final season of The West Wing, a significantly less dangerous crisis occurred at a nuclear power plant in California, and it turned out the Republican candidate for president, Arnold Vinick played by Alan Alda, had pushed through the licensing for the facility. Of course it was a political disaster for the Vinick campaign. A dramatic storyline, but also, in keeping with a variety of story arcs in that series, a prescient one.

Future events notwithstanding, at least two nuclear power plants, Oyster Creek in New Jersey and the Yankee station in Vermont, continue to leak radioactive material into the surrounding area. Consequently, it seems politically and ethically foolhardy for the president to vocally support nuclear power while ballyhooing its "safety." (The Oyster Creek plant shares the same design as Fukushima, by the way.)

Does President Obama, like the fictional Arnold Vinick, really want to be associated with another potential nuclear disaster -- even by simply repeating the myth of nuclear "safety?" And, looking ahead, would anyone want to be the public official who greenlighted a loan guarantee for a power plant that eventually melts down? The West Wing nuclear story was a cautionary tale. And now, with Fukushima as a backdrop, all that talk about the "safety" of nuclear power makes the president, not to mention every Republican including John McCain, appear seriously disingenuous on the topic of nuclear safety.

But part of me wanted to support the president's nuclear policies. After all, I was told, he's going to push through serious regulations to guarantee safety with top shelf technology and significant advances in terms of containment. The administration, this week, said it will continue to pursue nuclear power "safely and responsibly." Yes, nuclear is clean (except for the toxic waste) and it's renewable. But can anyone seriously vouch for its safety -- or can anyone vouch for the regulatory responsibility of future presidents and congresses?

Republicans are all about rolling back regulations on industries. It's not outside the realm of possibility for a future Republican president -- and, yes, there will be a Republican president one of these days -- to deregulate the nuclear industry. How do we know this for sure? The previous Republican president did that exact thing in 2006.

Calling nuclear power an overregulated industry that needs a jump-start from Washington, President Bush on Wednesday pitched his plan to expand nuclear power generation by dealing with radioactive waste, lessening regulations and reviving nuclear fuel processing.

The backdrop for the president's effort was the Limerick Generating Station, a nuclear plant operated by Excelon Corp. about forty miles from Philadelphia. Bush donned a white hard hat for a brief tour, then spoke to employees in a sweltering tent set up in the shadow of the plant's two enormous cooling towers.

Bush argued that nuclear power is abundant, affordable, safe and clean.

As I wrote earlier, the Limerick power plant, where President Bush called for the deregulation of the nuclear industry, is third on the list of nuclear plants at the mercy of potential earthquakes. Number three out of 104 American nuclear facilities. Just 39 miles or so from Philadelphia. And a Republican president called for the deregulation of that and other stations while standing in the shadow of those familiar cooling towers. So it's naïve to believe that whatever regulations the Obama administration establishes with its new fleet of loan-guaranteed stations won't eventually be deregulated by the Republicans. Republicans deregulate. It's what they do. Incidentally, it's worth noting here that Fukushima was tightly regulated by Japan and, had it not been, the current meltdown situation could have been far worse -- if that's even possible.

So where does that leave us with our national energy policy? With an ocean of oil still lingering at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and the situation in Japan deteriorating by the second, now isn't the time to beat our faces against the same old school energy sources, and to expect different results.

Now is the time for an Apollo program for clean, affordable and renewable energy.

Imagine if, in May of 1961, President Kennedy had said, "First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the North Pole -- perhaps by airplane or blimp." Exciting. But that's what we're doing with our current energy goals: more of the same. Not unlike President Kennedy's actual remarks to Congress, it's time once again for "this nation to commit itself" to another moon-style mission, but dedicated to finding a new source of fuel that meets our needs in a way that won't be cost prohibitive for average Americans; that won't compound the effects of the climate crisis; and that's both renewable and sustainable.

Why not do this, and why not now? It's not unthinkable or impossible. And given the tragic events of the past year, not to mention the impending future disasters at the hands of man-made climate change, we simply don't have the comfort of time or the lethargy of modest expectations. Let's get going.

EDIT: Adjusted the numbers regarding Chernobyl fatalities.