Obama Team Is Oddly Quiet About Evidence That Renewable Energy Beats Nuclear in Job Creation
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On the heels of President Obama's big energy speech and in the wake of the ongoing nuclear disaster at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan, the Obama administration -- along with many members of Congress and the nuclear industry -- remains steadfast in its promotion of nuclear energy here at home.
With nationwide unemployment still hovering around 9 percent, job creation has been one of the leading support points for the so-called "nuclear renaissance."
But AlterNet has learned that University of Massachusetts researchers at the Political Economy Research Institute -- who are also consultants to the Department of Energy -- have provided data to the Obama administration that show investment in renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and biomass, would generate far more returns in American jobs than would investment in building new nuclear power plants.
The Obama administration, however, has steered clear of providing this fact to the American public.
An analysis by AlterNet, applying the same job investment data that University of Massachusetts researchers provided to the Obama administration in July 2010, reveals that, for every $1 million invested, renewable energy sources would create nearly 20 percent more jobs than would new nuclear energy sources. (The exact figure is 18.3 percent.)
One of those researchers, Robert Pollin, University of Massachusetts economics professor and co-director of the Political Economy Research Institute, told AlterNet that though the Department of Energy has the same data, President Obama, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, and others who tout nuclear power's ability to generate jobs, are being "disingenuous" by not telling the whole story.
He said the crucial fact omitted in such narratives is that any investment in infrastructure creates jobs, but investment in nuclear energy creates far fewer jobs compared to an equal investment in renewable energy.
"The only relevant metric if you're interested in job creation by investing in the energy sector," Pollin explained, "is how many jobs per given dollar of expenditure."
He continued, "So the story he's telling, this anecdote about nuclear, of course it's going to create some jobs. But the statement is disingenuous because if you spend money on anything you will create some jobs. You can't do anything in an economy unless people are engaged.
"But the point is, if you go with the green investment, you'll create a lot more jobs and it's safer and better for the environment."
The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement released to AlterNet, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said, "In addition to very real safety concerns, particularly in light of what is happening in Japan, it is important that we also understand that new nuclear energy is more expensive than renewable energy... despite the massive government subsidies the nuclear industry enjoys."
Sanders continued, "As this new analysis shows, we would create more jobs by investing in sustainable energy. It also is clear that sustainable energy offers a safer and more cost-effective means of producing new energy than nuclear."
But Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), like the Obama administration, believes the U.S. must rely on a "broad mix portfolio" of energy sources, according to his spokeswoman Jude McCartin.
In response to the analysis' finding, McCartin said, "Yeah, but it's not an either-or proposition. You don't do either renewables or nuclear energy. You meet the nation's needs with a mix of sources."
When asked to address the fewer jobs created by nuclear investment, along with the inherent safety and environmental hazards, she reiterated multiple times that Sen. Bingaman is actually one of the staunchest supporters of renewable energy in the Senate and "has supported renewable technology for many, many years."
Pressed again to address the job creation and safety issue with nuclear energy, McCartin replied, "I know where you're going with this, but what I'm saying is, we don't even have all of the battery technology we need to make total use of renewable energy, the best possible use for renewable. Right now, solar energy is used when it's produced, but there's not a tremendous amount of storage for such a thing."
Kevin Kamp, an energy expert at the nuclear watchdog Beyond Nuclear, believes McCartin's comment on renewable storage capacity is "wrong."
He said that "proven storage technologies," such as compressed air storage and solar thermal concentration using molten salt as a storage technology, are already being used in some states in the U.S. and abroad and are "good to go, if we choose to go."
Instead, Kamp said it's "just a question of political will."
He continued, "It's called opportunity costs. If we dive into this nuclear power renaissance, there won't be any money left over for renewables. It's going to suck all the capital out of our economy. We're talking about $15 billion pricetags on these new reactors."
Nuclear Lobby's Impact Key Factor in Downplaying Renewable Job Creation
The overwhelming financial influence of the nuclear lobby is one of the reasons the Obama administration and most members of Congress do not underscore renewable energy investment's superiority for job creation, said Heidi Garrett-Peltier, Pollins' colleague at the Political Economy Research Institute.
She pointed out that during the "pre-stimulus era" the amount of money in the federal budget invested in nuclear energy research as compared to renewable energy was "heavily skewed" toward nuclear.
Recent reports on money in politics support this, showing the nuclear industry's longtime ability to control the message and sway lawmakers at the expense of renewable energy investment.
In 2010, an investigation by the Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication revealed that, between 1999-2009, the nuclear power industry spent $645 million on federal lobbying -- more than $1 million a week.
Kevin Kamp of Beyond Nuclear also noted that contrary to how Sen. Bingaman, a Democrat and chairman of the Senate Energy and Resources Committee, is portrayed by his spokeswoman McCartin, he's also known as the "senator from Los Alamos."
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Bingaman's top donor over his career has been the Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb. The Illinois-based Exelon Corporation, the nation's largest owner and operator of nuclear power plants, is another of Bingaman's major contributors and a prominent campaign contributor to President Obama.
In 2006, Bingaman received the leadership award from the Nuclear Energy Institute, the nuclear power industry's main trade group, for having "framed a broad energy vision that helps jump-start the construction of new nuclear power plants."
The Nuclear Enterprise Institute did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
But Garrett-Peltier also lamented that this lopsided funding of nuclear energy continues today even as a growing body of evidence shows that renewable energy is not only cheaper and safer but also provides more jobs.
Current actions such as the Republican-led House bill H.R.1, which seeks to slash guaranteed loans for renewable energy investment, threatens to choke off vital funding for renewable energy while the Obama administration is simultaneously calling for a huge increase in loan guarantees for nuclear energy -- an additional $36 billion to the program's current $18.5 billion.
In a statement released to AlterNet, Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), a member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said, "American energy policy should focus on supporting the job-creating workhorses like renewable energy, rather than those continually in need of gift horses, like the nuclear industry."
Markey added, "Unfortunately, House Republicans are including $18.5 billion for loan guarantees for nuclear power in their spending bill, H.R.1, while repealing every last cent of loan guarantees for wind, solar, biomass, geothermal, hydropower, and a smart grid."
Fred Upton (R-MI), Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, did not respond to a request for comment for this article.
Renewables Also Much Safer for Taxpayers
In addition to renewable energy's ability to produce far more jobs, the nuclear industry's rate of default on government loans is over 50 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Pollin noted that government loan guarantees are not only an "extremely effective tool for promoting renewable energy" but they should be popular with Republicans, too, if they were serious about saving taxpayers' money.
"You know, a loan guarantee doesn't really cost anything until somebody defaults on a loan," he quipped, referring to the loan default rate for nuclear energy projects.
Government loan guarantees for renewable energy investment, Pollin said, are the most effective way to integrate the private sector through relatively small incentives in terms of costs to taxpayers.
He estimates that default rates on guaranteed loans for renewable energy would be miniscule compared to those for nuclear; at most, roughly equivalent to the default rate on small business loans or even lower.
"The default rate for nuclear is different because these are, by definition, gigantic hugely capital-intensive projects," Pollin explained. "The renewable sector is smaller scale. Of course there's capital involved in it, but they're not going to be as large scale."
Pollin, who as a consultant to the Obama administration, says he's certainly not "anti-Obama," said he's frustrated that the president still supports such massive funding of nuclear energy when renewable energy "is obviously the new energy source for the future."
He added, "Other countries recognize this and are pouring far more proportional amounts of money into supporting the development of renewable sectors."