Barack Obama’s Disarming Nuclear Rhetoric

by Rebecca Riley

“So today, I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.”[1] US President Barack Obama, April 5th, 2009.

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, indeed, “bend history in the direction of justice.”[2] This prestigious award placed President Barack Obama among some of the most influential and world renowned freedom fighters; Martin Luther King, Jr. (1964), Nelson Mandela (1993), Mother Teresa (1979). The peace prize has also been awarded to some of the most insidious war criminals and architects of war, colonial oppression, and human suffering; Henry Kissinger (1973),[3] and Menachem Begin (1978).[4] The question here that begs to be asked is not whether Obama resides within the former or later categories, but rather what political reality this award obscures.

Obama himself knew that this award was contentious. He stated in his acceptance speech that he is Commander-In-Chief of two immensely destructive wars in the Middle East,[5] a reality that does not marry well with a Peace Prize. He also stated that he wishes to make disarmament of the US’s nuclear arsenal his foreign policy centerpiece.[6] These statements, however, stand in contradiction to the political realities that Barack Obama has and is creating throughout his 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 to Congress his administration’s first comprehensive budget. This budget included a marked increase of government funding for the NNSA. The NNSA will get a total of 13% more money in 2011 than it got in 2010, including a 14% increase of funding for Nuclear Weapons Activities. This includes the increased funding of “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.”[7] This brings the total amount of money that the United States will spend on new nuclear weapons in 2011 to over $7 billion dollars. This is the most money ever requested by a presidential administration to be spent on nuclear weapons, including those during the arms race of the Cold War.[8]

These facts stand in direct contradiction to the comments Obama has made regarding his position on the United States’ nuclear weapons arsenal. This contradiction is complicated by several other important 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 Barack Obama’s history of weakening nuclear regulatory legislation during his time as senator in the state of Illinois.

Despite its costly nature, in terms of financial,[9] health and environmental costs,[10] the nuclear power industry is experiencing what might be deemed a “redux” today. Following the melt-down at Three Mile Island in 1979, as well as public dissent and organizing around nuclear power plants, nuclear power generation lost a lot of popularity among the general public. For the last several decades, the United States has seen absolutely no activity in the way of the construction of new nuclear power plants. When uranium prices dropped drastically in 1992, uranium mining activity in the US 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.[11] Currently there are 17 new nuclear power plants in the licensing process with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).[12] There are 13 new uranium mines in the process of opening, along with 10 project expansions and one project restart.[13]

Nuclear weapons and energy are intrinsically linked. Both are direct consequences of the Manhattan Project of the 1940s, and neither would exist without the front-end of 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 fuels not only the nuclear power sector but also the United States’ nuclear weapons capabilities. It is most likely not a coincidence that at the time we see the United States uranium mining industry resurging we also see a notable proposed expansion of the United States’ 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 to build a new building deemed the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement nuclear facility, which operates as a plutonium pit factory. Y-12 will be graced with a new Uranium Processing Facility to enrich uranium for the US nuclear weapons stockpile. The weapon facility in Kansas City, Missouri, also expects an expansion in weapons production capabilities in the near future. These multi-billion dollar investments in new nuclear weapons infrastructures stand in direct opposition to all of the claims Obama has made for disarmament.[14]

A number of news articles have covered the links between Obama’s presidential campaign finances and the nuclear industry. Over $150,000 were given to President Barack Obama by employees of Exelon during his 2008 presidential campaign.[15] 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. Illinois, coincidentally, is also Barack Obama’s home state. Obama’s history with Exelon philanthropy goes back before his presidential campaign. Since 2003, it has been reported that Obama has received over $227,000 total in campaign contributions from Exelon employees.[16]

Obama’s legislative history toes the line of his corporate sponsorship. In 2005, Obama helped to defeat an amendment to Bush’s energy bill[17] 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 US taxpayers.[18]

2006 saw the introduction of nuclear legislation by then Illinois Senator Barack Obama. The Nuclear Release Notice Act of 2006, S. 2348, 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.[19] Public outcry prompted Obama to put the bill into motion; however, Obama made significant changes to the bill that took out much of the 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.[20]

Just recently, the Illinois Senate voted successfully to lift a 23-year ban on the construction of new nuclear power plants in Illinois. The decision is now put to the House, and if it is passed it will allow companies like Exelon access to the billions of dollars already ear-marked by Obama’s Administration for expansion of the nuclear sector. The ban was originally initiated in 1987, the year after the melt-down at Chernobyl.[21]

The lull in nuclear industrial activity over the past thirty 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 large-scale nuclear disasters like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, meanwhile 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 of 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 entering the public discourse as an “alternative.” So far, that discourse has been largely framed by nuclear corporations set to profit enormously from the expansion of the industry, and politicians who have made their careers on pandering to corporate interests over that of their constituencies.

