Dick Cheney has a swell idea: build a whole new generation of atomic power plants based on the request of a single utility and a dying industry that each gives big bucks to the Republican Party.

Never mind that no such reactors of this design exist. Never mind that the only test of such a reactor was a miserable failure. Never mind that the design has few backers outside the wildest fanatics backing the nuke power industry. And never mind that the industry itself is a complete failure.

Nonetheless, bowing to the demands of a single donor utility and the well-heeled but cancerous industry behind it, the Bush Administration has earmarked billions of dollars for at least three of these plants to go on line by 2010. All are to be built on federal land, no doubt to avoid incursions by pesky protestors. One is slated for construction at the Portsmouth uranium enrichment facility in southern Ohio.

The design is called “Pebble Bed” but is better known as “Feeble Head” due to its virtual guarantee of catastrophic failure. The idea is to take “pebbles” of enriched uranium and surround them with graphite, then lay them in a big pit like a charcoal burner. The promotors say these “inherently safe” designs can be built in small modules without the protective containment domes that cover the roughly 450 “light water” reactors that operate worldwide. But, of course, they haven’t yet built any that actually work.

That the fossil-nuke Bushies would push this new design at all is a stunning admission that the previous generation of reactors is a failure. Fifty years of effort and more than a trillion dollars have been sunk into the US nuke power industry alone. Virtually all that is tied up in the light water reactors that operate with fuel rods, control rods and cooling water flowing around them. That a “revival” of atomic energy as a commercial source of electricity now suddenly hinges on an untested design that’s so radically different from all that’s come before can only be interpreted as a profound vote of no confidence in the industry as it currently exists.

Yet this is precisely what the Bushies want to do. There are no orders coming from the private sector for traditional reactors. The industry as it stands is in chaos, especially since the first jet that crashed into the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001 flew directly over two highly vulnerable reactors at Indian Point 40 miles north of New York City. Had those reactors been targeted, hundreds of thousands of people would have died and all of New York City would now be a radioactive waste land.

In March, inspectors at Ohio’s own Davis-Besse reactor (near Toledo) found that boric acid had eaten through nearly six inches of solid metal, compromising a crucial safety containment system within the heart of the plant. A second hole was soon found at Davis-Besse, and 68 other American reactors are now being inspected for similar problems, which have also riddled the French fleet of more than 50 reactors.

Meanwhile renewable energy is soaring forward. Wind power is now a $5 billion/year industry, the fastest-growing new source of electricity, cheaper than all other methods of generation except natural gas, whose price is expected to soon rise. Photovoltaic cells, which convert sunlight electricity, are also booming, as is the prospect of fuel cells. Overall, within the next five years, conversion to a natural and hydrogen-based energy economy will rapidly accelerate. By 2010, when Bush and Cheney want the new feeble heads to come on line, they will be so thoroughly outstripped in price and reliability by renewable sources of electricity that it will make no sense to turn them on.

Nonetheless, the Bushies have driven through Congress a bill protecting the owners of new nuclear plants from insurance liability in case of a catastrophic accident. And they are lining up billions in corporate welfare payouts to make sure those fat cat campaign donors who want to build these plants have them paid for by the taxpayers.

The design of the plants may be feeble indeed. But as with everything else nuclear, the scope of the scam is purely radioactive.

Harvey Wasserman, senior advisor to Greenpeace USA and the Nuclear Information & Resource Service, is author of THE LAST ENERGY WAR (Seven Stories Press).

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