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"Forget the Rest" blog

Press Notice 1/31/06

Bush Nuclear Power Initiatives To Be Announced Tonight
Likely to Proceed Upon False Assumptions

As in Iraq, policy likely to be “fixed” around
pre-determined choices, special interests

Contacts: Greg Mello, 505-265-1200; Peter Neils, 505-243-2546

Albuquerque – Tonight, President Bush’s State of the Union address is expected to contain references to a new nuclear electric power initiative.  Details of what this might involve are sketchy at best, but initial reports suggest grandiose plans are involved.[1] 

            It is possible that many observers will grant three assumptions, stated or unstated, that may underlie Mr. Bush’s nuclear initiatives – if not tonight then in the planned roll-out to follow.  These are:

1) Major investments in nuclear power can and therefore should significantly help solve impending global, especially American, energy shortages;

2) Major societal investments in nuclear power would be of great assistance in alleviating global warming; and 

3) The problems associated with nuclear power have technical solutions, which can be discovered given time and money. 

We have found no evidence so far that any of these assumptions is true.  We will be happy to provide the reasons for these conclusions in summary form. 

            As was the case concerning the Iraq invasion and occupation, it appears that the analysis behind the President’s announcement (to paraphrase the Downing Street memo), has already been “fixed” around pre-existing choices. 

            Therefore we are issuing this press notice to provide some warning that, despite the seemingly-authoritative statements we will hear tonight and in the coming months about the merits of nuclear power, there is a very considerable body of expert opinion which holds that much being said in favor of nuclear power is simply not true – indeed is not true in central, telling ways. 

            There is error on both sides of the nuclear power debate to be sure, but we hope the press will notice that the situation is hardly symmetric. 

            The nuclear power debate is not solely or even primarily a contest between one ideology and other, and still less is it a contest between opposing “special interests.”  Nonprofits like the Los Alamos Study Group (to pick one example) attempt, within the limits of our budgets, knowledge, wisdom, and skills, to represent the public interest.  Our funding sources are public in nature and diverse.  None of this is true for the nuclear industry.  We urge all who listen to President Bush, and all who watch the carefully-staged roll-out of nuclear power initiatives which will follow, to carefully “follow the money.” 

            What money?  How much money?  Literally hundreds of billions of dollars – and more realistically trillions of dollars in aggregate sales over a multi-decade period – are potentially available in a runaway nuclear energy market driven by fear.  Tax write-offs, federal subsidies, and insurance waivers worth billions of dollars are at stake.  Millions of dollars in campaign contributions have already been made (Senator Bingaman being one of the top recipients); and hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars in federal appropriations are possible.  University programs and hundreds of experts’ careers can be made – or broken.  Industrial giants like Bechtel have already ridden the nuclear roller-coaster to fantastic wealth – and then to dramatic losses.  Man’s extremity may well be their opportunity, again. 

            Sometimes the interests are so united they are beyond conflict.  Senator Domenici maintained a full-time, paid staff member of Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in his office for many years (Pete Lyons), a situation we believe was unique in the Senate.  Another of the Senator’s senior staff members (Alex Flint), who has worked on the Senator’s personal staff as well as on the Energy and Water staff, has been at other times a nuclear industry lobbyist. 

            We can only hope that in the coming years, the great and conflicted interests of powerful politicians and spokespersons are mentioned more frequently when these individuals are quoted in the press.  Without such disclosure, the public “debate” will be a surreal and fantastic exercise.

            Both LANL and SNL, ostensibly mere government servants, have for years helped direct a major strategic promotion of nuclear power with worldwide reach, called the “Global Nuclear Vision Project (GNVP),” in partnership with the key actors from around the world. 

            The great financial incentives mentioned, in addition to the prestige, ideological fervor, and access to campaign cash associated with these great money-flows, help to explain why the proponents of nuclear power have seldom provided balanced, complete, and truthful information.  This, we submit, is a very-well established fact, not an opinion, a fact which anyone can establish with only a few hours of library research.  The mere fact that millions are spent in the attempt to influence public policy strongly suggests it.

            The Study Group opposes nuclear power, on the basis of study spanning some 30 or more years in some of our cases.  We come to this conclusion on pragmatic grounds. 

