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Advocates Press Bigger Role for Nuclear in Clean Energy Goals

Bipartisan policy efforts in Congress aim to boost nuclear energy

Oklahoma's James M. Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, introduced a bill to speed up the licensing process for advanced nuclear reactors. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Oklahoma's James M. Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, introduced a bill to speed up the licensing process for advanced nuclear reactors. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

North American leaders aiming for a 50 percent carbon-free energy generation by 2025 are counting on a mix that includes wind, solar and nuclear to reach that goal. But energy analysts say that without new policies to boost the nuclear industry, that goal would be hard to achieve in nine years.

The target set by President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexico’s President Enrique Pena Nieto at the North American Leader’s Summit in Ottawa last week is part of an ambitious plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions and combat human-induced climate change.  

The White House acknowledged that aiming for 50 percent clean energy by 2025 is a “stretch goal,” but argued that it’s achievable with help from the renewable energy tax credits that Congress in December agreed to extend for another five years. Still, many energy analysts — and certainly the nuclear industry — say a bigger contribution from nuclear power, driven by some nuclear-friendly energy policy changes, would make the goal more attainable.  

“When you add on nuclear, it really makes the goal really much more achievable,” said Robert Fares, a fellow at the University of Texas at Austin Energy Institute. “Nuclear could really use some policy support.”  

Still, environmental groups remain largely opposed to the expansion of nuclear because of its risks and the challenges of disposing of nuclear waste. Fear of nuclear plant accidents that faded decades after the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 and the 1986 Chernobyl disaster were rekindled by the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi crisis in Japan.  

“We should really focus on the solutions that work — solar, wind and energy efficiency,” said Matthew McKinzie, senior scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

The bigger challenge to nuclear’s expansion — it now generates almost 20 percent of U.S. electricity, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration — is the low cost of natural gas. While gas-fired power plants are not carbon free, they emit far less greenhouse gas than coal or oil plants. And thanks to the U.S. fracking boom, its cost has has fallen almost 85 percent since 2008, according to the EIA.  

There are not many policy adjustments that could offset such a low-cost competitor, but policy efforts are on the table.  

One proposal: Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma in April introduced a bill (S 2795) aimed at speeding up the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing process for advanced reactors. The measure was approved by his committee in May.

‘Enormous promise’

That bill was co-sponsored by Rhode Island Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, a leading Senate advocate for policies to address greenhouse gas emissions. He said in April that the NRC is an obstacle course to nuclear energy, which he said has “enormous promise for a carbon-constrained world.”  

The measure would adjust the fee structure the NRC uses to charge nuclear plant operators and provide more government funding so the agency can implement the advanced nuclear reactor framework the bill would mandate.  

Inhofe said the bill “directs the NRC to develop ‘technology-inclusive’ regulatory processes in an effort to enable the growth of the new, exciting industry.”  

While nuclear reactors produce almost no greenhouse gas emissions, long-term storage of highly radioactive nuclear waste remains a worrisome issue for many lawmakers and environmentalists. A proposal to build a massive permanent repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada has stalled as environmental groups and state lawmakers say the location is not safe because it is prone to seismic and volcanic activity.  

House Republicans continue to push for development of the Yucca Mountain site, proposing $170 million for related activities in its fiscal 2017 Energy-Water spending bill (HR 5055), which was defeated on the floor in May. The Senate, meanwhile, is looking to a temporary storage approach, including $89 million for a pilot facility in its spending bill (HR 2028).  

Blocking the Yucca Mountain designation has been a priority for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who is not seeking re-election this year.  

A bipartisan Senate bill (S 854) introduced over a year ago by Rebpulicans Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Democrats Maria Cantwell of Washington and Dianne Feinstein of California would establish a new agency, the Nuclear Waste Administration, and direct it to come up with a plan to open by the end of 2021 a pilot facility to receive “priority waste” and used fuel from reactors that are no longer operating. The bill would require a permanent repository be opened by the end of 2048. The legislation has yet to receive a committee markup.  

Meanwhile, about 70,000 metric tons of the radioactive waste produced from nuclear plants around the country are currently stored at sites in 35 states.  

With much of Obama’s energy and environmental agenda being challenged by the oil and gas industry, conservative attorneys general and a gridlocked, Republican-led Congress, nuclear could be an area of common ground, advocates say.  

“If an administration were committed to reducing the obstacles toward nuclear construction, that would help toward getting us closer to the 50 percent clean energy goal,” said Robert Glicksman a professor of environmental law at George Washington University Law School. “The administration or whoever succeeds the president, if they were committed to clean energy, would have to make nuclear politically viable and sellable.”.  

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