A Nuclear Swindle

Wenonah Hauter

July 27, 2005

Wenonah Hauter is director of the energy program for Public Citizen, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest organization with 150,000 members.

In one of the biggest taxpayer bailouts in recent years, the energy bill about to pass out of Congress stands on the cusp of providing the nuclear industry and the oil industry, among others, with the sweetest deal that energy executives have seen in the last 50 years. Passage of this costly and flawed bill will prove to the American public that Congress cares more about rewarding business interests than protecting consumers—who will predictably suffer from higher energy bills and corporate abuse enabled by this legislation. 

Despite cries for reduced foreign oil dependence, lower gas prices, strong global warming provisions and a general need to conserve energy, this bill instead reaches out to reward two industries that don’t deserve the gifts they’re being bestowed: the nuclear and oil industries. These industries serve as an example of how our energy future is being dictated by corporate interests, not common-sense policies that will ensure a healthier environment for generations to come. Like ‘Banana Republic’ officials on the take, Congress has accepted $90 million from these industries since 2001 in exchange for providing them with billions of dollars in subsidies and regulatory rollbacks.

To begin, the nuclear industry is on the edge of its seat, hoping to win billions in cradle-to-grave subsidies and incentives to build new nuclear reactors. The conference report thus far includes $7 billion in research, development and construction subsidies, with another $7.3 billion in tax breaks pending in the yet-to-be released tax package. Those dollars aside, the bill contains unlimited taxpayer-backed loan guarantees for the construction of new reactors and extends the industry’s limited liability in the case of an accident to new reactors. This bill contains just about every conceivable taxpayer subsidy and incentive for the 50-year-old nuclear industry to build new reactors.

Contrary to the public relations spin coming from the pro-nuclear lobby, nuclear energy is not the answer to climate change or energy independence. Its five fatal flaws are more than enough reason to vote against this dirty and expensive technology: Nuclear power is expensive and relies on massive taxpayer subsidies; heightens proliferation risks; produces radioactive waste that remains dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years; endangers public health and security with the threat of accidents or attacks; and continuously fails to adhere to adequate safety standards.

Given the latest revelations about data falsification in analyses of the proposed Yucca Mountain dump site—in addition to other numerous unresolved safety problems at the site—and the reports by the National Academy of Sciences and the Government Accountability Office pointing out security vulnerabilities of the highly radioactive waste stored at reactor sites, the government should not be promoting the construction of new reactors, which will only add to the nuclear waste problem.

Not to be outdone, however, is the oil industry, which also stands to gain enormous benefits from the pending energy bill, including a likely buffet of subsidies and tax breaks that are still in last-minute negotiations and haven’t yet been released to the public. One of its newer ventures is in liquefied natural gas, which is natural gas super-cooled into a liquid form. This is done to more easily transport natural gas to the United States from destinations not linked by pipeline. For example, importing natural gas from Canada can be accomplished by sending natural gas through a pipeline; importing natural gas from Indonesia, Nigeria or Norway must be done by transporting LNG by tanker. LNG can pose significant security and environmental hazards, particularly to coastal communities that house these facilities.

The energy bill limits the ability of states and local communities to have adequate say in how dangerous, proposed liquefied natural gas facilities are sited. Support for liquefied natural gas facilities on our coastlines is shortsighted because it fails to account for the harm it can do to consumers—both to their wallets and their security. Relying on LNG imports will make the United States more dependent on foreign sources of energy, particularly OPEC, which dominates the global LNG market. This would be a serious mistake at a time when experts warn us of the dangers of relying on other countries for our natural gas. Not only would it make us beholden to OPEC, but it would create a climate ripe for price gouging.

Lawmakers have one final opportunity to jettison this bill. This legislation is a poison pill for consumers, the environment and the economy, and lawmakers now have one final opportunity to spit it out.