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Taxpayer bailout of big industry – again?

A chapter on the economics of nuclear power, in a 1979 book by Ralph Nader, reads like an oracle for the latest developments in Washington. “As if the threats to health and safety of present and future generations, occupational safety, national security, civil liberties, and to the environment were not enough,” it explains, “nuclear power is also afflicted with economic problems. Utility public relations claims to the contrary, nuclear power is an economic disaster. Plant construction costs and uranium costs are both skyrocketing. Financing . . . is increasingly uncertain. As a result, the giant corporations that make up the atomic industry are coming to Washington to ask for government bailouts. Federal subsidies to nuclear power are already large, but the future promises subsidies that will be much greater and more overt, if the atomic industry continues.”
The industry seemed to be quiescent after this, with utility customers in their electric bill, however, paying for its 1970’s construction boom ever since. The dormancy formally broken early this century, its full public-relations force was unleashed to promote views of need and beneficence of nuclear power. In January, McClatchy Newspapers reported industry outlays for lobbying and campaign-contributions: $663 million this decade, peaking at $84 million in the first nine months of 2009.
The non-competitiveness of its product, when compared with other energy sources, may not deter Washington’s renewed largesse. The US Senate is holding hostage the Administration’s energy bill to the demand, by Lamar Alexander and other GOP proponents principally, that the taxpayer shoulder the loan guarantees for 100 new nuclear plants. President Obama, seemingly in hopes of some minority party buy-in for legislation to curb the greenhouse effect that is creating havoc here and around the globe, is responding to the maneuver. Recently, he announced not only the release of an $18 billion loan-guarantee fund approved under the Bush Administration but plans to add $36 billion to it. It would put the industry well on its way toward the $100 billion bailout it says it needs, minimally, from the federal government.
The Congressional Budget Office has determined that the risk of default of these loans is “well above 50 percent.”
As one more in a series of analyses showing the disastrous economics of nuclear power, the journal Science in November 2009 outlined “A path to sustainable energy by 2030.” Supplies of wind and solar energy on accessible land “dwarf the energy consumed by people around the globe,” the authors state, and renewable sources can provide all the world’s energy needs “at cost less than the projected cost per kilowatt-hour for fossil-fuel and nuclear power.” Besides higher cost than electricity from renewables, nuclear power also emits “up to 25 times more carbon emissions than wind when reactor construction and uranium refining and transport are considered.”
The industry’s PR pronouncements, and politicians and media boosters assert nuclear energy to be “clean,” and “carbon-free.” Remarkable that GOP Senators, while inveighing against budget deficits, should make this nuclear-bailout demand, and the President seemingly to accede to it.