American taxpayers bailed out the banks. They bailed out auto manufacturers. But at least they were our banks and automakers. Now, taxpayers are once again being asked to lend a hand. This time it's to subsidize multi-billion-dollar foreign companies with names like Toshiba, Hitachi and Areva. If the going gets rough for them, taxpayers will be forced to dig into their pockets to bail them out, too.
America needs to invest in new forms of energy: to combat climate change and increase security by reducing our dependence on foreign suppliers. But that reality is being used by some on Capitol Hill to justify the expenditure of billions of dollars to construct new nuclear reactors – a high-cost, high-risk gamble.
Various proposals in both the House and Senate call for as much as $54 billion in taxpayer-supplied loan guarantees for new reactors. Another bill would put no ceiling on the amount of guarantees.
In the haste to make the case for these massive public investments there's one detail that rarely receives much mention: The construction push will largely benefit global companies and overseas workers. They get the profits; U.S. taxpayers assume the risks.
All 18 of the energy companies seeking approval to build new reactors will be relying on foreign manufacturers to fill the bulk of their orders. That means revenue and jobs in Japan and France, not Ohio or North Carolina or any other state.
Foreign involvement in nuclear construction in this country goes even deeper than manufacturing. Two reactor projects at the head of the line for federal loan guarantees have foreign investors. Calvert Cliffs in Maryland is dominated by the French government-owned EDF Group and Areva (Constellation Energy is also a partner) and the South Texas Project is a partnership between NRG Energy of New Jersey, Toshiba and Tokyo Electric Power Company, both of Japan. A third reactor project awaiting approval, Nine Mile Point in New York, also is co-owned by Constellation and EDF.
Earlier this year, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) took issue with the fact that federal stimulus money was being used to purchase foreign-made equipment for solar and wind projects. That money should be spent here, Schumer argued, not abroad. Unfortunately, that same question has not been raised when it comes to insuring billions in nuclear investments.
Each of these new reactors is estimated to cost about $10 billion or more. If the projects fail – and the Congressional Budget Office has put the odds of that happening at 50-50 – U.S. taxpayers will be forced to foot the bill to make good on the debt. In other words, another bailout to benefit Areva or Toshiba or Hitachi.
Why are U.S. taxpayers being asked to stake profitable global companies looking to make money in American markets? Wall Street is gun-shy. Investors there have looked at the risks of nuclear power and said no. So, to get these projects moving, nuclear backers in Washington have volunteered the taxpayers.
Why aren't U.S. companies vying for these projects?
The U.S. nuclear manufacturing industry is moribund, its production facilities shuttered. No new reactors have been ordered in this country since Palo Verde in 1973.
Once, the number of U.S. suppliers licensed to produce nuclear-grade building components was 400; now it is down to 80. Today, for example, the only companies capable of building giant steel reactor vessels are located in Japan, China and Russia. While some new manufacturing capacity is being developed in the U.S., it will be years, if ever, before it could play a major role in reactor construction. Thus the U.S. is forced to look overseas for the foreseeable future.
We live in a global economy. American consumers are accustomed to seeing foreign-made labels on their clothing, cars and computers. Foreign investment in the U.S. is nothing new, either.
But what sets apart this latest entry into the U.S. market is the fact that when it comes to nuclear expansion, Washington wants taxpayers to take the risk out of making those investments. That wouldn't make sense even if the nuclear companies' owners were all living on Main Street. It makes absolutely no sense to expect U.S. taxpayers to bail out foreign companies – or the French government – if things go sour.
Mariotte is Executive Director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service.