Barack Obama’s Nuclear Rhetoric

Barack Obama was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 in part for stating that America was committed to seeking a world without nuclear weapons. In his acceptance speech, he noted that one can, "bend history in the direction of justice." This award placed Obama among some of the most influential and renowned freedom fighters, as well as some of the most insidious war criminals and architects of colonial oppression and human suffering. Henry Kissinger received the prize in 1973, the same year he orchestrated the fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power in Chile, overthrowing Salvador Allende. Menachem Begin received the prize in 1978. Four years later, he oversaw the invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli Defense Force.

Obama stated in his acceptance speech that he was commander-in-chief of two destructive wars in the Middle East, a reality that does not marry well with a peace prize. He also stated that he wished to make disarmament of the U.S. nuclear arsenal his foreign policy centerpiece. This last statement, however, stands in contradiction to the realities of Obama’s political career.

Take, for example, the recent announcement of the budget for the Department of Energy (DOE)’s National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) for the fiscal year of 2011. Early in 2010, Obama submitted his first comprehensive budget, which included a 13 percent increase of government funding for the NNSA and a 14 percent increase of for nuclear weapons activities. There was additional funding for "research and development in nuclear weapons science and technology and to build new infrastructure for the production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium parts for nuclear weapons." This brings the total amount of money that the United States will spend on new nuclear weapons in 2011 to over $7 billion, the most money ever requested by an Administration for nuclear weapons.

These actions contradict Obama’s comments regarding his position on the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal. This contradiction is complicated by several other political realities: the increase in permit and license requests for new uranium mines and nuclear power plants; the expansion of existing nuclear weapons facilities; and Obama’s history of weakening nuclear regulatory legislation during his time as senator in Illinois.

Nuclear Redux?

Following the meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, as well as public dissent and organizing against nuclear plants, nuclear power generation lost popularity and there has been no construction of new nuclear power plants in the U.S. for the last several decades. When uranium prices dropped drastically in 1992, uranium mining activity also slowed. Interest in mining has been rising of late, however, alongside the price of uranium. In 2003, the price of a pound of yellowcake uranium was $7. In 2008, it was $138. Currently, there are 17 new nuclear power plants in the licensing process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). And there are 13 new uranium mines in the process of opening, along with 10 project expansions and one project restart.

Nuclear weapons and energy are intrinsically linked. Both are direct consequences of the Manhattan Project of the 1940s and neither would exist without the uranium fuel cycle, from the mine through the enrichment process. The difference between weapons grade and energy grade uranium is only one more enrichment cycle. Thus, the influx of uranium production and enrichment drives not only the nuclear power sector, but also nuclear weapons capabilities. It is likely not a coincidence that at the time we see the resurgence of the U.S. uranium mining industry that we also see the proposed expansion of weapons production capacity.

With the increase in the NNSA’s budget in 2011 comes "critical infrastructural improvements" at Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Y-12 in Tennessee. Los Alamos National Laboratory is planning a new building deemed the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement nuclear facility to operate as a plutonium pit factory. Y-12 will be graced with a new uranium processing facility to enrich uranium for the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile. A weapons facility in Kansas City, Missouri also expects an expansion in weapons production capabilities in the near future.

A number of news articles have covered the links between Obama’s presidential campaign finances and the nuclear industry. Obama received over $150,000 from Exelon during his 2008 presidential campaign. Exelon is the nation’s largest nuclear energy utility, and is based in the state with the largest number of nuclear power generating stations, Illinois, Obama’s home state.

Obama’s history with Exelon philanthropy goes back to before his presidential campaign and further links between Obama and Exelon have surfaced in the past few years. David Axelrod, a political consultant whose firm AKP&D Message and Media helped to elect Barack Obama, also worked as a corporate consultant for Exelon with his Chicago-based company ASK Public Strategies.

Obama’s legislative history ties in with his corporate sponsorship. In 2005, Obama helped to defeat an amendment to Bush’s energy bill that would have eliminated loan guarantees for investment in new energy projects by corporations such as Exelon. The result was that the financial burden for these energy projects has been shifted to U.S. taxpayers.

In 2006, as an Illinois senator, Obama introduced the Nuclear Release Notice Act of 2006, S. 2348, which initially mandated that state and local officials be notified within 24 hours of unplanned radioactive discharge from a nuclear facility. This legislation came about because of an Exelon power plant in Braidwood, Illinois, a town in Obama’s congressional district, that was leaking tritium into the groundwater. Public outcry prompted Obama to put the bill into motion. However, Obama made significant changes that took out much of the bill’s regulatory power. These changes were largely influenced by Exelon and the nuclear industry’s strong opposition to the bill, including dissenting voices from the Nuclear Energy Institute, a pro-nuclear think tank. In the end, Obama removed the language requiring disclosure of leaks by the nuclear industry and the bill never got out of Congress.

Just recently, the Illinois Senate voted to lift a 23-year ban on the construction of new nuclear power plants. (The ban was initiated in 1987, the year of the meltdown at Chernobyl.) If it passes in the House, it will allow companies like Exelon access to the billions of dollars earmarked by Obama’s administration for expansion of the nuclear sector.

The lull in nuclear industrial activity over the past 30 years has allowed frightening reminders of the toxicity of nuclear power and weapons to slowly recede from the public eye. A generation has passed since disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, while nuclear weapons issues are kept largely under wraps. There are communities, however, that can never forget the deadly legacy of the uranium fuel cycle or the horrors of even the "smallest" nuclear power leaks and spillages. Nuclear waste and contamination is forever.

Now that the government is opening the legislative door and the taxpayers’ pocketbook for new nuclear endeavors at a time when energy issues—such as mountaintop removal and foreign fossil fuel dependency—are high-profile, "nuclear" is again being posed as an "alternative." So far, that discourse has been framed by nuclear corporations set to profit enormously from the expansion of the industry, and by politicians who have made their careers pandering to corporate interests .

When Obama speaks of nuclear disarmament, we must remember how he turned his back on the people of Braidwood. We must remember where he is allocating taxpayer dollars. We must keep in mind the difference between political rhetoric and political reality. Finally, we must again add a human voice to the discourse on nuclear weapons and energy, one that speaks to the horrific human and environmental costs that don’t fit so neatly onto corporate ledgers.


Rebecca Riley is a freelance researcher, musician, and puppeteer. She currently organizes with the nation’s largest youth network for nuclear abolition, Think Outside the Bomb.