            Study Group Executive Director Greg Mello: “If I thought nuclear power could solve any of our energy supply problems in a safe and prudent manner I would support it.  Likewise, if I thought nuclear power could help prevent global warming I would support it. I don’t think nuclear power can help us solve either of these problems – energy supply or global warming – and to attempt it would not only drain away the resources we need to address these twin crises but also would create other serious new problems.”

            Study Group Board member Peter Neils comments: “The most troubling aspect of the current effort to resuscitate nuclear power is that it continues to enjoy an exemption from the type of cost/benefit analysis that other types of infrastructure are subjected to prior to authorization and investment.  After a 50-year investment of billions of taxpayer dollars, the nuclear power industry still cannot stand on its own.  Only a relaxation in the regulatory environment, combined with yet another massive public investment, has stirred this comatose industry.  Ironically, it is many of the same corporations that have reaped huge windfalls in Mr. Bush's military adventures that are poised to chalk up yet more exorbitant profits at the expense of future generations of Americans.  If nuclear power is the answer – and I do not think it is – and if private industry will not develop it without massive taxpayer subsidies, perhaps it should only be developed as a publicly-owned utility.  Why should taxpayers assume all the liabilities while wealthy investors reap all the supposed future profits?  

            “If the tens of billions of dollars that have been invested in nuclear power had been invested in safe, renewable decentralized power, America would be energy independent by now.  This simply is a reiteration of policies that failed before.”  

            A few final words.  At first glance, it appears that the “energy crisis” is about energy.  In fact, it is about a number of other, and even bigger, things as well.  As mentioned, for the corporations involved, it is about sales and profits.[2]  For many politicians, including New Mexico’s senators, it is substantially about pork-barrel spending and campaign contributions. 

            There is more at stake, however – much more.  For one thing, nuclear power is extremely capital-intensive.  Only the largest corporations, together with government, will be able to borrow the money to attempt the necessary infrastructure.  Nuclear power comes in billion-dollar chunks; to speak loosely.  Wind power, to pick a contrasting technology, comes in roughly million dollar units, for public utilities, or about one tenth of this, for farm use. 

            These differences in the scale of capital, especially when amplified many-fold by the enormous risks involved, translate into differences in patterns of ownership and control, and from these realities directly impact the political system.  By virtue of scale and the nature of its technology, nuclear power is made for crony capitalism and authoritarian rule.  Many believe it is incompatible with democracy. 

            A revitalized world nuclear industry would have total sales in the trillions of dollars, with high profits (see note 2).  The necessity of socializing risk to achieve profitability gives a leg up to those firms most capable of manipulating the political system.  These factors attract a certain kind of firm, create a certain industrial culture, and foster a certain style of governmental interaction on every level.  Simply put, this is an industry tailor-made for high-rolling crony capitalists.  It is an industry predisposed to corruption as regards risks and future liabilities, which together, and far more than is the case for competing technologies, determine profitability and hence financial feasibility. 

            All energy technologies have costs, and all energy technologies consume a portion of society’s energy in the process of making energy.  For complex reasons having to do with depletion of key fuel resources and the effect of this depletion on the net energy produced by substitute technologies, our energy choices today are much more about our society – what its fundamental shape will be, what people will do and who will own the means of energy production – than ever before.  The big energy choices now before us include choices are about who will own what, how much control each of us shall have over the basic necessities of our lives, how we shall live together, who shall rule, what shall matter to us, what our relationship to the earth and other generations shall be – in sum, who we are. 


[1] Peter Baker and Dafna Linzer, “Nuclear Energy Plan Would Use Spent Fuel,” Washington Post, January 26, 2006; John Fialka, “Bush Seeks to Jump-Start Nuclear Power; Proposed Test of New Waste-Reprocessing Methods
Aims to Ease Concerns Over Storage,” Wall Street Journal, January 26, 2006; Elisabeth Bumiller and David Sanger, “Bush Will Use Address to Focus on Alternative Fuels and Nuclear Plants,” New York Times, January 31, 2006.

[2] Because of the inherent risks of all kinds involved in nuclear power technology (technical, political, environmental, terrorist, etc.) capital will be shy unless the perceived high risk can be limited.  This means that what risks cannot be technically limited must be socialized – that is, shifted to society as a whole, and where possible to subsequent generations by governmental action or neglect.  To the extent special risk or uncertainty of any kind remains, profits must be made large to attract the enormous capital necessary.



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