Obama's nuclear power policy: a study in contradictions?
Obama wants to triple public financing for new nuclear power plants, even as he nixes funds for storing commercial radioactive waste. The policy may be calculated to win votes for climate change legislation, but critics say it's not 'coherent' and carries new security risks.
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"Regulatory changes and contractual changes implemented in this round of nuclear construction lay the foundation for the US to deliver on time and on budget," Jennifer Lee, a DOE spokeswoman says in an e-mail response to questions. "Each loan is specifically structured to protect the taxpayer against cost over-run risk."Skip to next paragraph
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Nuclear strategy not 'coherent'
The president's new budget also proposes to eliminate funding for the controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository. He has appointed a blue-ribbon commission to look into other options, which many say would likely include fuel reprocessing.
"I'm reluctant to say this, because I admire the Obama administration, but its nuclear strategy no longer appears to be coherent," says Edwin Lyman, an expert on nuclear power with the Union of Concerned Scientists. "It doesn't have a plan for [storing] radioactive waste from a new generation of nuclear power plants. That is irresponsible."
Even nuclear power advocates are upset by the absence of a waste-storage plan.
"There is a significant regulatory and waste-management risk with building a nuclear power plant today," says Jack Spencer, research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a nuclear power advocate. "This tells me he's just not as serious about nuclear power as he says he is, because appointing a blue-ribbon commission is just kicking the can down the road."
Such criticism is unwarranted, says the Obama administration.
"The Administration is committed to addressing our used fuel and nuclear waste management needs," writes the DOE's Ms. Lee. "We have established a Blue Ribbon Commission on America's Nuclear Future to bring together leading experts to provide recommendations for developing a safe, long-term solution to managing the Nation's nuclear fuel and its waste."
A risk of spreading nuclear know-how
Meanwhile, the White House has grudgingly agreed that the Department of Energy can push ahead with research into "pocket nukes" – small nuclear reactor designs – and spent-fuel reprocessing. Both areas could lead to the spread of nuclear know-how to many small developing countries, say nuclear security experts.
When crafting the new White House budget plan, the Office of Management and Budget had actually slashed money for reprocessing and small reactor research. But in a Dec. 22 letter, Energy Secretary Steven Chu argued for restoring funding for both. The White House blinked. Funding was restored.
The president's latest moves are at odds with his earlier focus on leading "an international effort to secure all vulnerable nuclear material around the world within four years," and on securing new arms-reduction deals with the Russians, say other nuclear security experts.
"None of this makes any sense from a security or economic standpoint," says Mr. Sokolski. "I served on a bipartisan committee that just recommended that the US put a moratorium on commercial reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel."
The DOE's research program for spent fuel reprocessing "is a long-term science-based research and development program," says Lee, noting that "advancements in the area of non-proliferation are an integral part" of it. Concerning pocket nukes, she notes: "Without a U.S. program on small-modular reactors, the world would default to small-modular reactor systems from other countries which may not integrate advanced non-proliferation technologies into their design."
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