Posted: 2nd June 2020
By Linda Pentz Gunter
The US Department of Energy’s assertions about Russian and Chinese supremacy in the nuclear sector is reminiscent of the “Commie plot” rhetoric of the 1950s. But it’s a thinly disguised ploy to feed at the federal subsidies trough and revive a moribund industry.
A few years ago I attended two days of the Nuclear Deterrence Summit, held just outside Washington, DC. In my defense, I’ll say it was a necessity. I really wanted to get inside how these people think. There was plenty of talk about the need for nuclear weapons, their range and potency, all done with a calm equilibrium devoid of conscience. It was chilling.
But it was also the theatre of the absurd. At one point there was actually talk about a “missile gap.” The Russians were getting ahead. This must be stopped. Was I on the set of a remake of Dr. Strangelove? Was this General ‘Buck’ Turgidson railing about “commie plots” and “mineshaft gaps”?
Life, as it turns out, is routinely stranger than any fiction. Turgidson is still with us, and he has extended his brief to include “civilian” nuclear power plants in the competition with the “Ruskies” and now, the Chinese.
U.S. Energy Secretary, Danny Ray Brouillette, whose parents, in christening him, must have intended a future for him at the Grand Ole Opry, recently bemoaned on air that “We’ve lost our leadership both on the technology side and on the market side… to the Russians and the Chinese”. That vanquished pre-eminence in both the development and export of nuclear technology, is “a national defense issue.”
So great is this national emergency, that I received an alert in my email inbox from the DOE trumpeting a new report that aims to set this foundering ship to rights.
The US Department of Energy announces its new plan to make nuclear great again.
The email arrived embedded in a snazzy poster of the atomic symbol super-imposed on the Statue of Liberty. The headline announced, in all caps: DOE ANNOUNCES STRATEGY TO RESTORE AMERICAN NUCLEAR LEADERSHIP. It’s an interesting approach: Make categorizing nuclear power a national security imperative by actually admitting a national security weakness.
The subhead was a quote from Brouillette, with bold-fonted emphases, stating: “Taken together, these policies will revive and expand the nuclear sector while maintaining capabilities that are critical to broad U.S. national security interests.”
This bold and restorative strategy, the DOE says, will “enhance the positive attributes of nuclear power, revive capabilities of the uranium mining, milling, and conversion industries, strengthen U.S. technology supremacy, and drive U.S. exports, while assuring consistency with U.S. non-proliferation objectives and supporting national security.”
It’s a nonsensical jumble of rhetoric, with the use of words like “supremacy” smacking not just a little of Strangelovian-style aspirations. But as we have seen, there are already moves afoot to open new uranium mines, revive closed ones, extend reactor licenses out to 80 years and even to re-open reactors that recently closed permanently. All in the name of enhancing those “positive attributes of nuclear power,” by which they presumably mean lining the pockets of energy company CEOs and shareholders with taxpayer money; because there certainly aren’t any others.
As Henry Sokolski and Victor Gilinksy, of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center wrote recently, what this is actually about is “a con to get at the federal trough.” The US track record in reactor technology has been a long road, ultimately to nowhere. After decades of poor decision-making and arguably, when it comes to the GE boiling reactors that blew at Fukushima, even poorer technology, “we effectively no longer have any reactor manufacturers,” Gilinksy and Sokolski pointed out.
But, we are run by Turgidsons. And terminal nostalgists.
“They still think, as their predecessors thought sixty years ago, that nuclear power is the technology of the future,” Sokolski and Gilinsky wrote. “They paint a picture of our putative arch-enemies, Russia and China, selling nuclear power plants and locking up nuclear relationships.”
“I’m beginning to smell a big fat Commie rat” seems to be the theme to persuade Congress to shower money on the US nuclear power industry. (Still from Dr. Strangelove/YouTube)
So the US nuclear power industry is condemned to standing on the bread line, flat cap in hand, begging bowl at the ready. It has lost its place in the firmament of the all-powerful.
Even though, as the DOEs Dr. Rita Baranwal told a House committee recently, nuclear power is “the Nation’s — yes, she used a capital N and she doesn’t mean the Left-leaning magazine— largest source of clean, reliable and resilient electricity.” I imagine the nuclear priesthood must chant this nonsense to themselves like a mantra every morning before breakfast, until it sounds believable and they can start their day. Except that none of it is even remotely true.
Then out came those red flags — once of Communism, now just an incitement to pro-nuclear rioting in the Congressional ranks — Russia and China. The mineshaft gap. “U.S. leadership is being ceded to countries such as Russia and China,” Baranwal warned.
But the US will answer that. With “highly innovative small, scalable, flexible, resilient and more financeable nuclear reactors,” crowed Baranwal. That 60 years ago thinking again. “These innovative technologies include small modular reactors (SMRs), microreactors, high temperature reactors (HTRs), molten salt reactors, and liquid metal fast reactors.” Nothing on that list is new, or innovative, or financeable. Except by us.
The Russians (or Chinese) probably aren’t coming — but are being used as a threat to get funding for the US nuclear power sector. (Cover shot of Harrison George book/Wikimedia Commons)
And that price won’t only be paid by emptying our wallets. It will also be paid in health and safety. State senators with dollar signs twinkling in their eyes are lining up for relief handouts that will do nothing to fix our healthcare crises — laid bare under the coronavirus crisis — nor our economy. But they are playing the Russia card to get the money.
And the DOE will probably hand it to them. That was the purpose behind Trump’s United States Nuclear Fuel Working Group, set up last year and whose report is now serving as the propaganda plat du jour for the pro-nuclear lobby.
“Providing immediate, impactful relief is critical or we will lose America’s ability to produce uranium,” said Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming in a press release. “I am pushing the administration to do it. The report confirms Russia weaponized its energy supplies to undercut uranium miners in Wyoming and across the country.”
And so we are back to the risable. Along that theme, and hoping to convince any last doubters, the DOE advanced its national security imperative by providing “5 Fast Facts About Nuclear Energy.” They seem to have been written for small children, hopefully ones who don’t ask too many questions. Maybe for the ones in the White House.
Headline photo by Satakorn/Shutterstock.