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Gulf Guide: Lessons from Carter to Obama

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

“Never let a serious crisis go to waste … it’s an opportunity to do things you couldn’t do before,” White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel advised during the early days of the financial crisis.

All presidents understand a crisis of historic magnitude is only a breath away when they hold office; it is in their competency under pressure that measures whether they can lead.

As the tragedy of the gulf oil spill unfolds hourly, President Barack Obama finds his competency being questioned on virtually every political side.

Instead of the echo chamber calling this “Obama’s Katrina,” perhaps we should look back further in time to Jimmy Carter’s handling of the Three Mile Island disaster.

Rush Limbaugh

In March 1979 a partial core meltdown occurred at a nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island near Middletown, Pa.

Carter demonstrated leadership skills and knowledge of nuclear reactors in handling the situation. His one shining moment has a lot of teachable moments for Obama.

The timeline laid out by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is pretty impressive:

The meltdown happened at 4 a.m. on March 28. The NRC’s regional headquarters became aware of it at 7:45 a.m. Within 15 minutes, the NRC’s Washington headquarters was involved. By 9:15 a.m. the White House learned about it, and by 11:00 a.m. the call was made to evacuate all non-essential personnel.

Some confusion occurred over the next few days, yet everyone did their jobs. And Carter, a nuclear engineer who was involved with handling a reactor meltdown while serving in the Navy, got on top of things and took command.

This did not turn into Chernobyl. The federal government clearly understood that, even though a utility company operated TMI, the failure could have a huge impact on the environment and on people; it was measuring radiation levels by midday on March 28.

Despite the Obama administration’s “Day One” narrative of taking charge of the latest disaster/tragedy, neither it nor British Petroleum appear to have come close to meeting the TMI crisis’s levels of competency.

Three Mile Island completely spooked Americans about nuclear energy, causing two things to happen: We became even more reliant on oil, and only now are we starting to consider licensing nuclear power plants again.

Which leads us to some bad news-good news.

Because of the lack of competency demonstrated by BP and the administration, we probably will be more reliant on foreign oil because we will not want to permit more offshore drilling.

That could mean we will spend more or invest more on other energy sources– which could be good for Pennsylvania if it means coal, natural gas or nuclear power, for Arizona if it is solar, for Iowa if it is ethanol, or for Massachusetts if it is wind.

Yet here is where it gets ugly: Some of Obama's biggest campaign contributors were nuclear power companies like Exelon, which has a big plant in his home state of Illinois.

As a U.S. senator, Obama voted on legislation that then-Vice President Dick Cheney essentially crafted, angering many Democrats who saw his vote as a sell-out.

Now, he and Attorney General Eric Holder may be perfectly happy to go after BP and the other companies involved in the gulf oil spill – but a dodgy gray line begins to appear because of his campaign contributors in the nuclear industry.

Those nuclear “friends” likely will benefit most from this crisis, because no other carbon-free energy technology can be deployed on the scale that nuclear can, with the relative speed that nuclear can.

In an odd twist of fate, this disaster likely will help the nuclear industry become the dominant player in the U.S. energy market and recoup everything it lost with Three Mile Island.

In an ironic twist, that old disaster is the one from which Obama should have learned.

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