Will Obama repeat Eisenhower’s energy mistake?

Pat Hynes

Reprinted courtesy of the Recorder, Greenfield MA

In 1951, President Truman created a blue ribbon commission to evaluate and propose a plan for the U.S. energy future. The 1952 Paley Commission Report, named for the commission chairman, proposed that the U.S. build the economy on solar energy sources.

The report also offered a strong negative assessment of nuclear energy and called for “aggressive research in the whole field of solar energy” as well as research and development on wind and biomass. In 1953, the new president, Dwight Eisenhower, ignored the report recommendation and inaugurated “Atoms for Peace,” touting nuclear power as the world’s new energy miracle that would be “too cheap to meter,” according to Lew Strauss, chairman of Atomic Energy Commission. Fundamentalist faith in nuclear energy abounded.

In this same period, photovoltaic solar cells (PV) were developed by Bell Laboratories for the new space program and used to power the Vanguard satellite. Our country was poised to make energy breakthroughs in PV; but, with the magic bullet of nuclear power, photovoltaics were consigned to power miniscule cells in watches and calculators. The revolution in solar-derived energy, which should have joined the one in personal computers and the Internet, was aborted. When it revived much later, it did so elsewhere: in Denmark, Germany and Japan yielding green jobs, industry, technical expertise, infrastructure and market niche for renewable energy technologies.

How clean is clean?

Today, despite decades of megainvestments in and subsidies for nuclear energy (estimated U.S. $1 trillion from 1950-2007) compared to those for renewable technologies (estimated U.S. $40 billion 1970s-2007), and also worldwide agency and government policy support for nuclear energy, solar-derived technologies have outpaced nuclear power in rate of growth, cost-effectiveness and job creation. Even so, policy talk about a “nuclear renaissance” abounds nationally and internationally, given the growing specter of climate change.Nuclear power is touted as a zero-carbon energy source and then bundled in with renewable-energy technologies as the mix of clean-energy technologies we must pursue to eliminate climatechange driving CO2 emissions. With nuclear in the mix, one wonders “How clean is clean?”

Nuclear energy is a wolf in zerocarbon clothing, whose adverse environmental health, international security and economic impacts far outweigh its energy benefits.

In its full life cycle, nuclear power generates radioactive tailings at mine and mill sites, which endanger indigenous communities; generates the suspected carcinogen and mutagen depleted uranium (DU) now used in weapons and warfare; and creates long-lived and highly radioactive spent nuclear fuel with no disposal solution, for future generations to cope with. Nuclear power plants routinely release small amounts of radioactive isotopes during operation and they can release large amounts during accidents. For this latter reason, a 2003 expert panel of the National Academy of Sciences recommended that potassium iodide pills be provided to everyone 40 and younger who lives near a nuclear power plant to protect against exposure to radioactive iodine.

In this era of unconventional war, nuclear power plants are vulnerable to sabotage and attack; and existing evacuation plans in case of a nuclear power plant accident are widely regarded as unrealistic paper exercises.

Finally and ominously, nuclear power reactors generate the fissile materials enriched to fuel nuclear bombs and inevitably create the risk of nuclear weapons development. Thus, atoms for peace are ineluctably atoms for war and terrorism. Else, why would Interpol, Europol and other international organizations have initiatives to counter nuclear terrorism? As the UNESCO study on the Ethics of Nuclear Energy Technology states: “… nuclear energy-using countries, which enrich their own uranium … (are) … nearly de facto nuclear weapons-possessing states.”

Carbon free, nuclear free

Historically, renewable energy systems have not been given market and public policy parity with nuclear power. Even without market equity, solar-derived renewables now provide the same percent energy as nuclear power in the United States and are on an industrial growth curve, with prices rapidly dropping while those of the 60-year-old nuclear industry soar. No new nuclear plant has come on line in the United States since 1974. Consider the 2009 statement by Jon Wellinghoff, the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, that new coal and nuclear plants are unnecessary and a poor choice of energy investment compared to renewables.

At the crossroads

Thus far, the Obama administration has lingered at the crossroads, taking the politically safe, pseudoscientific position that our energy future is a mix of “clean” nuclear and renewable energy technologies. It’s time for the Obama administration and Congress to take the road not taken in 1953. Update and expand the wise, feasible recommendations of the Paley Commission. Give renewable energy systems market priority using all the mechanisms of public policy: investment in research and development, tax credits, green job training, technical assistance to businesses, standards for new building and renovations, and public sector conversion of buildings and vehicles to renewables.

Pat Hynes is chair of the board of the Traprock Center for Peace and Justice.