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Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

Channeling George W. Bush, President Obama called in his January 27 State of the Union speech for development of “safe, clean” nuclear power in the U.S. Obama quickly followed that up with a surprising request in the FY 2011 Department of Energy budget for a near-tripling of the loan guarantee program for new reactor construction and then upped the ante on February 17 with a personal announcement of an US$8.3 billion (6.1 bn Euro) taxpayer loan to build two new reactors at the Vogtle site in Georgia.

NIRS - Meanwhile, Energy Secretary Steven Chu unveiled the names of his commission to re-evaluate radioactive waste policy in the wake of the Administration’s decision to withdraw the application to build the proposed Yucca Mountain, Nevada, repository. While ending Yucca Mountain was a long-sought and widely-applauded goal of environmentalists, the composition of the commission caused substantial concern since no nuclear opponents or even critics of nuclear power were named, but it does include industry representatives like Exelon CEO James Rowe and radical nuclear ideologue Pete Domenici, former chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

The reaction to these moves was swift. More than 4,000 people sent letters in protest to the White House in the first three days after the speech and thousands more have begun bombarding Congress with letters demanding that the tripling of the loan program be rejected. The issue suddenly began receiving long-overdue attention in the nation’s media, with much of the reporting focusing on the reality that the administration’s position is controversial. And several groups released statements of concern about the waste commission. NIRS, for example, said Secretary Chu had squandered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attempt to achieve a consensus policy for radioactive waste.

NIRS pointed out that the DOE’s program has moved beyond simple loan guarantees: the government is providing the actual loans for new reactors, through a little-known agency called the Federal Financing Bank. This is ushering in a new kind of nuclear socialism, where taxpayers fund reactor construction, but utilities take all the profits if the project succeeds. And if the project fails -and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has predicted 50% or more of the projects will fail- then taxpayers will be left holding the bag. Distressingly, at a press conference discussing the Georgia loans, Secretary Chu admitted he was unaware of the CBO report. NIRS also brought new attention to a YouTube video of candidate Obama in December 2007 expressing opposition to subsidies for nuclear power, contrasting his positions then and now.

Given that the Obama administration had at least tacitly opposed proposed increases in the loan guarantee program during 2009, and that nuclear power is neither cleaner nor safer than it was two years ago, what happened? Do these moves indicate a real change in the administration’s positions, a confirmation that the administration always has been pro-nuclear but is only now beginning to focus on the issue, or something else?

A definitive answer will probably require the perspective of history. In the interim, it is clear that there has been and still is a division within the administration on nuclear power. The Office of Management and Budget, for example, has been skeptical of spending money on the nuclear industry (it argued unsuccessfully against federal funding of reprocessing this year, for example); some in the White House are skeptical of the industry itself. On the other hand, Secretary Chu and many at the DOE are nuclear supporters. At the moment, it appears they have the upper hand.

But the new overt nuclear support likely is due primarily for political, not ideological reasons. Passing a climate bill remains a key goal of the administration -although as a goal, it has slipped in priority over the past year. Nevertheless, it is clear that there are not currently 60 votes in the U.S. Senate for a climate bill -there are too many well-financed climate deniers in the Senate. And the Senate has hamstrung itself by relying on an archaic filibuster rule that requires 60 votes, rather than a simple majority of 51, to pass anything beyond the most innocuous of legislation.

So Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), a lead sponsor of climate legislation, has been attempting to gather 60 votes by working with Sens. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC), both of whom want far more attention paid to nuclear power. Graham also wants offshore oil drilling, while some other coal-state Senators will vote against a bill unless it includes money for “clean” coal development. Kerry has been willing to accept far more nuclear (and oil and coal) in a bill than makes many Democrats comfortable, in an effort to attract a few more Republican votes for a bill. And Kerry has spoken directly with Obama several times over the past few months about progress and prospects for the bill. From the outside, at least, it appears that Obama has agreed with Kerry’s approach, and offered up nuclear as a prize the Republicans can claim if they’ll go along with a climate bill.

One problem is that the approach isn’t working. Even Sen. Graham has released a proposal calling for nuclear to be declared a renewable resource and adding an undetermined amount of money to cover construction of 60 new reactors -at most, Obama’s proposal would cover about 10-12 new reactors. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who just a few years ago supported and even sponsored climate change legislation, says he won’t support a bill, and that US$54 billion (39.7 bn Euro) in loan guarantees isn’t enough for the industry anyway. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), sponsor of a bill calling for 100 new reactors by 2030 (which even the nuclear industry admits isn’t feasible), also said Obama’s new willingness to support nuclear is welcome, but isn’t strong enough to get his vote. Other Republicans made similar statements, although most continue to defy science and reality by simply denying the existence of climate change.

As has been the case with health care legislation, last year’s economic stimulus bill, and just about every major piece of legislation the Obama administration has attempted, it appears that the Republican side has no interest in passing anything. But they have become very good at gaining concessions from the administration and the Democrats (some of whom are as pro-nuclear as the majority of Republicans), and that seems to be the case here.  They’ll get as much support for the nuclear industry as they can, and will then try to stop a climate bill anyway. Until the Senate changes the filibuster procedure, or calls the minority’s bluff and allows them to go ahead and filibuster (which requires the opponents of a bill to talk, without stop, as long as they can; filibusters cause delay in the Senate but in the end are usually broken because no one can talk forever, and no one wants to listen to them forever  either….at some point they become counterproductive), and then vote on a bill that requires only a simple majority -50 votes plus Vice-President Joe Biden as the tie-breaker- there is unlikely to be a climate bill.

But will there still be such massive federal subsidies for new reactors if there is no climate bill? Will the administration fight for full implementation of its US$36 billion in additional loan guarantees, especially against opposition among some of the leadership in the U.S. House, plus stepped-up grassroots pressure? Will the candidate who opposed nuclear subsidies battle his own party leaders and a significant part of his party’s base (the environmental/clean energy movements) to obtain increased nuclear subsidies? That is where the true test of Obama’s position will be shown.

Source and contact: NIRS