By Jeffrey St. Clair
The latest bad news about global warming: the threat of climate change is being used to help resurrect the moribund nuclear power industry and people close to Al Gore are leading the charge. “Only one technology—advanced nuclear reactors—offers a realistic promise of contributing substantially to the world’s burgeoning need for large base-load power production without exacerbating the hazards of environmental contamination and catastrophic climate change,” said US Ambassador John B. Ritch.
Ritch made these bracing comments during his keynote address at the International Conference on the Safety of Radioactive Waste Management held on March 16 in Cordova, Spain. Since 1994, Ritch, a close friend of Al Gore and assistant secretary of state Strobe Talbott, has served as the US representative to the United Nations Organizations in Vienna, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization and the International Atomic Energy Commission, which sponsored the Cordova conference.
Repeatedly invoking the specter of global warming, Ritch told his fellow ministers that global climate change is “a security threat as grave, over time, as the danger of nuclear war.” Dismissing the potential of renewable energy sources, Ritch claimed to the admiring crowd that only nuclear energy was capable of providing enough power to meet the world’s burgeoning energy needs without contributing to global warming. “Nuclear power is a technology whose time has come,” Ritch said, repeating a refrain that has been heard off-and-on since Dwight Eisenhower’s “atoms for peace” program of the 1950s.
Ritch dismissed concerns that a new generation of nuclear plants might spark increased proliferation of nuclear weapons by saying, rather weakly, that such an action would turn the nation “into an international pariah”—a distinction already held by the nations he pointed to as the most likely to continue questing for a nuclear arsenal—Iraq and North Korea. Ritch, who served in the Korean DMZ while in the Army, assured his audience that fears of a new nuclear arms race were misplaced. “The world is turning decisively away from nuclear weapons—and erecting strong barriers against recidivism.” A few days later both Russia and China were reported to have recently upgraded their nuclear weapons capabilities, largely in response to US plans to breach the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and go forward with a new Star Wars-style missile defense system.
The recent tests by Pakistan and India also shouldn’t deter the world from building more nuclear plants. “The potential for nuclear weapons proliferation is a threat so narrow in scope that it must not cloud our consideration of an energy source of broad and arguably urgent importance to mankind,” Ritch said.
Much of the opposition to nuclear power, Ritch suggested, is based on the rhetoric of eco-paranoids who believe that “a nuclear power plant itself constitutes a kind of bomb.” Ritch, who traded in his career as a congressional stuffer to become a DC landlord and the CEO of a nutritional supplement/vitamin company called California Fitness, ridiculed such thinking and said that new nuclear power plants are “exemplars of safe design.”
Ritch must have overlooked the recent spat of bad news about Russian reactors, where seven have been shut down because of malfunctions in the last month alone. The plants in the United States aren’t doing much better, as evidenced by the breakdown of a cooling system at the Brookhaven reactor in early April. But even the worst nuclear accident shouldn’t turn people off to the virtues of nuclear power, because, Ritch warned, “the Chernoybyl disaster pales against the threat of global warming.”
The ambassador admitted that the biggest drawback to nuclear power are the mounting piles of radioactive waste, now topping 50,000 tons worldwide. But even this apparently intractable problem, Ritch argued, s mainly one of distorted public perception. “Nuclear energy is stigmatized for lacking an answer to the disposal question,” Ritch lamented. “And the stigma in turn fortifies widespread resistance to answering that question with an operation disposal facility.” Ritch followed up this amazing tautology with a plea for the delegates to develop “several repositories” worldwide so that the nuclear industry can demonstrate how safe the waste dumps really are.
Perhaps Ritch was forgetting that President Clinton had only days earlier renewed his pledge to veto the so-called Mobile Chernobyl Bill, a measure moving through the Congress to designate Yucca Mountain in Nevada as the repository for most of the radioactive waste from the nation’s commercial nuclear reactors—one of the few firm stands Clinton has taken on an environmental issue.
But perhaps the stand against the Yucca Mountain plan isn’t as steadfast as it appears. Ritch spoke enthusiastically of the DOE’s Yucca Mountain “deep geological storage plan,” saying that engineers had developed a range of options from the “seal it and close it” option to a scenario that would allow it to be “kept open, with appropriate maintenance, for up to 300 years.” The one scenario not mentioned by Ritch is the one favored by most environmentalists: making the utilities keep the waste on site.
Ritch forged ahead in an operatic crescendo, forecasting a time when “the dynamics of the global energy debate will be changed entirely. No longer will it be possible for debaters who oppose nuclear energy—and politicians who are afraid of the subject—to utter the blithe arguments that disposal is technically or politically infeasible.”
In his zeal to promote the green virtues of nuclear power, Ritch couldn’t resist taking a few final potshots at environmentalists, referring to them as “snipers” and “guerilla warriors.”
Ritch’s approach is somewhat clumsier than the normal smooth talking sermons we’ve come to expect from the Clinton/Gore team. But the ambassador is by no means a loose cannon. Both Clinton and Gore have deep ties to the nuclear industry that have never been relinquished (and rarely talked about in the press). Students of Clinton’s career will recall that he alienated many voters and populist/segregationist former governor Orval Faubus when he agreed to a deal that would have Arkansas ratepayers foot the bill for cost overruns at a Louisiana nuclear power plant. .
The company that owns that plan is today known as Entergy and it has continued to pad the Clinton accounts with hunks of money. And Entergy, taking full advantage of the deregulated electricity market, is now on a nuke plant buying spree, picking plants in North Carolina, Mississippi, and New York. The company is eyeing plants in Connecticut and New Hampshire, as well.
”Growing our nuclear business is a key piece of our ongoing strategy,” said Randy Hutchinson, senior vice president at Entergy Nuclear. ”It’s a key piece of our growth strategy, particularly over the next three to five years. It’s where the company sees most of its growth and earnings coming from.” Hutchinson said Entergy plans to develop “regional nuclear generating companies.” We’re very heavily into the northeast because that’s where it happens,” he said. ”Then we’ll look to the Midwest or the West Coast.”
Like his father, Albert Gore Sr., who oversaw the development of the nation’s nuclear power industry, Al Gore himself has always been a faithful ally of the nuclear industry, even defending hair-raising schemes such as the Clinch River breeder reactor. One of Gore’s top advisers on climate change is Harvard professor, John Holdren.
Holdren has been a vocal proponent of increased funding for nuclear energy as a means of combating global warming. In a 1997 interview, Holdren said: “I think we should be investing far more effort than we are investing now to trying to determine whether we can make nuclear energy a viable, expandable energy option again. Because we might need it. If we were prudent, we would be investing serious R & D resources in trying to address the problems that have made nuclear energy such a difficult case. We are not doing it now. The US government research on nuclear energy technology has all but vanished in the Federal R & D budget.”
But not for long. In 1998 Gore tapped Holdren to be an adviser for the Department of Energy’s budget on global warming initiatives. He went right work and socked away in the FY 2000 budget is $230 million in subsidies for the nuclear power industry, much of it justified on the grounds that nukes will help forestall climate change.
All this is being lapped up by DC-based the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the nuclear industry’s $20 million trade association and lobby shop, which has just launched its “Respecting the Earth with Clean Energy Campaign”. A recent NEI congressional briefing paper, as if reading from a page scripted by Ritch and Holdren, trumpets: “The amazing thing about nuclear power plants is the efficiency with which they generate vast quantities of electricity-20 percent of the U.S. power supply-while emitting no harmful gases to pollute the air. In this way, nuclear energy helps to preserve the Earth’s climate, reduce ozone formation, and prevent acid rain.”