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Friday, February 04, 2011

Nuclear Power in a Post-Partisan Approach to Energy

Originally published by Alex Trembath at Americans for Energy Leadership.

In the wake of cap-and-trade’s defeat, and as we begin a new session of Congress, common ground must be found on policy to renovate America’s energy infrastructure. Now may be the time to explore the possible benefits of renewing America’s once vigorous nuclear power production. Notably absent in recent advances in America’s energy portfolio has been nuclear power. Public safety fears stemming from Chernobyl and Three Mile Island have left nuclear policy in stasis for decades, but as our President aims to launch a new industrial policy and our nation trends towards a new national energy policy, it may be time to revive our commitment to this method of zero-emissions baseload power generation.

Nuclear power is unique among clean energy technologies in that Democrats tend to be more hesitant towards its production than Republicans. Indeed, it has a reputation for its appeal to conservatives -Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman included provisions for nuclear technology in their ultimately unsuccessful American Power Act (APA) with the ostensible goal of courting Republican support. The urgency with which Democrats feel we must spark an energy revolution may find a perfect partner with Republicans who support nuclear power. But is there anything more than speculative political evidence towards its bipartisan viability?

If there is one field of the energy sector for which certainty of political will and government policy is essential, it is nuclear power. High up front costs for the private industry, extreme regulatory oversight and public wariness necessitate a committed government partner for private firms investing in nuclear technology. In a new report on the potential for a “nuclear renaissance,” Third Way references the failed cap-and-trade bill, delaying tactics in the House vis-a-vis EPA regulations on CO₂, and the recent election results to emphasize the difficult current political environment for advancing new nuclear policy. The report, “The Future of Nuclear Energy,” makes the case for political certainty:

“It is difficult for energy producers and users to estimate the relative price for nuclear-generated energy compared to fossil fuel alternatives (e.g. natural gas)–an essential consideration in making the major capital investment decision necessary for new energy production that will be in place for decades.”
Are our politicians willing to match the level of certainty that the nuclear industry demands? Lacking a suitable price on carbon that may have been achieved by a cap-and-trade bill removes one primary policy instrument for making nuclear power more cost-competitive with fossil fuels. The impetus on Congress, therefore, will be to shift from demand-side “pull” energy policies (that increase demand for clean tech by raising the price of dirty energy) to supply-side “push” policies, or industrial and innovation policies. Fortunately, there are signals from political and thought leaders that a package of policies may emerge to incentivize alternative energy sources that include nuclear power.

One place to start is the recently deceased American Power Act, addressed above, authored originally by Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman. Before its final and disappointing incarnation, the bill included provisions to increase loan guarantees for nuclear power plant construction in addition to other tax incentives. Loan guarantees are probably the most important method of government involvement in new plant construction, given the high capital costs of development. One wonders what the fate of the bill, or a less ambitious set of its provisions, would have been had Republican Senator Graham not abdicated and removed any hope of Republican co-sponsorship.

But that was last year. The changing of the guard in Congress makes this a whole different game, and the once feasible support for nuclear technology on either side of the aisle must be reevaluated. A New York Times piece in the aftermath of the elections forecast a difficult road ahead for nuclear energy policy, but did note Republican support for programs like a waste disposal site and loan guarantees.

Republican support for nuclear energy has roots in the most significant recent energy legislation, the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which passed provisions for nuclear power with wide bipartisan support. Reaching out to Republicans on policies they have supported in the past should be a goal of Democrats who wish to form a foundational debate on moving the policy forward. There are also signals that key Republicans, notably Lindsey Graham and Richard Lugar, would throw their support behind a clean energy standard that includes nuclear and CCS.

Republicans in Congress will find intellectual support from a group that AEL’s Teryn Norris coined “innovation hawks,” among them Steven Hayward, David Brooks and George Will. Will has been particularly outspoken in support of nuclear energy, writing in 2010 that “it is a travesty that the nation that first harnessed nuclear energy has neglected it so long because fads about supposed ‘green energy’ and superstitions about nuclear power’s dangers.”

The extreme reluctance of Republicans to cooperate with Democrats over the last two years is only the first step, as any legislation will have to overcome Democrats’ traditional opposition to nuclear energy. However, here again there is reason for optimism. Barbara Boxer and John Kerry bucked their party’s long-time aversion to nuclear in a precursor bill to APA, and Kerry continued working on the issue during 2010. Jeff Bingaman, in a speech earlier this week, reversed his position on the issue by calling for the inclusion of nuclear energy provisions in a clean energy standard. The Huffington Post reports that “the White House reached out to his committee [Senate Energy] to help develop the clean energy plan through legislation.” This development in itself potentially mitigates two of the largest obstacle standing in the way of progress on comprehensive energy legislation: lack of a bill, and lack of high profile sponsors. Democrats can also direct Section 48C of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 towards nuclear technology, which provides a tax credit for companies that engage in clean tech manufacturing.

Democrats should not give up on their policy goals simply because they no longer enjoy broad majorities in both Houses, and Republicans should not spend all their time holding symbolic repeal votes on the Obama Administration’s accomplishments. The lame-duck votes in December on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the tax cut deal and START indicate that at least a few Republicans are willing to work together with Democrats in a divided Congress, and that is precisely what nuclear energy needs moving forward. It will require an agressive push from the White House, and a concerted effort from both parties’ leadership, but the road for forging bipartisan legislation is not an impassable one.

The politician with perhaps the single greatest leverage over the future of nuclear energy is President Obama, and his rhetoric matches the challenge posed by our aging and poisonous energy infrastructure. “This is our generation’s Sputnik moment,” announced Obama recently. Echoing the calls of presidents past, the President used his State of the Union podium to signal a newly invigorated industrialism in the United States. He advocated broadly for renewed investment in infrastructure, education, and technological innovation. And he did so in a room with many more members of the opposition party than at any point during the first half of his term. The eagerness of the President to combine left and right agendas can hopefully match the hyper-partisan bitterness that dominates our political culture, and nuclear power maybe one sector of our economy to benefit from his political leadership.

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