By Eric Wesoff
President Obama called for "building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country" in last week's State of the Union speech. Carol Browner, Obama's energy and climate advisor, had floated some comments favorable to nuclear in the past few weeks, so this should not come as a complete surprise.
Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Obama's mention of nuclear energy in the SOTU was the most important statement that the president has made yet on the issue of nuclear power.
But Candidate Obama was not exactly a proponent of nuclear power, saying that nuclear needed to be clean and safe, that Yucca mountain was the wrong way to go for nuclear waste storage, and that nuclear had to work without subsidies. He said that nuclear was "not the best option," but acknowledged that "there is no perfect energy source." (BTW, it's notable that the President's home state, Illinois, has six nuclear power plants, more than other state in the U.S.)
But recent budgetary changes evince political will, minus the lofty rhetoric.
According to an unidentified Administration source, President Obama tripled the loan guarantees for new reactor construction -- amounting to a total of $54 billion -- in the proposed Fiscal Year 2011 DOE budget. Nuclear will also benefit in the R&D budget for DOE. Budget details here.
This is not a exactly an about-face from the talk that once emanated from Candidate Obama, but it does represent a significant shift from his once-cautious stance.
Clearly, he's looking to win over Republicans and moderate Democrats with the hopes of passing a politically tricky climate bill in an election year that is likely to be fraught with partisan clashes. The problem is that this approach could alienate some liberal Democrats.
Furthermore, the Obama Administration seems to be moving in a few conflicting directions. They've killed a Bush-era proposal to reprocess spent nuclear fuel and they've pledged to close the proposed Yucca Mountain storage facility. Evidently, they don't trust the proliferation risk associated with reprocessing and they don't cotton to the idea of central storage along a known seismic fault line.
As part of this new focus on nuclear power, Energy Secretary Steven Chu has announced the creation of a blue-ribbon panel to find a better solution for nuclear waste storage. The panel will produce an interim report within 18 months and a final report within 24 months. The co-chairs of the Blue Ribbon Commission are Lee Hamilton, former long-time Indiana congressman, and Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Advisor to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush.
While strong support of nuclear might bolster conservative votes for a climate bill, there has been a roar of protest from the National Taxpayers Union, Taxpayers for Common Sense, George Marshall Institute and the Non-Proliferation Policy Education Center, Union of Concerned Scientists, and numerous environmental groups.
In this instance, the protest isn't just an ideological issue of red state versus blue state. Secretary Chu and Steve Koonin, the chief scientist at the DOE, have advocated increasing nuclear as a way to wean ourselves off coal, as has UC Berkeley's Dan Kammen.
This shift in policy could also ease passage of a contentious part of the DOE budget: eliminating more than $2.7 billion in tax subsidies for the oil, coal and gas industries. If states with power plants are mollified with nuclear construction jobs, they might be willing to make sacrifices in other sectors.
We'll know if this strategy works when the votes for the climate bill are tallied.
The 104 nuclear power plants in 31 states operate 24/7, producing nearly 20 percent of U.S. electricity while emitting no carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide. Nuclear power plants do not produce any greenhouse gases during the electricity production process and have among the lowest total “life-cycle” carbon emissions.