A Critical Junction

Nuclear Power Faces an Uncertain Future Under an Obama Administration

Illinois produces more megawatts of nuclear power than any other state in the union, accounting for nearly 12 percent of the national total, and Barack Obama, the junior senator from the land of Lincoln, has had a very cosy relationship with the state’s nuclear industry over the years. The employees of the Exelon Corporation, the largest operator of commercial nuclear power plants in the U.S., have donated at least $300,000 to Obama since 2003, and for his part, Obama has danced with those who brung him.

In 2005, when his constituents were outraged to find that Exelon had leaked millions of gallons of radioactive tritium and not informed the public, the young senator took up their outrage, and with much fire and brimstone, proposed the Nuclear Release Notice Act of 2006, a bill that would have made it mandatory for nuclear reactors to disclose to the public when such radioactive releases occur. During the Iowa primaries, he boasted of this legislative success, calling it “the only nuclear legislation I’ve passed.” In reality, the legislation never passed. The bill had Obama’s full-throated support … until he re-wrote the bill, pulled the hard talk of mandated reporting, and then watched this watered-down version die in the Senate.

Maybe Obama simply saw the light — after all, the tritium leakage was never a serious threat to public health — or maybe there was something more. David Axelrod, Obama’s chief political strategist, was a consultant for Exelon as recently as 2002, and the $3 million “overhead projector” earmark that McCain derided in the debates was destined to the Adler Planetarium, whose chairman at the time was one Frank Clark, chief executive of an Exelon-owned utility, ComEd.

When Obama stepped onto the national stage, stories like these would have been an uncomfortable liability with the hard environmental left of his party, and so the young senator tempered his view of nuclear power — specifically by adding ambiguity. On the stump, he was careful to stick to his new and improved view, namely that he supported nuclear power so long as it was “safe and clean.”

What a fantastic caveat, both indisputably sensible and conveniently elastic. Surely no one could support “dangerous and dirty” nuclear power. But Obama’s new line on nuclear power begs the question: How safe is safe? How clean is clean?

To quote General Electric, it is “11 times more likely for the largest asteroid near the earth to impact the earth over the next 100 years than for an [Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor] operational event to result in the release of fission products to the environment.” Sounds pretty safe!

Current standards for Yucca Mountain mandate that over the next one million years, the expected increase to annual radioactive dose received by any nearby population must be reliably under 100 millirem. Roughly speaking, this is less than the increase in dose one would receive by living in Colorado instead of Ohio. Sounds pretty clean!

Surely given these findings and Obama’s quixotic goal of slashing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050, he’d do nothing to stand in the way of the United States’ brightest hope of curbing global warming, right?

If only. Unfortunately, the president-elect’s days of threading the needle between the fringe left that rabidly opposes nuclear power and the 74 percent of Americans who support it might not be over. In trying to pass his sweeping agenda, Obama will have to work closely with the Senate majority leader and zealous nuclear opponent, Harry Reid. As the price of his goodwill and party loyalty, Reid is sure to demand that Obama torpedo any plans for expanding nuclear power, and this problem will arrive at Obama’s doorstep sooner rather than later.

The Democratic filibustering that has left the U.S. court system decimated has also left significant holes on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Currently the five-member board that heads the regulatory agency is made up of four commissioners: Peter Lyons, Greg Jaczko, Kristine Svinicki, and Chairman Dale Klein. Jaczko, the former science advisor to Senator Reid, is the sole Democrat on the board, but he won’t be lonely for long; besides filling the empty seat on the commission, Obama will get to appoint someone to replace Lyons, whose term ends in June 2009, and probably Chairman Klein as well, since Klein has quietly expressed a desire to resign rather than serve under an Obama administration.

In either case, Democrats will soon be a majority on the commission, and unless Obama pushes to the contrary, Jaczko, the hatchet man of Nevada’s Harry Reid, will be the new chairman of a government agency that has a near unlimited mandate to regulate the nuclear industry. The timing could not be worse: currently 34 new reactors are planning to file applications with the NRC between now and 2010. Simply by stonewalling these applications for a few years, Jaczko and Reid could drastically alter the prospects of a nuclear power renaissance … and a simple stonewalling is the least of their weapons.

Thus, within six months of taking office, Obama will be faced with an unpalatable option: Either let the nascent dreams of nuclear engineers be strangled in their cradle by a special interest lobby, or put his entire legislative agenda at risk by standing up for clean power. In doing so, Obama will be making the first of many moves that will define his presidency. During the closing weeks of the campaign, Republicans warned of the risks in letting an inexperienced, undefined junior senator take the reins of an unchecked government majority — with bated breath nuclear power will wait to see if the warnings were right.