Obama’s Atomic Solyndra?

By Harvey Wasserman, cross-posted from The Huffington Post

04/18/2012 – The future of nuclear power now hangs on a single decision by President Obama — and us.

His Office of Management and Budget could cave to the unsustainable demands of reactor builders who cannot handle the standard terms of a loan agreement.

Or he could defend basic financial procedures and stand up for the future of the American economy.

You can help make this decision, which will come soon.

It’s about a proposed $8.33 billion nuke power loan guarantee package for two reactors being built at Georgia’s Vogtle. Obama anointed it last year for the Southern Company, parent to Georgia Power. Two other reactors sporadically operate there. Southern just ravaged the new construction side of the site, stripping virtually all vegetation.

It’s also stripped Georgia ratepayers of ever-more millions of dollars, soon to become billions. This project is in the Peach State for its law forcing the public to pay for reactor construction in advance. When the project fails, or the reactors melt, the public still must pay. A taste of what’s coming has emerged in shocking defects in poured concrete at the site, which will cost millions to correct and cause months of delay on a project whose construction has barely begun.

Nonetheless, Southern runs virtually no financial risk. It actually has an interest in never finishing. Florida is now in turmoil, trying to rid itself of a similar Construction Work in Progress law.

Worldwide estimated reactor costs have jumped from $3 to $5 billion each a few short years ago to $10 billion or more, and rising.

Uranium prices are set to soar as the supply of Russian weapons-based fuel is about done. And renewables have long since outstripped atomic energy as being cheaper, faster to build, cleaner, safer, more reliable and open to community ownership.

There are virtually no private investors willing to back new reactor construction. There are no private insurers willing to take the risk on operating reactors. There is no place to store the radioactive wastes they generate.

Operating reactors in Vermont, New York, California and elsewhere now face ferocious public uprisings to get them shut.

They are being joined by governors, U.S. senators and entire legislatures. Peter Shumlin, governor of Vermont, has appeared at a major public rally to shut Yankee. The legislature long-ago voted (26-4) the same way. Shumlin was joined by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who has issued a stunning denunciation of the loan guarantees. U.S. Senator Ron Wyden of Orgeon has published a serious warning about the on-going dangers of Fukushima, which he recently visited.

Once the public kills one of these elderly reactors, a tsunami of shutdowns among the 104 currently licensed in the U.S. will follow.

Germany and much of the rest of Europe have abandoned the technology. Bulgaria has just scrapped plans for two proposed generators. Major banking institutions have warned potential investors in Britain’s planned reactors that if they proceed, they will lose their financial standing. Mexico has also said it won’t build new nukes.

In Asia, only one of Japan’s 54 licensed reactors now operates, and it may soon shut. Huge demonstrations and hunger strikes are raging against a proposed project at Koodankulam, India. The Philippines says it won’t build any reactors at all. China, the last bastion of any apparent large-scale interest in multiple nukes, seems to be wavering, in part because of the rise of a No Nukes movement there.

Here, two reactors barely beginning construction in South Carolina are also in deep trouble. Their builders need massive rate hikes in North Carolina to proceed, and the opposition there is fierce.

But the lynchpin is Vogtle. The construction loan guarantee program got $18.5 billion from George W. Bush in 2005. With the industry in deepening chaos, it took until last year for a president to designate less than half that money. For the first time in years, there is no executive or congressional request to put more money into the fund.

The French National Utility EDF did step forward to get funding for Maryland’s proposed Calvert Cliffs project. But haggling over terms contributed to its demise.

Now Southern faces the same abyss. It refuses what the mortgage community would consider a normal 20 percent downpayment on its taxpayer-funded loan. Southern wants to put virtually none of its own money into the project, leaving the radioactive gamble totally to the public.

But the Office of Management and Budget is apparently demanding something more reasonable. Because the OMB is a White House agency, Obama holds the key. It’s our job to make him turn it in a green direction.

A short while ago, this package was considered a done deal. But the GOP uproar over the failed $535 million loan to the solar company Solyndra changed to context. Initiated by Bush, Republicans have made Solyndra the poster child for bad federal loans.

Vogtle involves some 15 times Solyndra’s liability. And it’s all Obama’s. At least three petitions are circulating against the package.

There are many ways to finally shut down what has been the most expensive technological failure in human history. Fukushima and the killing power of radiation, the unsolved problem of radioactive waste, the campaigns against failing reactors such as Vermont Yankee, Indian Point, San Onofre and Davis-Besse — all are key.  The first weekend in May, a conference convened by the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C., will weigh the various strategies.

But killing this loan guarantee package could finally kill the prospect of new reactors in the U.S. The astonishing rise of Solartopian green technologies has far outstripped atomic energy in the marketplace. Every delay deeply diminishes the possibility of building more of these profoundly uneconomic anachronisms.

In the long run, Vogtle, Summer and any other new nukes that seem to slip through in the short term will almost certainly be stopped by what has become one of the most powerful non-violent social movements in human history.

But right now, it’s up to Obama — and us. Does he really want an atomic Solyndra on his hands? Will we really let this happen?

Let’s relieve the president of this radioactive burden. Let’s kill these reactors before they kill us, and take the most significant leap of all toward a green-powered Earth.

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