Friday, January 30, 2009

Nuclear Energy and the Obama Administration

Episode 62 of This Week in Nuclear

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It’s hard to get into any kind of discussion about energy these days without someone asking, “What will happen under the new administration?” or “Do you think we’ll start building new nuclear plants with President Obama in power?” Those are tough questions to answer. Probably the best way to predict the future under the Obama administration and congress is to look at the recent statements and past actions of the people who are in positions of authority or influence in the new government. You cannot focus just on President Obama and his White House team; you also have to look at congress and at the various committees that will create new energy and climate legislation. In this episode, I’ll try to provide my views on a few of the leaders who will guide the creation of new laws and policies that will influence the near term, and perhaps the long term future of nuclear energy in the USA.

I’ll start with the obvious. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada is a long time opponent of any legislation that might benefit the nuclear industry. His opposition goes well beyond a practical and fact-driven position to the verge of fanatical. Yucca Mountain, the designated long term geological storage facility, is in his state and he will do anything and everything to block or slow its progress. In fact, he’s already doing that with the power that congress has over the budget. He’s slashed the Yucca Mountain budget to the lowest amount in years which has the same effect as killing the project all together. The nuclear industry will get no help from Harry Reid.

Representative Nancy Polosi of California, the Speaker of the House, was once strongly anti-nuclear. Fortunately she has become more supportive of nuclear energy over the last two years or so because she realizes that any credible strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has to include expanding nuclear energy. While she’s saying some of the right things, she has yet to demonstrate leadership through real action to support new nuclear construction, so the jury is still out on Nancy Polosi.

Rep. Henry Waxman, also from California, and the new Chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce is a strong advocate for raising automobile mileage standards, reducing energy consumption through efficiency, and expanding wind and solar energy. Rep. Waxman is influential because new energy and climate legislation will originate in his committee. While I was unable to find a single instance in which Mr. Waxman demonstrated support for nuclear energy, in a reasonable and logical world his strong opinions on climate change would translate into support for new nuclear plants. Unfortunately Washington is not always reasonable or logical. Case in point: Mr. Waxman has appointed Rep. Edward Markey (MA) to draft his committee’s climate change laws. Markey is rabidly anti-nuclear and entrenched with people who hold the irrational fear that nuclear plants are bombs waiting to happen. He’s active in the Nuclear Policy Research Institute, an anti-nuclear advocacy group. Edward Markey will never sponsor legislation that would put nuclear energy on level playing field with other energy options.

Steven Chu, the new Secretary of Energy, comes across as philosophically neutral on nuclear power. On a number of occasions he has stated that nuclear energy has the “potential” to contribute to energy security and climate change, but he is concerned about costs and about nuclear waste storage. On the other hand, Sec. Chu is vocally supportive of efficiency efforts, wind and solar energy, and biofuels. I continue to believe that any fair and logical person, when presented with the facts on safety, cost, and performance will recognize the need to give nuclear energy a priority in our energy policy. I am cautiously optimistic that Sec. Chu will work in favor an objective and fact-driven assessment of the nation’s energy options, and if that is the case Nuclear Energy will get the support needed.

Carol Browner, the new White House Coordinator for Climate and Energy Policy is President Obama’s primary adviser on how to integrate our nation’s actions to meet the goals of energy security and greenhouse gas reduction. She has been around Washington for years. As the EPA Administrator under Bill Clinton, Browner revised water quality standards for Yucca Mountain in a way that many experts feel was unreasonable and was, in reality, a tactic to delay the project. She has also stated reservations about nuclear energy because of what she termed “the waste issue.” Carol Browner is comes from the Al Gore school of climate change, and Al Gore has consistently avoided acknowledging nuclear energy’s advantages as our largest source of CO2-free energy, Browner will probably do the same.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently stated that energy security and supply is a mater of national security, and I could not agree more. In the past she has been a tough critic of nuclear power. She has been particularly opposed to Indian Point nuclear plant that is located only a few miles from her home in New York. In fact, she sponsored an addition to the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that singled out the plant for new emergency warning system requirements. I would not oppose new nuclear regulation if I believed it would have a positive impact on safety that was commensurate with the costs, but in this case the result was millions of dollars of added costs with virtually no increase in safety. Like Nancy Polici, Mrs. Clinton’s position on nuclear energy has moderated in the last two years, so I am optimistic that she will weigh the pros and cons with objectivity and will thus support nuclear energy’s expansion as a means to increase energy security and reduce reliance on imported oil.

During the campaign President Obama was repeatedly asked about his position on nuclear energy. His consistent response was nuclear should be “on the table” while he emphasized his concerns over cost and safe storage of used fuel. There’s a common theme here; except for Edward Markey who is an anti-nuclear extremist, the two main concerns shared by leaders in the new government nuclear power are the long term storage of used nuclear fuel and the cost of new construction. If you listened to episode 60 of This Week in Nuclear you’ll know that building wind capacity is at least 2.5 times more expensive than nuclear, and new solar plants would cost 14 times more than nuclear plants for the same amount of energy generated. As for the waste issue, it is a political one, not a technical one.

It remains to be seen if the new government will be able to look beyond the panacea of cheap, abundant wind and solar energy and instead make policy based on science, fact, and engineering realities. If they are able to be objective, they will reach logical conclusions that nuclear energy can create a secure, constant, emissions-free, and cost effective energy supply we need.

On the other hand, if congress and the new administration stick to their out-dated perceptions and bias, then we’ll embark on a different course. In that case, the USA will spend the next several years and hundreds of billions of dollars promoting wind and solar energy. That scenario will NOT provide the quantity of constant, clean energy we need. Just look at Germany; their experiment into wind energy has failed – their grid in unreliable, they are growing ever more dependent on Russian natural gas, and they are importing more coal than ever. In fact, the United States exports coal to Germany! A focus on wind and solar is equivalent to the status quo: burning coal and gas at ever increasing rates. The winners under that scenario will be manufacturers of wind turbines and solar panels, and of course the coal, oil and gas suppliers.

Clean, cost-effective, carbon-free nuclear energy – that’s the CHANGE we need!

John Wheeler

This Week in Nuclear Website

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