Bush's Nuclear Energy

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, July 16, 2006

If presidential willpower could end eras, the generation-old fear of nuclear energy born in the catastrophes of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl would be headed for history's ash heap. The one thing that George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin firmly agreed on in St. Petersburg yesterday was the need for a new nuclear world order.

New nuclear plants will help to reduce global warming, prevent energy shortages and -- most urgently -- curb atomic arsenals from being covertly acquired by rogue countries. That is the vision the American and Russian presidents have developed and which they hinted at in a joint statement after their bilateral summit.

Such a vision is a tall order even for the nuclear genie. But the importance that Bush and Putin attach to atomic energy as the fuel of the future is already a strategic fact of life. It guides U.S. foreign policy, Russian economic ambitions and cooperation between the White House and the Kremlin on a global agenda.

Bush's embrace of nuclear energy as a one-stop panacea for the world's ills has come fast and strong. It is another example of his willingness to reject the conventional wisdom of his father's world and wade deeply into uncharted waters without much reflection. It is also a measure of his desperation over Iran's nuclear ambitions and his deep disquiet over depending on unstable, tyrannical regimes in the Middle East for oil and gas.

"For the sake of economic security and national security, the United States of America must aggressively move forward with the construction of nuclear power plants," Bush announced in a May 24 speech. As he spoke at an electricity generating plant in Pennsylvania -- the state in which the Three Mile Island incident occurred in 1979 -- Bush was already in discussions with Putin about a joint statement on nuclear cooperation as a prelude to the Group of Eight summit in St. Petersburg this weekend.

In offering as well to clear the way for Russia to import and store nuclear waste from U.S.-supplied reactors abroad, Bush is for the second time making nuclear energy the centerpiece of a major foreign policy initiative. Last July he agreed to seek congressional approval for restoring civilian nuclear cooperation with India.

An unspoken aim of the U.S.-Russia proposal is to provide significant economic incentives to the Kremlin to cooperate in containing Iran's nuclear ambitions. The financial damage that confrontation with Iran would do to Russia's nuclear energy industry weighs heavily in Putin's thinking, according to U.S. and Russian officials. In their joint statement Bush and Putin unveiled plans for an international system for supplying processed nuclear fuel to developing countries, coupled with international inspections intended to head off atomic weapons proliferation, these officials say.

The Russian leader intends to expand his country's reliance on nuclear power plants to conserve Russian oil and gas for lucrative export markets far into the future, according to diplomatic reports. This would reduce the financial burden of the domestic subsidies that the Russian government provides for oil and gas products.

But the planned Russian nuclear expansion has not been widely publicized by the Kremlin in this 20th-anniversary year of the Chernobyl meltdown. That disaster immediately caused more than 30 deaths, the evacuation of 135,000 people from the region and a global panic about the safety of nuclear reactors.

Bush noted May 24 that no new atomic energy plants (or oil refineries, for that matter) have been approved in the United States since the 1970s. Public fears, environmental restrictions and the low cost of fossil fuels killed the nuclear market.

Bush's determination to talk the world past its nuclear fears is evidenced in his bold proposals for India and Russia and in his willingness to praise France, not one of his favorite countries, on this score. "France has built 58 plants since the 1970s and now gets 78 percent of its electricity from nuclear power," Bush said May 24. "They don't have to worry about natural gas coming from somewhere else. They worry about it, but they don't have to worry about it to the extent that we do."

Driven by events, rather than by any grand concept of his own, Bush has correctly identified nuclear energy as an important component in reducing global warming and pollution, combating proliferation and cutting the unhealthy dependence of industrial and developing nations alike on suppliers such as Saudi Arabia and Venezuela. Bush must now show that his turn to nuclear is not simply short-term opportunism and ad hoc reaction to crisis but a well-integrated approach to a safer future.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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