Karl Grossman

Obama’s Nuclear Reverse

Barack Obama’s embrace of a weak nuclear deal with Iran follows an overall reverse by him on nuclear technology.

Before taking office, candidate Obama was negative about atomic energy and indicated a clear knowledge of its safety and waste problems, expense, and threat to life from accidents.

“I start off with the premise that nuclear energy is not optimal and so I am not a nuclear energy proponent,” Obama said at a campaign stop in Newton, Iowa on December 30, 2007. “My general view is that until we can make certain that nuclear power plants are safe, that they have solved the storage problem…and the whole nuclear industry can show that they can produce clean, safe energy without enormous subsidies from the U.S. government, I don’t think that’s the best option. I am much more interested in solar and wind and bio-diesel and strategies [for] alternative fuels.”

As he told the editorial board of the Keene Sentinel newspaper in New Hampshire on November 25, 2007: “I don’t think there’s anything that we inevitably dislike about nuclear power. We just dislike the fact that it might blow up…and irradiate us…and kill us. That’s the problem.”

As he stated at a Londonderry, New Hampshire town meeting on October 7, 2007: “Nuclear power has a host of problems that have not been solved. We haven’t solved the storage situation effectively. We have not dealt with all of the security aspects of our nuclear plants and nuclear power is very expensive.”

Yet, as president, he was calling in his State of the Union speech on January 27, 2010 for “building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country.”  And he repeated that declaration.

Moreover, despite his earlier criticism of government subsidies for nuclear power, he has been pushing throughout his presidency for multi-billion dollar loan guarantees for nuclear plant construction, what with Wall Street reluctant to invest money in the technology.

What’s been behind the Obama nuclear flip?

Factors include his top White House aides, pressure from nuclear interests and the ardently pro-nuclear figures he selected as his two successive secretaries of the U.S. Department of Energy and thus his top advisors on energy—one of whom, Ernest Moniz, is deeply involved in the deal-making with Iran.

At The White House in his first term, Obama’s chief of staff was Rahm Emanuel, now Chicago mayor but earlier a member of the U.S. Congress and an investment banker central in creating a utility called Exelon that now operates more nuclear power plants than any other in the United States. It was an $8.2 billion deal Emanuel worked on in 1999 which merged Unicom, the parent company of Commonwealth Edison of Chicago, and Peco Energy.

David Axelrod, a senior political advisor to Obama during his first term and before that his chief campaign strategist, as a PR man served as an Exelon consultant.

Obama has received sizeable campaign contributions from Exelon executives including from John Rowe, its president and chief executive officer who in 2007 also became chairman of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the U.S. nuclear industry’s main lobbying group.

Forbes magazine, in its January 18, 2010 issue, in an article on Rowe and how he has “focused the company on nuclear,” displayed a sidebar headlined, “The President’s Utility.”  It read: “Ties are tight between Exelon and the Obama administration,” noting Exelon political contributions and featuring Emanuel and Axelrod with photos and descriptions of their Exelon connections.

“’We are proud to be the President’s utility,’ says Elizabeth Moler, Exelon’s chief lobbyist,” the article said. “’It’s nice for John to be able to go to the White House and they know his name.’”

Exelon’s website boasts of its operating “the largest nuclear fleet in the nation. The fleet consists of 23 reactors at 14 locations in Illinois, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.”

As his first Department of Energy secretary, Obama chose Steven Chu, a product of the string of U.S. government national nuclear laboratories which ever since World War II’s Manhattan Project to build atomic weapons has been promoting nuclear technology for military and subsequently civilian uses. Chu before becoming DOE secretary was director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

As David Lilienthal, first chairman of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, wrote in his  1963 book Change, Hope, and the Bomb: “The classic picture of the scientist as a creative individual, a man obsessed, working alone through the night, a man in a laboratory pushing an idea—this has changed. Now scientists are ranked in platoons. They are organization men. In many cases the independent and humble search for new truths about nature has been confused with the bureaucratic impulse to justify expenditure and see that next year’s budget is bigger than last’s.” He wrote of the “elaborate and even luxurious” U.S. national nuclear laboratories and the push from them to use nuclear devices for “blowing out harbors, making explosions underground to produce steam, and so on” which show “how far scientists and administrators will go to try to establish a nonmilitary use” for nuclear technology.

Chu, like many of the national nuclear laboratory scientists and administrators, has minimized the dangers of radioactivity. And as energy secretary, as he declared in one presentation in 2011: “We are aggressively pursuing nuclear energy. We are, as we have repeatedly said, working hard to restart the American nuclear power industry.”

Chu was succeeded by Moniz in 2013. Moniz was director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative, heavily financed by energy industry corporations, and has long advocated nuclear power.

In a 2011 essay in Foreign Affairs magazine titled “Why We Still Need Nuclear Power,” Moniz wrote: “In the years following the major accidents at Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl in 1986, nuclear power fell out of favor, and some countries applied the brakes to their nuclear programs. In the last decade, however, it began experiencing something of a renaissance….But the movement lost momentum in March, when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and the massive tsunami it triggered devastated Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant…The event caused widespread public doubts about the safety of nuclear power to resurface. But, said, Moniz, “It would be a mistake…to let Fukushima cause governments to abandon nuclear power and its benefits.”

Moniz went on: “Nuclear power’s track record of providing clean and reliable electricity compares favorably with other energy sources.”

In nominating Moniz to be his second energy secretary, Obama said, “Most importantly, Ernie knows that we can produce more energy and grow our economy.”

Obama’s nuclear reverse has sparked years of strong complaints.

Speaking of being “deeply disturbed” by Obama’s push for government subsidies for nuclear power has been Peter Wilk, M.D., former executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility, now a board member, who has also held leadership positions with International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War.  “Not only does this put taxpayers on the hook for billions, it prioritizes a dirty, dangerous, and expensive technology over public health.  From the beginning to the end of the nuclear fuel cycle, nuclear reactors remain a serious threat to public health and safety. From uranium mining waste to operating reactors leaking radioactivity to the lack of radioactive waste solutions, nuclear power continues to pose serious public health threats.”

Jim Riccio, nuclear policy analyst for Greenpeace USA., has said that “the president knows better. Just because radiation is invisible doesn’t mean it’s clean.”

Paul Gunter, director of the Reactor Oversight Project of the organization Beyond Nuclear, has spoken of a “widening of a divide as the administration steps back from its promise for a change in energy policy and those of us who are committed to a change.”

“From a health perspective, the proposal of the Obama administration to increase federal loan guarantees for new nuclear reactors poses a serious risk to Americans,” Joseph Mangano, executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, has said. “Adding new reactors will raise the chance for a catastrophic meltdown. It will also increase the amount of radioactive chemicals routinely emitted from reactors into the environment—and human bodies. New reactors will raise rates of cancer—which are already unacceptably high—especially to infants and children. Public policies affecting America’s energy future should reduce, rather than raise, hazards to our citizens.”

But Obama as U.S. president, has gone soft on nuclear power and accepting of nuclear technology—as he has on a nuclear weapons deal with Iran.

About the Author
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at the State University of New York at Old Westbury who has specialized in investigative reporting for more than 50 years. He is the host of the TV program “Enviro Close-Up with Karl Grossman,” (, the writer and presenter of numerous TV documentaries and author of seven books.