Obama, the Oracle of Omaha & Nuclear Power

by Jim Riccio

February 23, 2011

Last week, President Obama lauded those who have made an especially meritorious contribution to the United States, world peace and culture by bestowing upon them the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Among this years recipients was the “World’s Greatest Investor,” also one of the world’s greatest philanthropists Warren Buffett.   Instead of merely lauding the Oracle of Omaha, President Obama should follow his lead and stop pursuing costly new nuclear power plants. Time and again, Buffett’s corporation MidAmerican has recognized the risks of investing in new nuclear power.

In 2007, MidAmerican, a subsidiary of Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway conducted their economic due diligence on the prospects of building a new nuclear reactor; the numbers just didn’t add up.  According to MidAmerican’s president, “Consumers  expect reasonably priced energy, and the company’s due diligence process has led to the conclusion that it does not make economic sense to pursue the project at this time.” In January 2008, MidAmerican scrapped its plans for a new nuclear reactor in Idaho.

In September 2008, Buffett’s MidAmerican purchased the pro nuclear Constellation Energy. Despite the fact that MidAmerican affirmed Constellation’s plans for new reactors in Maryland, Electricity de France (EdF) was concerned that MidAmerican would eventually reach the same conclusion it did in Idaho and pull the plug on the new reactors proposed for the Calvert Cliffs site. The Financial Times reported that, “The French group’s offer is clearly aimed at scuppering the $4.7bn bid made by Mr. Buffett’s MidAmerican Energy in September, which it fears could threaten Constellation’s future nuclear investment capacity.” Despite buying out Buffett the deal between the French & Constellation to build new reactors has since collapsed.

Unfortunately the President has not emulated the Oracle of Omaha and recognized the abysmal economics of nuclear power.  Buried in President Obama’s multi-trillion-dollar budget is a $38 billion dollar giveaway to Fortune 500 nuclear corporations in the form of loan guarantees. But the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has already cautioned against making these guarantees for new nuclear plants stating that:

     CBO considers the risk of default on such a loan guarantee to be very
     high—well above 50 percent. The key factor accounting for this risk is
     that we expect that the plant would be uneconomic to operate because of
     its high construction costs, relative to other electricity generation sources.

But its not only Warren Buffet & CBO that have rejected new nuclear power as an economic non starter:

  • In June 2009, Moody’s Investment Services determined that new nuclear investments were a “bet the farm” risk. According to Moody’s “(w)e view new nuclear plans as a ‘bet the farm’ endeavor for most companies, due to the size of the investment and length of time to build a nuclear power facility.”
  • In November 2009, Citi’s review of new nuclear power determined that the risks “are so large and variable that individually they could each bring even the largest utility company to its knees financially.” Citi concluded that, “(t)hese risks can be classed as Corporate Killers.”
  • In August 2010, Standard & Poor’s stated that, “(g)iven the significant capital costs, even modest overruns or schedule delays can impair the balance sheets of even the largest U.S. Utility companies engaged in nuclear power plant construction. Furthermore the recent decline in natural gas prices also raises the question of the longer term competitive viability of nuclear power as a base load energy source.”

Rather than merely wrapping a medal around Warren Buffet’s neck and lauding the Oracle of Omaha, President Obama should follow his lead. New nuclear reactors are an economic meltdown waiting to happen and sadly President Obama has put the American taxpayer on the hook for the financial fall out.

Jim Riccio

By Jim Riccio

Jim Riccio served as Greenpeace’s Nuclear Policy Analyst from 2001 to 2017 and has over two decades of nuclear activist experience. He has been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and Boston Globe, and has appeared on ABC News, NBC News, Al Jazeera, CNN, the Discovery Channel and the History Channel.

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