The biggest threat to nukes might be Wall Street

March 25, 2011, 1:15 PM UTC

Ed Markey, the gentleman from Massachusetts, does not mince words over the twisted relationship he sees among investors, taxpayers, and the nuclear power industry.

What will happen to the U.S. nuclear power industry in the wake of the Fukushima power plant disaster? Fortune’s Tory Newmyer spoke to Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the ranking Democrat on the House Natural Resources Committee and a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, to get his views.

Q. Should the administration halt relicensing of existing nuclear power plants until they’ve conducted a safety review?

A. It is time for us to bring these nuclear power plants in for a check up to make sure they can withstand the kinds of pressures that the Japanese plants have been placed under, especially those in earthquake-prone areas of the U.S. There’ve been earthquakes in Chile, New Zealand, and Japan over the last year. The last part of that quadrant is the West Coast of the U.S. We should ensure that we have learned the lessons of Japan and ensure that these plants are safe to operate for the next 20 or 40 years.

Should we be following Germany’s lead and closing older plants while that review takes place?

The reviews can take place while the plants are still operating, but it should happen in a telescoped timeframe.

You’ve been critical of the federal loan guarantees the industry receives. Would you like to see them restructured, or eliminated entirely?

The nuclear industry was successful four weeks ago in the House of Representatives in preserving $18.6 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power and simultaneously killing all the loan guarantees for wind and solar and other renewable energy construction. There could not be a greater perversion of free market principles than taxpayer-subsidized support for nuclear and zero to its competitors. My belief is there should be no loan guarantees for anyone unless there are loan guarantees for everyone.

What would you like to see the White House do to move that along?

The White House has to push back hard against House Republicans who zeroed out the loan guarantees for wind and solar and allowed for $18.6 billion to be put in the budget for nuclear power. Either nuclear gets none, or the competing renewable technologies receive equal incentives, but it can’t be a one-way street that continues this historic bias.

The administration over the last week has been outspoken in defending the technology. How can you be confidant that nuclear as a proportion of our energy mix is going to diminish?

Let’s be clear: 50 new nuclear reactors would have to be built by 2025 just for nuclear energy to ensure its current share of energy generation. As a solution to global-warming, there would have to be many more than that, and the greater likelihood is no more than a small handful will be constructed by 2025. Wall Street has not invested in new nuclear power-generation capacity in 36 years. The nuclear industry insists that the American taxpayer insure the nuclear power plants with taxpayer guarantees for the first $12.6 billion in losses in the event of an accident.

The nuclear industry also insists that taxpayers guarantee the loans for new nuclear power plants, because Wall Street will not invest unless the taxpayer is on the hook. That’s a system more like a socialist or communist country. Wall Street investors, not granola-chopping protestors, pose the biggest threat to the future of nuclear power. Between now and the next ribbon cutting for a new nuclear power plant, it’s a reasonable expectation there will be approximately 100,000 megawatts of wind power installed. So it’s easy to see a limited role for nuclear power in our future.

More from Fortune on the future of nuclear power:

Six experts: What’s next?

Inside the mind of a nuclear flip-flopper

Why the U.S. can’t abandon the nuclear renaissance