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Nuclear Standoff - Hope for Change

Fortnightly Magazine - December 2009

With the administration and Democratic lawmakers in Congress pushing to enact greenhouse-gas (GHG) regulation, nuclear power has taken center stage as both a clean technology solution and a political bargaining chip. Consequently, the industry’s hopes for new construction projects have brightened considerably. Whether this policy momentum can usher in a sustainable nuclear renaissance, however, remains questionable at best.

Greenhouse Gambit

In June 2008, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Waxman-Markey  American Clean Energy and Security Act , it effectively sent a shot across the bow of lawmakers who oppose GHG regulation. Waxman-Markey would establish a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions allowances, and would create a federal renewable energy standard (RES).

The bill was largely silent on nuclear power development, including provisions only to avoid disincentives to nuclear  vis-à-vis the way a utility’s baseline generation is calculated for RES purposes. But since June, climate legislation has continued evolving in Congress—albeit slowly, as Capitol Hill has focused mostly on health care reform. In early November, the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) committee approved—despite a boycott by Republican senators—a climate bill co-sponsored by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) (S.1733, the  Clean Energy Jobs & American Power Act ). Hill watchers considered the bill dead on arrival on the Senate floor, because the Republican boycott prevented the EPW committee from reaching a quorum that would’ve allowed amendments to the bill—such as incentives for new nuclear construction, which might’ve made it more palatable to centrists in the full Senate. However, on a separate track, Sen. Kerry joined independent Sen. Joe Lieberman (Ct.) and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) to craft what the lawmakers called a “60-vote bill.”

Nuclear industry advocates view the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill as the best opportunity in decades to enact strong federal support for new nuclear development. That’s because lawmakers on both sides of the aisle now view nuclear incentives as a prerequisite to politically viable climate legislation. “We’ve been approached by any number of folks who recognize the situation—that to have a robust climate-change policy in this country, we have to support the necessary technologies,” says Leslie Kass, director of business policy and programs at the Nuclear Energy Institute. “They’re making sure that whatever policies they put in place are useful, meaningful and substantive.”

Likewise, administration officials—including the president himself and DOE Secretary Steven Chu—recently have spoken unequivocally in favor of pro-nuclear policies. In a speech in mid-October, President Obama said, “There’s no reason why technologically we can’t employ nuclear energy in a safe and effective way. Japan does it and France does it and it doesn’t have greenhouse-gas emissions, so it would be stupid for us not to do that.”

Further, environmental advocates who historically have fought tooth-and-nail against nuclear energy are accepting it as part of the bargain for climate legislation. “You can’t solve the climate problem by taking nuclear off the table,” said Carter Roberts, CEO of the World Wildlife Federation, in an interview with  Environment & Energy News.  “It’s

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