Nuclear power is getting a second look from congressional lawmakers as energy costs soar across the country, supply chain issues persist and President Biden proposes a strong climate change agenda to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% over the next decade.
Lawmakers say the present moment has underscored the need for a stable, cheap energy source that is not dependent on other nations.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said Sen. Tom Carper, Democrat of Delaware and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Nuclear power is by far our nation’s largest source of reliable, clean energy, generating more than half of our nation’s carbon-free electricity.”
Mr. Carper’s committee is currently working on two nuclear energy bills. One would streamline federal regulations on building nuclear reactors and power plants, while allowing more money for troubled facilities. The other would raise money for communities responsible for storing and cleaning up nuclear waste.
Both bills garnered significant bipartisan support. Proponents say the measures signal a shift in public perceptions of nuclear power, given soaring oil and gas prices and ongoing supply chain issues.
A recent study by the conservative-leaning Heartland Institute indicates that American families paid about $1,000 more in energy costs in 2021. This increase results from measures taken by the Biden White House, including new restrictions on drilling oil and gas on federal lands and supply cuts. among the oil-producing countries of the Middle East.
“Current events remind us of the importance of this legislation,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, Republican of West Virginia. “International unrest threatens to disrupt our nuclear fuel supply chain.”
Proponents hope that America’s current problems will serve as a wake-up call to the benefits of nuclear energy.
Once a stable and inexpensive source of power generation, nuclear power declined in the 1970s with the rise of the environmental movement. Since then, advocates have worked to show that nuclear energy, when regulated, is not at odds with efforts to fight climate change and protect the environment.
“I believe we have an opportunity to help our nation’s nuclear energy industry transition into the future, while reducing carbon emissions and creating economic opportunity at home,” said said Mr. Carper. “As we make this transition, it is imperative that we prioritize safety and fairness.”
Lawmakers received positive feedback from Mr. Biden and the White House. In December, the Department of Energy created an office dedicated to developing technologies that could reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said part of the new office’s investment will go towards the development of smaller, “cleaner” nuclear reactors. The White House’s nuclear move comes as Mr Biden seeks ways to deliver on his pledge to cut carbon emissions by more than 50% by 2030.
Experts say one of the easiest ways to help achieve the goal is to decarbonize the electric sector, which accounted for 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2019. They say that nuclear power, which accounts for about 55% of all carbon-free electricity produced in the United States, is an attractive alternative.
“It can serve as a powerful complement to increasingly cheap renewables by providing carbon-free electricity and heat with 90% availability all year round, independent of season and weather conditions,” said said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force.
Despite these considerations, a large number of Democrats have yet to run. The party has opposed nuclear power for decades, mainly because of environmentalists who argue that nuclear waste poses a serious threat even if disposed of properly.
Environmental activists have also cited the threat of meltdowns and accidents, including the 1979 partial collapse of a reactor at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania, as evidence that nuclear power plants are unsafe.
“The science is clear,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International. “Fossil gas and nuclear energy are dangerous, non-renewable and environmentally harmful technologies that should in no way be classified as sustainable solutions like solar and wind energy.”
The Democratic Party’s grassroots opposition to nuclear power is one reason the issue has not moved forward significantly, despite renewed bipartisan support.
Even as Washington continues to waver, governors and state legislatures are embracing nuclear power. The movement is growing in both red and blue jurisdictions.
West Virginia, one of the most Republican states in the country, this year repealed a decades-old ban on nuclear power. While state officials say the construction of nuclear reactors is likely to materialize in years, the repeal signals that they are open to the power source.
“I think it’s important to note that any development or placement of nuclear technology in this state must be done thoughtfully and, most importantly, safely,” said Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican.
Similarly, last year, state legislators in Illinois passed a comprehensive climate change package that includes significant nuclear power development. The deep blue state, in particular, will spend $700 billion to shore up its nuclear power plants as part of a plan to produce 100% carbon-free energy by 2050.
In 2019, about 54% of all electricity generated in Illinois came from nuclear power, according to the US Energy Information Administration.
“Frankly, the people of Illinois, the people of our nation, of the world cannot wait for a clean energy future,” said Gov. JB Pritzker, a Democrat.
In embracing nuclear power, state governments are following the example of world powers in Europe.
France, for example, produces almost 70% of its electricity from nuclear power. French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing to build the country’s first nuclear reactor in decades to combat dependence on foreign energy interests.
“To guarantee the energy independence of France, to guarantee the electricity supply of our country and to achieve our objectives, in particular carbon neutrality by 2050, we will (…) relaunch the construction of nuclear reactors”, Mr. Macron said last year. “These investments will enable us to meet our commitments.
Great Britain, the Netherlands, Poland and the Czech Republic are following suit.
However, the consensus is not universal in Europe. Germany, once a giant in nuclear power generation, has pledged to shut down its remaining nuclear power plants by 2022.
Switzerland, Belgium, Italy and Spain have advanced in recent years with similar promises. Countries are looking to replace their dependence on nuclear power with new investments in wind and solar power.
Critics note that these countries have become more dependent on foreign fossil fuels to ensure a stable energy supply. Germany, in particular, has been importing Russian oil and natural gas at increasing levels to bolster its power grid.
“Germany is on a suicidal collision with energy reality,” said Steve Milloy, a member of former President Donald Trump’s transition team for the Environmental Protection Agency. “The irony is that as long as Germany insists on worry and reducing emissions, the only viable alternative is nuclear power.”