Japan notwithstanding, President Obama and the overwhelming majority of congressional Republicans and Democrats have been stone silent on the loud demands from environmentalists and even many scientists for a permanent ban on building new nuclear power plants in the U.S.. The rare dissent has been Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey. He's publicly and incessantly demanded that the 30 year moratorium not be lifted for issuing any permits to build brand new plants in or near earthquake zones.
But Markey's call for the new permit ban retention is tantamount the proverbial boy with his finger in the dike trying to hold back the sea. It's no accident that one of the very few issues that battling and contentious Congressional Democrats, Republicans and President Obama march virtually in lockstep on is the need for more -- much more -- nuclear energy. There are 18 applications pending for new licenses to build the new plants. And with the never ending fear and mania about where America is going to get its energy in the next couple of decades if the Mideast blows up the nuclear power option increasingly seems like the best option to assure meeting the country's energy needs now and in the future. That concern is legitimate, and the nuclear power industry, knows it, and to insure that the government stays the nuclear energy course it has dispatched an armada of lobbyists to Capitol Hill and opened its substantial checkbook wide to reopen the gate again for the proliferation of new nuclear plants.
The Nuclear Energy Institute which is the leading organization for the nuclear power industry has been virtually camped out on Capitol Hill the past few years pushing hard for nuclear power. The Institute has nearly doubled the money that it's spent on lobbyists from $1 million average a decade ago to nearly $2 million in 2010. But that sum has been relatively small change in the money derby to jumpstart nuclear energy expansion. Fourteen companies shelled out $8 million to Republican and Democrats through their political action committees since 2008. Even this figure has been dwarfed by the spending of the electric utilities and the oil and gas companies. They stand to gain the most from the new plant construction and operation. They've poured in nearly $50 million to both parties in the past few years.
The dollars spent seem big, but the money has been well spent. A decade ago, the mere mention of restarting the nuclear energy expansion program would have drawn howls of protest from many in Congress and any such proposal would have been DOA before it ever hit a congressional committee hearing.
But the oil and energy scare, and the industry's well-heeled spending and lobbyist blitz has radically changed that. The industry scored its first big win during the congressional budget wars. The budget cut happy GOP dominated House gleefully hacked away $61 billion from programs in the 2012 budget, and that included funding for loan guarantees for the development of green energy projects and programs. When it came to nuclear energy projects it was a far different story. The GOP did not touch $18.5 billion in loan guarantees for the industry. Meanwhile, Obama went much further. He proposed loan guarantees to the tune of $54.5 billion to build new reactors.
The great debate has always been over just how profitable is nuclear energy. Maintaining and building reactors is expensive, uncertain, risky, and layered with a Mt. Everest size stack of rules, regulations and standards that the plants must adhere to. This costs money, lots, of it. And that's where the lobbyists, political action committees, and direct payouts to the politicians come into play. The industry needs hefty and iron-clad government subsidies in the form of loan guarantees, tax subsidies, liability limits and caps, risk insurance, production tax credits for units of nuclear generated electricity, and shut down subsidies in case of accident, repairs, and construction delays. This all costs money, and the less the utilities, oil and gas companies and building contractors have to pay out of pocket, to cover the costs, the greater the profit, and the lower the risk for them.
The nuclear energy industry has perfected its financial marriage of convenience with the government over the past decade. And with the perennial scare of energy source depletion, disruption, and dependence, few in Washington will ever dare say no to nuclear energy; again Japan notwithstanding.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a national Capitol Hill broadcast radio talk show on KTYM Radio Los Angeles and WFAX Radio Washington D.C. streamed on The Hutchinson Report Newsmaker Hour on blogtalkradio.com and wfax.com and internet TV broadcast on thehutchinsonreportnews.com