America’s nuclear renaissance stalls

Near-meltdown in Japan re-awakens doubts in U.S. policymakers

Japan’s nuclear crisis came just as the Obama administration was gearing up to jump-start a nuclear renaissance in America. The U.S. has not broken ground on a new nuclear power plant in the thirty years following the partial core meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island reactor in 1979. Obama’s plan to change all that in the name of climate change is now looking very uncertain.

Nuclear energy has been a key part of Obama’s strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. by 80% by 2035. Not only are nuclear plants a stable source of electricity without a carbon footprint, nuclear is also one area of energy policy where the president sees eye-to-eye with Republicans in Congress. In February, Obama announced a federal loan guarantee worth $8 billion for the construction of two new nuclear plants in Georgia. And in his 2012 budget request to Congress last month, Obama asked for a whopping $36 billion to expand federal government loan guarantees to help encourage the construction of other new nuclear plants. “We’re going to have to build a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in America,” he said last month.

Obama held to this line after the disaster in Japan, declaring on March 17, that nuclear power is “an important part of our own energy future, along with renewable sources like wind and solar, natural gas and clean coal.” Obama emphasized that American nuclear power plants have undergone “exhaustive study” and had been declared “safe for any number of extreme contingencies.” Nonetheless, he asked the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to do a comprehensive review of the safety of our domestic nuclear plants in light of the natural disaster that unfolded in Japan.

But across the country, the Japanese crisis reawakened old fears. Some lawmakers called for a moratorium on any permitting or re-permitting of plants. They cited Germany’s decision to shut down seven aging nuclear plants after the Japanese crisis. Massachusetts Democrat, Ed Markey, has called for a moratorium on building reactors in earthquake-prone areas, and wants the Obama administration to provide potassium iodide pills to all people who live within 20 miles of a nuclear plant in case of an accident.

Local politics also heated up. New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, wants to shut down the Indian Point nuclear plant, located 35 miles north of New York City—even though it provides up to 30 per cent of the electricity to Big Apple.

Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley asked federal regulators for closer scrutiny of wet storage at a Vermont nuclear plant near her state’s border. The facility is similar to that at the Japanese plant at Fukushima.

The Japanese experience also brought renewed attention to the political debate over the storage of spent fuel. Congress had designated Nevada’s Yucca Mountain, 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas, as a permanent disposal plant. But thanks in part to the adamant opposition of Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, the Obama administration has refused to move forward with the plan, meaning waste continues to be held at individual reactor sites. Republicans in Congress are now agitating to have the Yucca Mountain project revived.

Whether the Japanese accident kills the momentum toward a nuclear renaissance is still unclear. Other factors were already making investment in new plants unattractive for private industry, such as the failure of Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation or adopt a carbon tax. “There had been a number of troubling signs for nuclear power in the US already,” says David Pumphrey, deputy director of the energy and national security program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank in Washington, DC. “The lack of a carbon tax to accelerate shift out of coal—which is still arguably the most economical way to generate power, if you don’t account the carbon emissions produced—and the appearance of large quantities of low cost natural gas domestically, such as shale gas. For utilities, natural becomes a good source potentially of future power generation that requires considerably less capital investment to get a project started.”

Now Obama’s loan guarantees, which were intended to jumpstart six to eight new projects, may not get off the ground. “I do think it puts expansion of loan guarantees in some doubt, between concerns about safety among Democrats and the deficit-cutting approach of many Republicans,” said Pumphrey. And the increased safety reviews will add time to the permitting process, making projects even more time-consuming and expensive.

But as the nuclear renaissance hangs in the balance, Washington remains divided about how to move forward on energy. “After all these energy catastrophes, it should be obvious we need a new energy policy that promotes clean, safe and affordable energy. We need more vehicles that run on electricity, natural gas and renewable fuels. We need more wind and solar power. And we need more energy efficiency,” California Democratic congressman, Henry Waxman, told Energy Secretary Stephen Chu at a hearing last week. Meanwhile, Republican advocates of increased domestic offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico and around Alaska, also say their case is stronger than ever. “The reality is we still need fossil fuels,” said Fred Upton, the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee. “And we will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”