Nuclear power is getting a second look from congressional lawmakers as energy costs soar across the country, supply chain problems continue and President Biden pushes a robust climate change agenda to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 50% over the next decade.
Lawmakers say the present moment has underscored the need for a stable and cheap energy source that is not reliant on other nations.
“The numbers don’t lie,” said Sen. Tom Carper, Delaware Democrat and chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. “Nuclear energy is by far the largest source of reliable, clean energy in our country — generating over half of our nation’s carbon-free electricity.”
Mr. Carper’s committee is working on two nuclear energy bills at the moment. One would streamline federal regulations on the construction of nuclear reactors and power plants, while authorizing more money for struggling facilities. The other would increase money for communities tasked with storing and cleaning up nuclear waste.
Both bills have garnered significant bipartisan support. Proponents say the measures signal a shift is taking place in how the public views nuclear power, given soaring prices of oil and gas and lingering supply chain issues.
A recent study by the conservative-leaning Heartland Institute indicates that American families paid roughly $1,000 more in energy costs in 2021. The surge resulted from actions taken by the Biden White House, including new restrictions on oil and gas drilling on federal lands and supply cuts among petroleum-producing nations in the Middle East.
“Current events serve as a reminder of the importance of this legislation,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican. “International turmoil threatens to disrupt our nuclear fuel supply chain.”
Proponents hope America’s present troubles serve as a wake-up call to the benefits of nuclear power.
Once a stable and inexpensive source for energy production, nuclear power declined in the 1970s with the rise of the environmentalist movement. Since then, advocates have been working to showcase that nuclear energy, when regulated, is not at odds with efforts to combat climate change and protect the environment.
“I believe that we have an opportunity to help our nation’s nuclear energy industry transition into the future, while reducing carbon emissions and creating economic opportunities at home,” Mr. Carper said. “As we make that transition, it’s imperative that we prioritize safety and equity.”
Lawmakers have received some positive input from Mr. Biden and the White House. In December, the Energy Department created an office devoted to developing technologies that can reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels.
Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has said a portion of the new office’s investment will go to developing smaller and “cleaner” nuclear reactors. The White House’s openness to nuclear comes as Mr. Biden is looking for ways to deliver on his pledge to reduce carbon emissions by more than 50% by 2030.
Experts say one of the easiest ways to help reach the goal is to decarbonize the electrical sector, which accounted for 25% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2019. They say that nuclear power, which accounts for roughly 55% of all carbon-free electricity produced in the U.S., is an attractive alternative.
“It can serve as a powerful complement to increasingly inexpensive renewable energy by providing zero-carbon electricity and heat with 90% availability year-round independent season and weather,” said Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force.
Despite these considerations, a large number of Democrats have yet to come around. The party has been averse to nuclear power for decades, mainly because of environmentalists who argue nuclear waste poses a grave threat even if disposed of properly.
Green activists have also invoked the threat of meltdowns and accidents, including the 1979 partial meltdown of a reactor at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, as proof 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 under no circumstance should be categorized as sustainable solutions like solar and wind energy.”
Opposition to nuclear power from the Democratic Party’s base is one reason the issue has failed to advance significantly, despite renewed bipartisan support.
Even as Washington continues to vacillate, governors and state legislatures are embracing nuclear energy. The movement is growing in red and blue jurisdictions, alike.
West Virginia, one of the nation’s most Republican states, repealed a decades-old ban on nuclear power this year. While state officials say the building of nuclear reactors is likely years from fruition, the repeal signals they are open to the energy source.
“I think it is important to note that any development or placement of nuclear technologies in this state must be done thoughtfully and, above all, safely,” said Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican.
Similarly, last year state lawmakers in Illinois passed a comprehensive climate change package that includes significant development for nuclear energy. The deep-blue state, in particular, will spend $700 billion to shore up its nuclear power plants as part of a plan to generate 100% carbon-free energy by 2050.
In 2019, roughly 54% of all electricity generated in Illinois came from nuclear power, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
“Frankly, the people of Illinois, the people of our nation, of the globe can’t wait for a clean energy future,” said Gov. J.B. Pritzker, a Democrat.
In embracing nuclear energy, state governments are following the lead of global powers in Europe.
France, for instance, generates nearly 70% of its electricity from nuclear power. French President Emmanuel Macron is pushing to build the country’s first nuclear reactor in decades to help combat dependence on foreign energy interests.
“To guarantee France’s energy independence, to guarantee our country’s electricity supply and achieve our objectives, in particular carbon neutrality by 2050, we are going … to relaunch the construction of nuclear reactors,” Mr. Macron said last year. “These investments will allow us to live up to our commitments.”
Britain, the Netherlands, Poland and the Czech Republic are following suit.
Still, the consensus is not universal in Europe. Germany, once a giant in nuclear energy production, has pledged to shut down its remaining nuclear power plants by 2022.
Switzerland, Belgium, Italy and Spain have moved forward with similar promises in recent years. The countries are planning to replace their reliance on nuclear energy with new investments in wind and solar power.
Critics note that such countries have become more reliant on foreign fossil fuels to ensure a stable energy supply. Germany, in particular, has imported Russian oil and natural gas at increasing levels to shore up its electrical 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 fretting and cutting emissions, the only viable alternative is nuclear power.”