Glow job

Aug 22, 2007 at 12:00 am

As far as opponents of nuclear power are concerned, Fred Upton, a Republican congressman from St. Joseph, has earned a leading spot on their most unwanted list.

To get an idea of why Atomic Fred is being vilified, take a gander at this message recently sent out by the watchdog group Beyond Nuclear, which calls Upton the nuke industry's No. 1 cheerleader.

"U.S. Representative Fred Upton of southwest Michigan is doing the nuclear power industry's dirty work yet again. He is leading the effort to try and lock in a mind-boggling $50 billion of federal subsidies over the next two years for the building of new nuclear power plants."

Those federal subsidies are needed because Wall Street won't invest in nuke plants unless there's a federal guarantee that taxpayer money — billions of dollars' worth — is guaranteed to be available should problems occur. You know, things like a repeat of the fiasco at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuke plant in 1979.

The way the big-money boys see it, nuclear is just too huge an investment risk without the guarantee taxpayers will be there to bail them out if something goes wrong. As environmentalist and author Chip Ward was recently quoted saying, "Wall Street won't invest in nuclear power because it's too risky. ... The partial meltdown at Three Mile Island taught investment bankers how a $2 billion investment can turn into a billion-dollar clean-up in under two hours."

Ever since the TMI incident and the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl plant in what was then the Soviet Union, neither the public nor the financiers are all that hot on nukes. But with the support of George "Nukular" Bush, a technology the president can't even pronounce correctly is gaining new traction. Ironically, a power source that could kill millions if there's a serious mishap and that produces lethal radioactive waste for which there is still no safe disposal is being hailed as a green technology that will supposedly help curb the production of greenhouse gasses that are causing the Earth to heat up.

That's why, after decades of stagnation, the nuke industry is again on the march.

"We have not built a new nuclear plant in over three decades, but nuclear power is a common sense solution to the demand for clean energy," Upton declared earlier this month.

There are currently 65 nuclear power plants with a total of 103 nuclear reactors in the United States; three of those plants are in Michigan. In the works are plans for another 28 new reactors at 19 plants. Among the proposed projects is a new reactor to be built by DTE Energy, probably at its nuke plant in Monroe.

"DTE is already seeking to charge an additional hundreds of millions of dollars on Michigan ratepayers' electricity bills in order to build its new reactor," said Michael Keegan, of the Coalition for Nuclear-Free Great Lakes in Monroe. "And if Upton gets his way, DTE could take billions more from federal taxpayers as well, all to generate yet more radioactive waste for which we have no safe solution."

Ah, yes. The radioactive waste. The plan has been to bury the stuff deep beneath the Earth's surface at Nevada's Yucca Mountain. But that effort is progressing slowly, in large part because the people of Nevada don't want it.

Upton has introduced legislation to help push that project along as well.

But what about the argument that new nuke plants will help keep the planet from overheating by reducing our output of greenhouse gasses?

Writing for the most recent issue of Orion magazine, a publication of the nonprofit Orion Society (which seeks to inspire individuals and organizations to become a "significant cultural force for healing nature and community"), antinuclear activist Rebecca Solnit does a fine job of slicing apart that baloney.

First of all, it will be a decade or (in all likelihood) more before any new nuke plants come on line. We don't have that much time. Moreover, nearly all the uranium mined for use as nuclear fuel has to be enriched before it can do the job, and enriching it is an "energy-intensive" process. She points out that four coal-fired plants were "operated in Kentucky just to operate two uranium enrichment plants."

Here's the big point to keep in mind: "Nuclear power plants, like coal-burning power plants, are about retaining big infrastructure of centralized power production and, often, the habits of obscene consumption that rely on big power."

Here's another thing to keep in mind, says Keith Gunter, a metro-area anti-nuclear activist who sits on the board of the group Beyond Nuclear: "Remember how we were originally told nuclear power would be so cheap that it wouldn't even be worth the expense of metering?" The claim that nukes are the way to save the Earth from global warming, he says, is every bit as dishonest a promise.

The folks at the watchdog group Public Citizen have a similarly jaundiced view of the nuclear industry's promises. "While more than $50 billion in loan guarantees is an outrageous subsidy and an enormous risk for taxpayers, it would cover only a handful of new reactors," said Tyson Slocum, director of the group's energy program. "Building a few more reactors wouldn't do a thing to reverse climate change, but it would produce more radioactive waste and increase security and safety risks to the public."

News Hits just thought you might want to keep all this in mind as the debate heats up, as surely it will. As a source in Upton's office recently told the online publication EnergyWashington, "We hope the climate change bill to be debated in the fall will include a nuclear component." That same source also predicted receiving significant support from congressional Democrats.

And why not? After all, nukes are the new green. Right?


News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]