President Obama claims he wants to transform America's energy economy away from the fossil fuels that presently provide the lion's share of our energy. He talks about investing tens of billions of dollars for renewable energy technology research and development and to create a "smart" electricity grid. He pushes for a costly cap-and-trade system, while promising the creation of millions of new green jobs. All of this is designed to curb the greenhouse gas emissions he claims imperil the planet.
So why does his administration show hostility to the one technology that can provide reliable, industrial-size amounts of energy while emitting absolutely no carbon dioxide? If Obama is genuinely concerned about slashing emissions, then his antagonism toward nuclear power makes no sense.
Two examples have emerged recently giving credence to the notion that Obama's energy policies are crafted to appease certain constituencies rather than effect the transformation to a post-carbon economy.
The first came two weeks ago when the Department of Energy abruptly turned down USEC, Inc.'s application for a $2 billion loan guarantee to help it finish building an advanced uranium enrichment facility in Piketon, Ohio. The plant was already under construction. Officials had every reason to believe the federal loan guarantee that would help nail down additional private funding was coming. After all, during the campaign last year Obama pledged his "full support" to the enrichment facility project. He promised, "I will work with the Department of Energy to help make loan guarantees available for this and other advanced energy programs that reduce carbon emissions."
So much for campaign promises. In late July the Obama Administration instructed USEC to withdraw its application, saying the company had failed to prove the enrichment technology was commercially viable. As a result, USEC announced it was demobilizing the project, and many employees could lose their jobs.
The Obama team's explanation for its decision is mystifying. USEC's program was already well along, having secured the necessary construction and operating licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 2007. More than that, the project's centrifuges have already undergone more than 150,000 machine hours of tests to enable researchers to hone designs and improve reliability. These have been successful enough for the company to finalize design and begin seeking components from manufacturers. USEC had all its ducks in a row to help provide low-enriched uranium to the 21st century nuclear energy marketplace, yet Obama's Department of Energy (DOE) called its efforts "failed."
Even more insulting, one day after denying USEC's $2 billion loan guarantee request, DOE announced it will provide $30 billion in loan guarantees for extremely speculative renewable energy projects to harness wind and solar power. Considering the billions of dollars in additional subsidies DOE gives for alternative energy research and production, it seems anybody with a half-baked idea who goes hat-in-hand to Washington will get a check. But a proven commercial technology like that demonstrated by USEC gets the rug pulled out from under because it is associated with nuclear power. That may please anti-nuclear green activists who voted in droves for Obama, but it obviously won't help America solve its future energy problems.
The decision to deny the loan guarantee drew ferocious condemnation from USEC, which figured it should be able to count on the president's word. It also drew widespread public criticism from a range of Ohio politicians. Surprised by the blowback -- and realizing perhaps that a fair number of job losses in a critical swing state could be directly pinned on the Obama team -- the Energy Department relented and announced several days later that it will delay a final decision for six months. Expect to see an announcement half a year from now congratulating USEC for making the necessary improvements in the project to qualify for the loan guarantee. Given the reaction to the initial decision, it makes far less sense for Obama to continue with this particular sop to the green lobby. Better to save face -- and jobs -- and find other ways to appease the anti-nuclear left. That's how politics works. It's understandable, but it doesn't give much confidence that the president's team takes the nation's energy challenges all that seriously.
At roughly the same time the Obama Administration reneged on his campaign promise to USEC, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was crowing that the White House privately has assured him it will eliminate funding for the proposed Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository by 2011. The idea is to hamstring the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's ability to complete its independent scientific assessment of Yucca Mountain's suitability to store high-level nuclear waste.
Obama is trying to kill Yucca Mountain by a thousand cuts. Unfortunately, he has not proposed any alternative for secure waste storage, aside from a promise to convene a blue-ribbon panel of experts to study an issue which the government has already spent tens of billions of dollars studying. Spent fuel continues to accumulate in temporary pools outside the nation's 104 commercial nuclear reactors. Without any sort of resolution, some reactors eventually may be forced to shut down when their temporary facilities are filled. How that will help curb greenhouse gas emissions is unclear. But at least the White House has a happy Harry Reid on its side.
Obama promised at his Inaugural to restore science to its rightful place. When it comes to nuclear power, however, Obama's politics kick science to the curb.
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