When Congress is under the gun of a deadline to pass a bill, like the deficit-reduction package, it's best to check the coattails of that bill. Attached like stubborn lint will be unrelated measures that are so unpopular they will pass only if they are stuck to a sure thing.
Fortunately, this time around, the conference committee recognized lint when it saw it. A bill to perpetuate a multibillion-dollar taxpayer bailout of the nuclear power industry was stuck to the deficit-reduction legislation, but Congress picked it off at the last minute.
The bad news is that the senators who have tried to convert this lint into law more than once will be back to try again in the next session.
Since 1964, the Energy Department has operated uranium enrichment plants and sold the product to nuclear power utilities to generate the fission heat that drives nuclear reactors. And since 1984, that program has been operating at a deficit, running up a $10 billion debt in spite of a law that says the operation must pay for itself with no taxpayer subsidy.
Rather than make the Energy Department comply with the law and sell its uranium for a price that covers the cost of enriching it, two senators are determined to repeal the law and let the taxpayers pay the difference.
Sens. Wendell Ford (D-Ky.) and J. Bennett Johnston (D-La.) are the ringleaders for the nuclear industry. They have been nurturing an unpopular energy bill through the Senate for years, but just can't seem to get it through the House.
Their bill would stick it to the taxpayers in more than one way. It would repeal the law that requires the uranium enrichment program to cover its costs. It would force taxpayers to cover the $10 billion in losses already accumulated. It would bill the Treasury for at least another $10 billion spent to decommission one enrichment plant and other cleanup costs. And it would authorize the Energy Department to borrow $2.5 billion more to build yet another enrichment plant at a time when nuclear power is about as popular as cholesterol.
Coincidentally, neither Johnston nor Ford would mind if that plant were built in one of their states.
They seem to have mixed the nuclear industry with the savings and loan industry. One was not guaranteed a bailout. In fact, the guarantee went the other way. Establishment of the uranium enrichment program in 1964 was surrounded by promises that the government would never have to subsidize it.
The Energy Department is compounding its mismanagement of the program by proposing to build yet another enrichment plant using untested technology. The department already has abandoned one of three existing plants at a decommissioning cost of $3 billion because the technology was flawed and demand was not there.
Now, the National Taxpayers Union told our associate Melinda Maas, the uranium enrichment program is losing $1 billion a year.
There is no reason to believe DOE will learn its lesson about backing a loser. Energy Secretary James D. Watkins, a former admiral, is a big booster of nuclear energy, warts and all.