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Election 2008: Barack Obama on Nuclear Energy

Obama Advocates Solving Problems of Nuclear Energy Before Expanding Its Use

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Portrait of Barack Obama

Barack Obama favors continuing the use of nuclear energy, but strongly believes the U.S. must answer questions of national security and nuclear waste disposal before building new reactors.

Photo by Marc Serota/Getty Images
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama favors the continued use of nuclear power and sees it as an integral and inevitable part of any effective U.S. energy policy, especially in light of growing concerns about global warming.

Nevertheless, Obama believes the United States must not increase its reliance on nuclear energy until other critical issues, such as national security and nuclear waste disposal, have been adequately addressed. Obama has said, “I don’t think that nuclear power is a panacea” for America’s energy problems.

“Nuclear power represents more than 70 percent of our non-carbon generated electricity,” Obama says in his energy plan. “It is unlikely that we can meet our aggressive climate goals if we eliminate nuclear power as an option. However, before an expansion of nuclear power can be considered, key issues must be addressed including: security of nuclear fuel and waste, waste storage, and proliferation.”

Obama on Nuclear Security and Proliferation
One potential unintended byproduct of further nuclear energy development is that material from nuclear power plants could fall into the hands of terrorists and be used to create weapons of mass destruction.

As a U.S. Senator, Obama introduced legislation “to establish guidelines for tracking, controlling and accounting for spent fuel at nuclear power plants.” Obama has pledged that, as president, he would make safeguarding nuclear material, both abroad and in the United States, a top anti-terrorism priority for his administration.

Obama on Nuclear Waste Storage and Disposal
Obama opposes creating a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, believing the process used to select Yucca Mountain was flawed and the site does not meet the necessary scientific and safety criteria necessary for a nuclear waste storage facility.

At a Senate committee hearing on Yucca Mountain in October 2007, Obama submitted a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Environment and Public Works Committee Chair Barbara Boxer, calling government leaders to abandon the project and to focus on finding other solutions for nuclear waste disposal.

“The selection of Yucca Mountain has failed, the time for debate on this site is over, and it is time to start exploring new alternatives for safe, long-term solutions based on sound science,” Obama wrote. (Read the full letter.)

Nuclear Power and Nuclear Waste in Obama’s Backyard
The hazards of radioactive nuclear waste and the dual problems of safely transporting and storing it are more than theoretical political exercises for Obama. His home state of Illinois has 11 nuclear reactors, the most of any state in the country, and nuclear power provides more than half the electricity Illinois uses every day. Further, a lot of the nuclear waste intended for a central repository such as Yucca Mountain would be transported by rail and would likely pass through Chicago, a national transportation hub.

As a result, Obama and his Senate constituents are particularly concerned about where and how nuclear waste is stored, but Obama is convinced Yucca Mountain is the wrong answer. The following excerpts from Obama’s letter to Reid and Boxer help to explain his thoughts on this issue:

“During the past 20 years, over the strong opposition of the people of Nevada, billions of dollars have been spent by taxpayers and ratepayers in the construction of this location. Millions of dollars have been spent on lawsuits, and hundreds of millions more will be spent in the future if the Department of Energy fails to meet its contractual obligations to nuclear utilities.

“Proponents suggest Yucca Mountain will not be ready to accept spent fuel shipments for another 10 years; more realistic prognostications suggest we are at least two decades from Yucca Mountain accepting shipments.

“Legitimate scientific questions have been raised about the safety of storing spent nuclear fuel at this location. With regard to Yucca Mountain, the National Academy of Sciences maintains that peak risks might occur hundreds of thousands of years from now. In 2004, a federal court questioned whether standards developed by the Environmental Protection Agency for the Yucca Mountain repository were sufficient to guarantee the safety of Nevadans.

“Questions also have been raised about the viability of transporting spent nuclear fuel to Nevada from different locations around the country. Although it would seem to serve the interests of Illinois – and other states with nuclear reactors – to send our waste to another state, transporting nuclear waste materials poses uncertain risk. In fact, since a large amount of this spent fuel would likely travel by rail, this is a serious concern for the people of Chicago, which is the transportation hub of the Midwest.

“Because of these safety issues and the unwavering opposition from the people of Nevada and their elected officials, there is strong reason to believe that many more billions of dollars could be expended on Yucca Mountain without any significant progress in moving towards a permanent solution to the problem of where to store spent nuclear fuel.”

Bottom line: Obama believes the United States will need to continue, and probably expand, its use of nuclear power to meet its energy and climate goals. On the other hand, he does not believe any expansion of nuclear energy should occur before the United States has found a safe and effective way to manage nuclear waste and to minimize the national security risks posed by nuclear power. Obama believes the plan to build a U.S. nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, has failed and should be abandoned in favor of exploring alternative solutions based on sound science.

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