Sunday, January 31, 2010

Nuclear Retractor

President Obama was sounding bullish on nuclear energy in his State of the Union speech, but he's been sheepish on the storage of spent nuclear fuels, having driven a stake in the heart of the best option available, at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Last week he was calling for additional power plants; a budget he released this week didn't include a dime for dealing realistically with the hazardous byproducts. The gap between rhetoric and reality is jarring, even for Obama.

It's evidently a ploy to win Republican support for a climate bill, as this Washington Post piece explains. It may also be a case of the president chasing the polls, in a bid to recapture the middle. But Obama's credibility on the issue is shaky at best.

The president made killing Yucca Mountain a campaign promise, in a bid to woo Nevada voters and curry favor with gang green. It's one campaign promise he actually kept. Now, one year later, having dealt the prospect of a nuclear energy revival a staggering blow, he comes out in the State of the Union as an advocate for new plants. He's a champion of nuclear power, rhetorically, but opposes the most logical and secure waste storage option available -- a solution he nixed after decades of study and tens of billions of dollars were spent. Will the real Barack Obama please stand up?

The president proposes "a tripling of government loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors to more than $54 billion," reports Reuters. Yet the Department Of Energy has been dragging its feet on releasing loan guarantees already available. Loan guarantees aren't enough if power providers have no assurance that the regulatory and political climate will remain as hostile as it has been. And no such assurances are possible when the president says one thing and does another.

The president also announced the "formation of a panel to consider the future of nuclear waste storage, including alternatives to a proposed site at Yucca Mountain in Nevada," Reuters reports -- which sends the country back to a drawing board it began scribbling on 30 years ago. The panel will explore every option -- except the most obvious one. It's not allowed to revisit Yucca Mountain. Dusted-off Washington retreads Lee Hamilton and Brent Scowcroft will lead the effort. I guess James Baker was unavailable. Who else would chair a blue ribbon commission that begins its work with its hands tied behind its back?

You can begin work on a new generation of nuclear power plants without resolving the waste storage problem, at least in the short-run, but that's risky, given the strength of the no-nukes lobby. Going back to the drawing board erroneously presumes that no-nukers eventually will embrace a reasonable solution, which they won't.

Republicans should insist that Obama reverse his position on Yucca Mountain before they even consider support for a climate measure. Anything less and they're being played for suckers.

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