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Nuclear power plants on federally subsidized life support

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New nuclear technologies offer the potential to phase out polluting forms of energy like coal and natural gas. That would mean a big boost for our energy industry, and a drop in the carbon pollution driving climate change,” said United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse. “This bill builds on our bipartisan success in clearing a path to market for these advanced technologies, while laying the groundwork to help address the challenge of dangerous nuclear waste.”


Over the last couple of years the United States Congress has enacted a steady stream of bills in an attempt to bring back the civil nuclear power industry from the dead. Here are four of these laws with their lovely acronyms:

  1. The Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act (NEICA) signed into law on September of 2018;
  2. The Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act (NEIMA) signed into law in January of 2019;
  3. Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA) reintroduced in March of 2019 and passed out of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in September of 2019; and
  4. The Nuclear Energy Renewal Act (NERA), introduced in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee in July of 2019 and passed out of committee in December of 2019.

United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (Democrat, Rhode Island) has lent a green aura to this legislation. In Republican News he was quoted saying: “New nuclear technologies offer the potential to phase out polluting forms of energy like coal and natural gas. That would mean a big boost for our energy industry, and a drop in the carbon pollution driving climate change. This bill [NELA] builds on our bipartisan success in clearing a path to market for these advanced technologies, while laying the groundwork to help address the challenge of dangerous nuclear waste.”

The claims of Senator Whitehouse and his jolly band aisle straddlers are beyond dubious. The “path to market” is littered with the remains of nuclear power industry giants. Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in 2017. The operating woes of the French company EDF at the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in England are so vast that Standard & Poor’s Global revised its outlook for EDF to negative. That’s investor speak for “Bail, baby, bail.”

Maybe Senator Whitehouse’s staff didn’t find time between fund raisers to brief him on the contents of Advanced Nuclear Reactors: Technology Overview and Current Issues, a publication of the Congressional Research Service. The report, page after page, lists problems with these advanced, generation IV radioactive red herrings. The threat of proliferation is a major security risk as is nuclear waste. There also are numerous material science problems not unlike the “carbon segregation” (read substandard steel) that forced EDF to take of 21 of its 58 nuclear reactors off line just a couple of years ago.

Of dark comedy value is the concern for carbon emissions of climate denying, anything goes United States Senator James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma) as he applauded NEIMA and declared that nuclear energy “is carbon-free, reliable, safe and affordable.”


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The NEICA-NEIMA-NELA-NERA wave of legislation will do nothing to avert a climate disaster. On the contrary, misguided subsidies for nuclear power will hamper the growth of renewable sources of energy. Forget about the nuclear technology details and simply look at the time scales. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change urges ‘unprecedented changes in all aspects of society‘ during the next decade. Generation IV nuclear reactors are not likely “to reach commercialization until 2050,” according to the congressional report mentioned above.

Besides a time-scale mismatch, there is a serious problem with extending nuclear power to global scale. Derek Abbott, a professor in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Adelaide in Australia, pointed out that radioactive waste, accident rates, and proliferation security risks will multiply unacceptably. Obviously, global scalability issues never play a role in the imperial proceedings of the United States Senate.

Nuclear power boosters love the NEICA-NEIMA-NELA-NERA bills. They are thrilled that congress is “leading the way to a clean energy future.” However, none of them mentions the Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act (Price-Anderson Act). The dirty little secret is that if the nuclear power industry had to buy disaster insurance, it would totally price itself out of the market. The law “stipulates sole liability for the plant operator in the case of a reactor accident. This reduces the cost of constructing reactors, since it relieves all suppliers of the possible risks involved with the defective plant components that may later be found to have caused the accident.” Might that be third party, substandard steel as was found in the French reactors?

Former Vice President Dick Cheney summed matters up perfectly when in 2005 the Price-Anderson Act came up for renewal. “It needs to be renewed,” Cheney said. “If it is not,” he continued, “nobody’s going to invest in nuclear power plants.”

However that may be, none of the above really matters. It’s not about green energy. It’s not about “commercialization.” What counts is that the United States nuclear energy enterprise is a key national security enabler, as former Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz‘s Energy Futures Initiative put it. It’s the MICAC, the military-industrial-congressional-academic complex.

Indeed, both Secretary Moniz and former Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch are well aware of all the problems associated with nuclear power. Both are co-authors of a 2009 report that states, ‘‘nuclear power will diminish as a practical and timely option for deployment at a scale that would constitute a material contribution to climate change risk mitigation.’’

The FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act called for a report on “contracting with a commercial entity to site, construct, and operate at least one licensed micro-reactor.” The act requires a report within 12 months after the date of enactment. (See section 327 of this link.) In early November, I asked the offices of United States Senator Jack Reed (Democrat, Rhode Island) and United States Representative James Langevin (Democrat, Rhode Island) to help locate the report. I never received a reply.

You can always count on the someone to come up with a crazed plan to exploit federally subsidized technology. The United States military, the largest polluter under the sun, is looking for tiny, mobile nuclear reactors that fit in United States Air Force cargo planes “to help meet ever-growing demands for power during operations in remote and austere locations.”

Peter Nightingale is a theoretical physicist and teaches at the University of Rhode Island. He strives to leave behind a more just, peaceful, and sustainable post-capitalist world for future generations, and for his children and grandchildren in particular.