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.


[1] A transcript of Obama’s Prague Speech can be found here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/04/05/obama-prague-speech-on-nu_n_183219.html

[2] Transcript of Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/12/10/obama-nobel-peace-prize-a_n_386837.html

[3]  1973, the same year he orchestrated the fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet’s rise to power in Chile, overthrowing Salvador Allende.

[4] In 1982, Begin oversaw the invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli Defense Force. Three months into the invasion, the IDF committed a heinous massacre in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian Refugee camps in Beirut under the watchful eye of then Defense Minister Arial Sharon. Sharon was forced to resign (although he later became Prime Minister of Israel 2001-2006).

[5] He then went on to justify the US’s war in Afghanistan as one of self-defense. I’m still fact checking news archives to see when the Afghani Army’s first aggressive act against the US was.

[6] Evidently wishing to push his escalation of the Afghanistan War out of the annals of history.

[7] Dr. Robert Civiak, Tri-Valley CAREs. “Enhancing Nuclear Weapons Research and Production to Support Disarmament?: An analysis of the US Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Request for Nuclear Weapons Activities.” 22 Feb 2010. http://www.trivalleycares.org/new/reports/FY2011BUDGETRPT.pdf

[8] Ibid. Civiak’s article helps to illuminate a lot of the details of where money will be allocated in the NNSA’s budget; details I won’t be examining further in this article, but are worth knowing to understand the direction in which Obama is taking America’s nuclear industry.

[9] Many arguments have been made on the economic infeasibility of nuclear power, despite industry claims that it is affordable. This site provides one such argument: http://www.nirs.org/factsheets/kyotonuc.htm. Without massive government subsidies (ie: taxpayer dollars), nuclear power would be completely unfeasible as an energy source.

[10] Another imperative of this discussion, which I don’t have space to elaborate on in this piece, is the environmental and human costs of the nuclear fuel cycle. Much good literature has been written on this topic. Here is a very short introductory article I wrote on uranium mining and its affects on local communities: http://thinkoutsidethebomb.org/nuclear.html#titletop. See also: http://www.indypendent.org/2008/02/27/1504/

[11] It is speculated that the price of uranium has been raised in part by hedge funds: http://www.indypendent.org/2008/02/27/1504/.

[12] http://www.nrc.gov/reactors/new-reactors/new-licensing-files/expected-new-rx-applications.pdf

[13] http://www.nrc.gov/info-finder/materials/uranium/ur-projects-list-public.pdf; see also http://www.wise-uranium.org/upusa.html or more information on specific sites and projects.

[14] Another look at the NNSA’s FY2011 budget by Darwin BondGraham: http://reachingcriticalwill.blogspot.com/2010/02/president-obamas-nuclear-surge.html.

[15] http://watchdog.net/empl/exelon

[16] http://www.counterpunch.org/gonzalez02292008.html

[17] This bill has served to simplify the process for applying to build new nuclear plants, as well as to provide government incentives to nuclear utility corporations. See: Matthew Cardinale. “Democratic President-elect Barack Obama faces a hungry nuclear industry.” IPS Latin America. 15 Jan 2009.

[18] http://www.counterpunch.org/stclair07042007.html

[19] Steven Dolley. “NRC approves resumption of tritium discharges at Braidwood station.” Inside NRC. 18 Sept 2006.

[20] Matthew Cardinale. “Democratic President-elect Barack Obama faces a hungry nuclear industry.” IPS Latin America. 15 Jan 2009.

[21] Dave McKinney and Steve Contorno. “Senate votes to lift ban on building new nuclear plants.” Chicago Sun Times. 15 Mar 2010.

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~ by scamuic on April 2, 2010.

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