The Biden Administration’s $6 Billion Nuclear Power Bailout


Good day and happy Earth Day eve to all who celebrate. Consider this email our gift, dear Climate Protocol reader. We love you as much as we love the planet. (Was that too much? Sorry, but it’s true.) Today we take a look at the Biden administration’s nuclear bailout and the worst trend on Earth. Sorry, we’ll get you a puppy next year. We promise.

god save nuclear weapons

A growing number of nuclear power plants are in trouble. They are getting old, rickety and increasingly difficult to maintain. Which, the same. But unlike me, nuclear power plants provide the largest share of carbon-free electricity in the United States.

Now the Biden administration is scrambling to keep as many of those aging factories online as possible in a bid to keep carbon emissions from rising. It does so with $6 billion in funding from the bipartisan Infrastructure Act passed last year.

First, about this carbon-free energy. Can we get a “thanks nukes” in the chat? Say what you want about their trash (there’s no getting around it, it’s bad), but nuclear power plants are a climate lifeline for us right now.

  • In the United States, approximately 20% of all electricity comes from nuclear energy. To be pray.
  • That’s 52% of all carbon-free energy. In other words, nuclear weapons represent the majority of our energy to save the planet, although the wind has recently made some serious gains.
  • While battery storage intensifies for wind and solar, nuclear power operates 24/7. This means it provides a stable base load of electricity right now, which is good if you value the lights staying on without the carbon pollution.

But nuclear power plants are really getting old, and many of them are closing their doors. The average age of a nuclear reactor is 40 years. Again, extremely relevant. But while I still have about four decades ahead of me in actuarial science, the same cannot be said for my brothers in their 40s who are radioactive.

  • Most nuclear power plants were initially licensed to operate for 35-40 years. Many have since obtained new permits, giving them a lifespan of around 60 years.
  • However, running these factories is expensive. More expensive than natural gas plants, which have become the main source of electricity generation in the United States
  • As a result, nuclear power plants began to shut down. Nuclear capacity has shrunk by around 6% over the past decade, at a time when the urgency to respond to climate change has become more evident than ever.
  • Other factories are expected to close in the coming years, including California’s last nuclear bomb. It’s worrying news for the climate: States that have recently shut down reactors have seen their carbon emissions rise as gas rushes in to fill the void.

Biden’s bailout is designed to incentivize factories to stay open. The $6 billion will be distributed over the next four years.

  • The Department of Energy is offering the first tranche of cash to nuclear power plants that are planning to shut down.
  • The next wave of rewards will be given to factories that are at risk of closing.
  • It’s not even the only rescue game in town. Illinois spent nearly $700 million last year to keep nuclear reactors running. Ohio did the same a few years ago, though that bailout was called off following a corruption scandal that has to be read to be believed.

In fact, Biden’s climate promises may well hinge on nuclear. Matt Bowen, a researcher at Columbia’s Center for Global Energy Policy, told Protocol that “maintaining the existing fleet is important to meeting climate goals and worth the money.” Indeed, if you want to bring the United States to 100% clean electricity by 2035 – as Joe Biden is doing – virtually all roads pass through Nuclearville, population: 55 nuclear plants.

  • Bowen pointed to a report from the Rhodium Group, an energy analysis company, showing the importance of nuclear energy. “Getting to zero will be easier and faster if existing clean generators such as hydro and nuclear power plants stay on the grid longer,” the report notes.
  • Another analysis from the company warns that cheap natural gas could force a third of all nuclear capacity off the grid by 2030. Not the right move if you care about the climate.
  • In its funding announcement, the Department of Energy called the $6 billion “essential to meeting clean energy goals.”
  • Even Joe Manchin, who loves charcoal, is happy.

But the United States must walk and chew gum at the same time. If walking saves nuclear weapons, chewing gum boosts renewable energy and battery storage, improves energy efficiency and gets people on low-carbon public transport. OK, it’s more like running. But look. You can only extend the life of aging nuclear reactors for so long.

  • A monster analysis from 2020 by researchers at Princeton found that wind and solar power capacity must increase fourfold by 2030 to decarbonize the grid. The grid also needs major upgrades to transport all this new clean energy.
  • The recent United Nations climate report shows that we can make significant progress in reducing emissions by reducing energy demand. Seriously, don’t sleep on energy efficiency or e-bikes.
  • It also doesn’t hurt to keep an eye out for advanced nuclear reactors in development. But we can’t wait for them to save us, especially when we have so many tools to get to work right now.

—Brian Kahn

“What goes up must come down” is a great adage, isn’t it? Unfortunately, this is also a total sham, at least as far as carbon dioxide is concerned.

The graph above shows the Keeling Curve, perhaps the most well-known climate trend on Earth. I mean, the competition isn’t exactly stiff, but still. Keeling Curve measurements are taken at Mauna Loa Observatory on the Big Island of Hawaii. (The curve is named after Charles Keeling, the scientist who began taking measurements at the site in the 1950s.) Your Climate Protocol editor was lucky enough to see them taken a few years ago, crossing out a stain major on the climate bucket list.

The measurements capture the seasonal cycle of carbon dioxide in the northern hemisphere, where most land is, and therefore where most plants live. The hemisphere takes a big breath of carbon dioxide in the summer when plants grow, then a long exhale from fall to spring when all those plants die and release the carbon. But beyond the seasonal cycle, there is also this annoying upward trend thanks to humans burning fossil fuels.

I still find it helpful to visit the Keeling Curve several times a year to remember exactly what is happening on the planet. Nerdy? Perhaps. But the ups and downs are a reminder that nothing like this has ever happened in human history. Even if we manage to slow down and then reduce carbon emissions, the curve will continue to rise until we eliminate them completely. Only then can we begin to descend from the dangerous level at which we find ourselves.

—Brian Kahn


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Thanks for reading! As always, you can send all your comments to Have a pleasant Earth Day and a good weekend!

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