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Blast from the past



All things considered, Republican presidential candidate John McCain could have chosen a better spot than the Fermi II plant in Monroe to reiterate his support of nuclear power as a key component in reducing America's dependence on foreign oil.

Calling for the construction of 45 plants by 2030, McCain told reporters of how he first became familiar with atomic energy while serving aboard the nuclear-fueled aircraft carrier Enterprise during his Navy days.

"I knew it was safe then. I know it is safe now," said McCain, claiming that the technology is also "efficient, inexpensive and obviously a vital ingredient in the future of the economy of our nation."

What makes the chosen backdrop for this pronouncement somewhat puzzling is that the plant's predecessor, Fermi I, was the site of a partial meltdown in 1966. That incident resulted in the term "China syndrome" being coined and prompted a book and song titled We Almost Lost Detroit.

But then again, the whole nuclear power debate has assumed a sort of surreal quality as proponents in recent years have taken to claiming a technology that produces lethal waste — for which there is still no safe method of disposal — as a form of "green" energy that can help address the global warming crisis.

The combination of growing public concern about climate change and the financial wallop caused by record increases in oil prices has propelled the issue of nuclear power to a prominent spot in the presidential race, says Kevin Kamps, an expert with the Maryland-based nonprofit group Beyond Nuclear.

In contrast to McCain's full-throated support of nuclear expansion is what Kamps describes as Barack Obama's "more nuanced approach." Michael Keegan, an anti-nuclear activist in Monroe, puts it this way: "Obama's not 180 degrees different than McCain. I'd say he's more like 90 degrees different."

During an interview on Meet the Press earlier this year, the junior senator from Illinois said, "I think we do have to look at nuclear, and what we've got to figure out is can we store the material properly? Can we make sure that they're secure? Can we deal with the expense?"

On the one hand, that's good news for mainstream environmentalists. None of those issues is likely to be adequately addressed anytime soon. On the other hand, Obama's quasi-support raises further concerns about the true leanings of a candidate who's received much financial support from the nuclear power industry.

In a February article, the Los Angeles Times reported that the nuclear energy industry was conducting an "about face" by giving significant amounts of campaign cash to Democratic candidates after "having showered their money on Republicans in past campaigns."

"Obama," the Times reported, "was the largest beneficiary of money from companies that have a stake in nuclear energy's future."

At about the same time, The New York Times reported that Illinois-based Exelon — identified as the country's "largest nuclear plant operator" — was one of Obama's top campaign contributors, and that two top officials from the company were among his largest fund-raisers.

The issue of nuclear power is particularly pertinent in southeast Michigan. DTE Energy, as The Detroit News reported last week, "is expected to complete its application for a new $3 billion reactor at Fermi by September."

No company has ordered a nuclear power reactor in the United States since 1978. In 1979 there was a near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. That was followed by the 1986 disaster at the Soviet Union's Chernobyl nuclear power plant, where an explosion resulted in a plume of highly radioactive material being released into the atmosphere.

With the memory of those events receding from the public's consciousness, the nuclear industry is using the threat posed by global warming as a way to gain new support for reactors and the electricity they can generate.

"One of the most audacious disinformation campaigns coming from the nuclear industry is its slow but steady attempt to corner the energy market as a 'clean, green energy source,'" wrote environmental activist Lisa Rainwater in a 2005 edition of PR Watch Newsletter published by the nonprofit Center for Media and Democracy, which monitors the activities of the public relations industry.

It is true that no greenhouse gases are released by nuclear reactors producing electricity. That fact is touted by Patrick Moore, a former Greenpeace leader now on the nuclear energy industry's payroll as a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

With the exception of Moore and a few others, however, environmentalists by and large aren't buying industry's claims that it is a green source of energy. "I don't know of any environmental groups that hold that position," says Kamps.

With good reason.

"It is true that the actual fission process whereby electricity is generated does not release greenhouse gases," states a report issued by the environmental group Friends of the Earth. "However, in various stages of the nuclear process (e.g. mining, uranium enrichment, building and decommissioning of power plants, processing and storing radioactive waste) huge amounts of energy are needed, much more than for less complex forms of electricity production. Most of this energy comes in the form of fossil fuels, and therefore nuclear power indirectly generates a relatively high amount of greenhouse gas emissions."

There is another factor.

Without massive federal subsidies, say critics, no nuclear plants are going to be built because of the construction costs and potential financial liability associated with an accident or terrorist attack. And any public propping-up of nukes comes at the expense of support for truly green alternative energy technologies and conservation programs.

Appearing on the public radio program Democracy Now, Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, explained to host Amy Goodman that renewable energy sources along with energy conservation programs that pay for things like insulation upgrades, "are a great deal cheaper" than nuclear and can be ramped up much more quickly.

"So," he said, "if climate's a problem, we need to invest judiciously, not indiscriminately, to get the most solution per dollar, the most solution per year. Otherwise, we're making things worse."

"Nuclear cannot actually deliver the climate or the security benefits claimed for it," Lovins argued.

"It is," he said, "a carefully crafted illusion."

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or

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