Obama gives new boost to nuclear energy

R. Kress | Dec 08, 2015

The U.S. nuclear energy industry may have something to cheer about.

Skeptics aren't hard to find and just how things might turn out is anyone's guess, but the Obama administration appears to be making a renewed push for nuclear power as a clean-energy solution.

The administration's effort includes a proposal from President Obama to set aside more than $900 million for the Department of Energy for nuclear energy programs. The DOE also is expanding its $12.5 billion loan guarantee program to help speed along the development of advanced reactor projects. These new, smaller reactors have safer operating systems designed to prevent catastrophic failures such as the 2011 incident in Fukushima, Japan.

Also, House leaders have introduced the Nuclear Energy Innovation Capabilities Act to help the DOE lure private-sector investors to support next-generation reactor technologies. 

The White House's efforts include a new Gateway for Accelerated Innovation in Nuclear (GAIN) program. The program includes a new single point of contact at the Idaho National Lab, to again help accelerate development, and the publication of a nuclear energy infrastructure database.

The GAIN program also includes the establishment of a light-water reactor research, development and deployment group.

These initiatives were all announced ahead of the multination climate talks this month in Paris, the aim of which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

James Hansen, a former NASA climate scientist, and three other leading climate scientists used the talks to urge participating nations to focus more on nuclear energy.

"Nuclear, especially next-generation nuclear, has tremendous potential to be part of the solution to climate change," Hansen said during a panel discussion at the COP21 conference. "The dangers of fossil fuels are staring us in the face. So for us to say we won't use all the tools [such as nuclear energy] to solve the problem is crazy."

Although nuclear energy last year generated about 60 percent of carbon-free electricity in the U.S., the nuclear energy industry has been facing an existential threat for some time. With natural gas prices plunging in recent years, nuclear energy is having a harder time than ever competing. 

Advocates says that without the incentives and subsidies allocated to other clean energy sources -  like wind and solar power - the industry is at a serious disadvantage. 

They also warn that when the price of natural gas inevitably rises, without the funding and support now, adding more nuclear power to the mix when it's needed won't be easy. 

"You won't be able to do that. The plants [will be] gone. They [will have gotten] priced out of the market. They're gone and you can't restart them," said Gary Was, professor of nuclear engineering and sustainable energy at the University of Michigan. "You'll have to build new plants. What a waste of capital when we have these perfectly good plants that are functioning."

"[Nuclear power is] the only source of base-loaded, carbon-free electricity on the planet," Was continued. "You can't have base load from solar and wind because of their intermittency. [Nuclear power is] on-demand - that's highly prized and valued."

Although President Obama has supported nuclear power for years, Was is skeptical about the administration's commitment to the sector. He sees the GAIN announcement as positive but not substantial in terms of providing the support needed for more research and development.

"While the rhetoric is nice, I don't see it substantially addressing the stumbling blocks [faced by the industry]," Was said. "I think the announcement [on GAIN] shows the length that [President Obama] is willing to go. But beyond that, I have no idea. . He's in his seventh year and just now he's coming out with this GAIN statement. One would have to ask why. If it takes that long, is your heart really in it?"

Charles Ebinger, senior fellow in the Energy Security and Climate Initiative at the Brookings Institution, is similarly skeptical that the president will put up an impassioned fight for nuclear power.

"[The president would] be fearful in the context of his climate agenda that he'd lose too many supporters if it sounded like he was coming out in support of the nuclear industry," Ebinger said.

Ebinger said he believes the administration's real aim is to keep existing nuclear power plants up and running for fear that they would be shut down at a time when the world is focusing on developing non-carbon emitting power sources. 

"I think that in the U.S. context ... there may be a revival of support for keeping the current plants that still have a useful life remaining. But I don't think you're going to see any incentives for any new nuclear power plants beyond the loan guarantees that are already out there for the industry," said Ebinger.

The issue strikes at the heart of what nuclear advocates see as an uneven playing field for nuclear power: renewables like wind and solar receive financial incentives while nuclear energy does not. 

A better climate policy, they say, should be technology-agnostic and give equal footing to any power generator that does not emit greenhouse gases.  

"Take off all the subsidies for wind and solar and nuclear and just impose a carbon tax," Was said. "That way you let the market sort itself out. You're not picking losers, you're simply saying if you emit carbon you pay for it. If you don't, you benefit. Then, whatever technology is economical will win. Zero emissions technology will win. . That would take care of the issue with coal and low gas prices suppressing innovation in the nuclear industry."

The politics on that proposal are likely to make it impossible to implement. But to Dr. Andy Klein of Oregon State University, a board member for the American Nuclear Society, politics are beside the point: without nuclear energy, he believes there is no way the world will reach its more ambitious emissions reduction targets.

"We need to think of clean energy technology as being the majority of electricity generation in 2050," he said.

The president did give nuclear another boost earlier this year with his Clean Power Plan, which will count newly built nuclear plants toward states' compliance with the law. The industry, however, wanted existing plants to count, too.

Nonetheless, the Nuclear Energy Institute was happy about the administration's GAIN announcement. Its press release on the program was headlined, "Top reasons the White House supports nuclear energy."