The Hidden Threat to the Nuclear Renaissance

It's a little misleading to call America's renewed interest in nuclear power a full-blown renaissance. For one thing, the renaissance hasn't happened yet. Even with the perfect storm of global warming, dwindling fossil fuels, and the second Bush presidency, the current zeal for new nuclear power has fed on speculation for the last decade. It will have to do so for a long time to come. Tuesday's news that President Barack Obama agreed to provide $8 billion in federal backing for two reactors in the state of Georgia -- the first nuclear plants cleared for construction in nearly 30 years -- ignored the massive financial, political, and technical hurdles between announcement and production.

However, it is fair to say that the unlikely partnership of Republicans and pro-nuke environmentalists just got a lot stronger. Candidate Obama's nuclear support was often read as political posturing; President Obama's nuclear support comes with hard cash. Viable or not, the nuclear revival now has the backing of the most prominent Democrat in a generation. His 2011 budget proposes to triple federal loan guarantees for new plant construction, essentially forcing taxpayers to shoulder the immense risks that Wall Street learned to shun decades ago. Nuclear power offers all the fiscal risks of a "too big to fail" bank, with the added risk of being too dangerous to fail as well.

If this coalition of Democrats, Republicans, and the occasional environmentalist can get even one new plant built, it'll have succeeded in bringing about the most dramatic recovery of any weakened industry in American history. Since the earliest days of nuclear power, the industry has quietly nursed a crippling fiscal vulnerability. In 1957, America's first civilian atomic plant went online, Disney released Our Friend The Atom, and Congress passed the Price–Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act. This obscure federal law indemnifies the nuclear industry from full liability in the event of a nuclear accident. If one of the Indian Point reactors in New York melted down tomorrow, for example, corporate owners Entergy would only pay $10 billion toward the permanent evacuation of nearby Manhattan. By law, the government would foot the rest.

The American atomic industry would've languished without such an investor guarantee. And although current nuclear defenders love to crow about the free market -- especially now, with future emissions regulations set to increase the operating costs of all other non-renewable power sources -- the industry operates with an exponential financial handicap over all other energy technologies, gas and coal included. Factor in overruns, plant cancellations, and chronic mismanagement, and the only genuine advantage nuclear holds over renewable energy sources is that its infrastructure currently exists.

It is an article of faith, among industry advocates, that a Chernobyl-style meltdown could never happen in the United States. The Soviet plant was a graphite-moderated RBMK Reactor, a uniquely Russian design widely condemned as unsafe. And yet globally, there is no exact way to gauge risk in such an abstruse industry. American plants as a whole may be better designed and maintained than their former Soviet counterparts, but the opacity and complexity of the product means we have no real insight into how any particular plant is run. For example, GE-Hitachi submitted a 13,000-page preliminary application to build a new unit at the River Bend plant in Louisiana two years ago. With this absurdist amount of inscrutable data, informed public review is a bad punch line.

Assume for a moment that the American nuclear industry really is as safe as Obama and Bush would like us to believe. Imagine that, for reasons far too esoteric for laypeople to comprehend, the American industry has moved past its bad years of backward reactors (San Onofre, California) and defective concrete (Marble Hill, Indiana) and erroneous building plans (Grand Gulf, Mississippi) -- all those decades of villainy and ineptitude that would made any American International Group exec or Keystone Kop blush with shame -- and entered a golden age of reliability and safe operation. That still leaves the rest of the world.

And here's the hidden threat to any nuclear renaissance. The American nuclear industry, repackaged as a model of energy independence, is itself dependent on the fate of every nuclear plant worldwide. As the industry likes to point out, Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island accident produced no casualties. And yet even that level of nuclear crisis was enough to scare millions of Americans and inflame the regulatory surge of the 1980s. Another meltdown like Chernobyl, with all its human misery visible on laptops and iPhones worldwide, could irrevocably taint public opinion against nuclear power.

Fear, it turns out, is a very tangible metric. Especially when it is known as "political viability." The whirlwind rise of the tea party movement shows how fast uninformed rage can gel into political muscle. A meltdown in Indonesia or Bulgaria could easily galvanize millions of previously nuclear-neutral Americans against the entire industry in the same way a stock market crash and Wall Street bailout prompted ordinary people to "go John Galt." A backlash of that magnitude would render any investment of taxpayer dollars in nuclear energy effectively worthless. And without secure political cover, all the loan guarantees in the world won't create another atomic power plant.

And, of course, there are no airtight guarantees -- beyond the solemn assurances of pundits, officials, and industry advocates -- that there won't be an American Chernobyl. After the financial meltdown of 2008, this nightmare scenario has taken on one further dimension of sci-fi dread: the possible liability default by an increasingly strapped federal government. An Indian Point mishap could rack up TARP-scale costs in a matter of hours, and taxpayers would be left holding the bag -- renewed under the last Bush, Price-Anderson doesn't expire until 2025.