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Nuclear power industry -- dangerous to taxpayers

For the first time in 22 years, on Thursday, May 17, nuclear power industry officials went to bed happy. President Bush -- the energy industry’s president -- proposed that the nation again turn to nuclear power.

Twenty-two years ago was when the Three Mile Island nuclear facility accident led to the evacuation of 140,000 people from around Harrisburg, Pa. The accident soured the public’s appetite for nuclear power in a period when nuclear energy was already losing its cost-effectiveness as a cheap power source.

But the nuclear industry has never rested on its defeats.

During the past two decades, when no one was looking, the nuclear power industry took over the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by using members of Congress as its string marionettes. Congress was bought and paid for through nuclear industry re-election campaign funding.

Congress controls the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which itself is funded not by taxpayer money but by fees it imposes on the nuclear industry. The nuclear industry treats the commission as its puppy, and for 20 years almost every regulatory change the industry has tossed it, the puppy-like commission has fetched (NCR, May 26, 2000).

The net results have been the nuclear industry’s theft of the public’s right to know and right to intervene in nuclear reactor-building applications -- a theft carried out with an audacity deserving of admiration if the results weren’t so potentially pernicious.

The combination of the industry’s public piracy and now presidential pandering is breathtaking. The industry’s grasp was made possible by the total disinterest of the national print and electronic media in the 1980s and ’90s in the nuclear industry’s buccaneering. During that period, let it be noted, two of three of the national television networks were owned by nuclear power generator builders, Westinghouse and General Electric.

And now Bush wants to speed up permission to build new plants, to extend taxpayer coverage to the nuclear industry for nuclear accidents (the public is the industry’s major insurance company) that expires in 2002, and to apparently throw public money into research for a controversial nuclear reactor technology (the pebble-bed reactor) that could use the nation’s radioactive waste stockpile as fuel.

It is not enough to say that nuclear power raises fear. The objection, then, is not only to the danger the nuclear alternative poses, but also to the manipulation of public processes and public institutions by an industry that has become expert at avoiding accountability.

Playing cozy with the nuclear industry is a convenient way out for politicians anxious to avoid talk about alternative energy sources and the need for conservation. There is ample proof of success for conservation strategies, Vice President Dick Cheney’s recent insulting condescension on the matter notwithstanding. Evidence abounds that alternative sources work and that the real engine behind the energy problem is American profligacy, a gluttonous appetite for conveniences and conveyances that is wildly out of alignment with responsible consumption.

In two decades the nuclear power industry has successfully achieved a program to extend by 20 years the life of its aging nuclear reactors, has aced the public out of the licensing and re-licensing process, and has orchestrated the program of which Bush is now spokesman. There are all sorts of relatively easy options for the industry now, compared to two decades ago when the application process took years of painstaking public examination.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has pre-approved three designs. Pick one and build. Period. In specific cases, the industry is able to get multiple sites approved without designating which site it intends to use -- thus depriving the anti-nuclear public of a place to focus its objections and questions.

If any of the four nuclear majors mulling a new plant -- Exelon, Dominion Resources, Southern Co. and Entergy -- take the next step, Congress will undoubtedly find taxpayer monies and tax breaks to sweeten the deal.

So for now, it’s nuclear industry sweet dreams time.

The only nightmares the industry could possibly face would be another Three Mile Island. Or a revival of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s.

No one wants a nuclear accident. Which leaves the question of a revived anti-nuclear movement.

Is anyone out there?

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001