US Nuclear Industry Tries to Hijack Obama's Climate Change Bill

Steam billows from the cooling towers at Exelon's nuclear power generating station in Byron, Illinois, in 2006.
(AFP/Getty Images/File/Scott Olson)

US Nuclear Industry Tries to Hijack Obama's Climate Change Bill

Republicans seek federal financing for 100 new reactors despite huge capital costs and unsolved problems of storing waste

America's nuclear industry and its supporters in Congress have moved to hijack Barack Obama's agenda for greening the economy by producing a rival plan to build 100 new reactors in 20 years, and staking a claim for the money to come from a proposed clean energy development bank.

Republicans in the House of Representatives produced a spoiler version of the Democrats' climate change bill this week, calling for a doubling of the number of nuclear reactors in the US by 2030. The 152-page Republican bill contains just one reference to climate change, and proposes easing controls for new nuclear plants.

In the Senate, Republican leaders, including the former presidential candidate John McCain, also called this week for loan guarantees for building new reactors to rise from $18.5bn (PS11.2bn) to $38bn. Other Republicans have called on the administration to underwrite the $122bn start-up costs of 19 nuclear reactors, whose applications are now under review by the department of energy.

"If you care about climate change ... 100 new nuclear power plants is the place to start," said Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee who is the strongest proponent of nuclear power in the Senate.

Another crucial element of the Republicans' "nuclear renaissance" are two rival proposals for a "clean energy bank" now before Congress. One version, under consideration by the Senate, envisages almost unlimited federal loan guarantees to encourage wind and solar power and, nuclear proponents hope, new reactors.

Ellen Vancko, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said: "The nuclear industry would like to be able to finance the next generation of nuclear reactors using the faith and credit of the US taxpayer to underwrite the expansion. They don't want to be responsible for any risk of financing these plants and neither do their lenders."

No new reactors have been ordered in 30 years, not least due to the challenges of raising $5bn-$12bn to build a new plant.

But the industry is hoping for a surge in orders for new reactors around the world and assurances from Obama's energy secretary, Steven Chu, of nuclear power's place in America's long-term energy mix.

Nuclear industry executives told Congress this week that 429 new nuclear plants were planned or under construction around the world. In the US, the energy department is reviewing 19 applications for new nuclear reactors. Construction, if they are approved, could begin in 2011.

Much of the push for nuclear power comes from the conservative south, which has more reactors than anywhere else in the US and which is less suited than other regions for wind or solar development.

The campaign faces two challenges: the huge cost of construction and the lack of permanent storage for nuclear waste.

The Obama administration has blocked a 22-year project to dump waste from reactors in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. But the biggest obstacle to Republican dreams of a nuclear renaissance is start-up costs. Last month, John Rowe, chairman of Exelon, which operates 17 nuclear reactors, said he would cancel or delay construction of two new reactors in Texas without federal loan guarantees. He said the government assurances were "imperative" because of the high capital costs of nuclear reactors.

Obama's $787bn economic recovery plan set aside $50bn for the nuclear industry but Democrats in Congress cut out the funds. Frustrated fans of nuclear power, such as McCain, accused Obama and Chu of ignoring its potential. "They remember Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and all those scenes in the movies that are apocalyptic about nuclear power," he said.

If Republican efforts in Congress for a nuclear energy bill and a clean energy bank fail, the US nuclear renaissance is likely to be restricted to new reactors already being built. Jim Riccio, Greenpeace nuclear analyst, said: "The renaissance is on hold or maybe dead on arrival."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.