Obama plans “dramatic reductions” in n-arms —but not “no first use” pledge

The Obama administration has delayed release of its new Nuclear Posture Review to at least the end of March, but anonymous officials widely quoted in the media say it will call for “dramatic reductions” in the US nuclear arsenal. Release of the NPR was originally slated for December, and the repeated postponements have sparked much speculation on possible meaningful steps towards the nuclear-free world that Obama set forth as a goal in his Prague speech last April. However, anonymous officials (almost certainly being authorized by the White House to float trial balloons to the press) also say the administration has ruled out pledging that the US will never initiate a nuclear first strike. (BBC News, AlJazeera, March 2; Global Security Newswire, March 1; NYT, Feb. 28)

If axing a “no-first use” pledge (which the US alone has never issued, although Russia ironically reneged on the USSR’s such pledge after the end of the Cold War) is Obama’s sop to the pro-nuke right in order to get his cuts to the arsenal, then another appears to be following through on his campaign pledge to promote the dangerous oxymoron of “safe nuclear power.” We had hoped this was just lip service, but it is starting to look all too real.

Obama announced last month that he has promised funding in the FY 2011 budget for new nuclear power reactors in the US, with some $54.5 billion in federal loan guarantees. The Atlanta-based Southern Company has been conditionally approved for $8.3 billion in loan these for two new nuclear reactors to be built at Plant Vogtle in Burke County, Ga. The Vogtle expansion would be the first new nuclear plants in the US in 30 years.

Thank goodness, the remnants of the anti-nuclear movement are protesting this—and pointing out how it flies in the face of the free-market principles that are supposedly untouchable in the US. “What you may not know about the Vogtle deal is that we taxpayers are not just providing loan guarantees, we’re providing the actual loans, through the Federal Financing Bank,” the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) said in a press release. “And you also may not know the Southern Company has not yet accepted the conditions of the loan—and for various reasons, it may not. In other words, it’s not a done deal.”

Ironically, the move comes at a time when the intractable problem of what to do with nuclear waste has just become all the more vexing. Obama’s recent decision to close the proposed Yucca Mountain waste facility in Nevada means radioactive waste will continue to be stored on site at each nuclear power plant. Rather an irony given all the recent paranoia about nuclear plants being targeted by terrorists.

In response to the closing of Yucca Mountain, South Carolina’s Aiken County has brought suit in the federal courts against the Energy Department and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, calling the action “in direct violation of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act (NWPA) and the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and is an arbitrary and capricious action under the Administrative Procedures Act.” (Atlanta Progressive News, Feb. 22)

States that are actually burdened with lots of nuclear waste—like South Carolina, home to the Energy Department’s Savannah River complex—aren’t so sanguine about the dilemma, and have long been at odds with federal government and its eternal shunting the question off for future generations to work out. The Energy Department’s Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP)—for the supposedly lower-level “trans-uranic” wastes—has been opened in Carlsbad, NM, over years of local protests. (The Consortium, Fall 1997)

On the other hand, William Tucker, author of the Orwellian-entitled Terrestrial Energy: How Nuclear Power Will Lead the Green Revolution and End America’s Energy Odyssey, enthuses for the loan guarantees in the Wall Street Journal Feb. 26—the paper conveniently abandoning its ideological antipathy to government intervention in the economy. The Winnipeg Free Press—in Manitoba, which has no nuclear plants, but hopes to become North America’s Saudi Arabia of uranium—also editorializes for the subsidies Feb. 25, glibly dismissing “exaggerated fears of meltdowns, waste disposal controversies and financial concerns.” Once again, where you stand depends on where you sit.

The Georgia reactors are among a few ordered by power utilities in the US over the past three years—the first since the 1979 Three Mile Island accident. Obama may think it is his job to wheel and deal to achieve an overall reduction of the nuclear threat. But it is assuredly our job to not go along with dangerous compromises—to demand a “no first-use” pledge, and a “zero option” for both nuclear weapons and power.

See our last post on the nuclear threat.

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  1. US delegation to Hiroshima —but no apology
    The US sends delegation to Hiroshima for first time. A start—but Obama himself did not attend, and the US offered no apology. From CSM, Aug. 6:

    Sixty-five years after the United States dropped “Little Boy” on Hiroshima, effectively ending World War II and ushering in an era of nuclear dread, the United States sent its first delegation to the annual ceremony to remember the over 100,000 Japanese who lost their lives in the bombing.

    Britain and France also sent representatives for the first time.

    While some Japanese hailed the presence of the US and other nuclear powers as a sign of commitment to eventual nuclear disarmament, for others it was too little, too late. Some Japanese still want an apology for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, while others complained about the absence of President Obama.

    Some of Hiroshima’s hibakusha – as atomic bomb survivors are known – criticized the US ambassador for failing to meet with them, apologize for the bombing, or even offer a floral tribute. Others however, saw his visit as a sign of progress.

    On the streets of Tokyo, there were mixed feelings regarding the US delegation’s attendance. “It’s good they’ve come, but why has it taken 65 years?” asked an office worker who was watching the morning’s ceremony from Hiroshima on public broadcast NHK. “And really, Obama should be here after the speeches he’s made about nuclear weapons.”

  2. NRC approves new reactors —first in 30 years
    From CNNMoney, Feb. 9:

    The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved licenses to build two new nuclear reactors Thursday, the first authorized in over 30 years.

    The reactors are being built in Georgia by a consortium of utilities led by Southern Co. (SO, Fortune 500) They will be sited at the Vogtle nuclear power plant complex, about 170 miles east of Atlanta. The plant already houses two older reactors.

    “Today marks an advancement in our nation’s energy policy,” Southern Company chief executive Thomas Fanning said at a press conference after the approval. “The project is on track, and our targets related to cost and schedule are achievable.”

    Not good.

  3. Fuel load begins at Vogtle nuclear plant

    Workers have begun loading radioactive fuel into a new nuclear reactor in Georgia, utilities said Oct. 14, putting the first new American nuclear reactor built in decades on a path to begin generating electricity in coming months. (WABE)

    The Vogtie plant became something of a football in the debates over nuclear power and climate change.

  4. Vogtle reactor goes critical

    From AP, March 6:

    ATLANTA — A nuclear power plant in Georgia has begun splitting atoms in one of its two new reactors, Georgia Power said Monday, a key step toward reaching commercial operation at the first new nuclear reactors built from scratch in decades in the United States.

    The unit of Atlanta-based Southern Co. said operators reached self-sustaining nuclear fission inside the reactor at Plant Vogtle, southeast of Augusta. That makes the intense heat that will be used to produce steam and spin turbines to generate electricity.

    A third and a fourth reactor were approved for construction at Vogtle by the Georgia Public Service Commission in 2009, and the third reactor was supposed to start generating power in 2016. The company now says Unit 3 could begin commercial operation in May or June.