Some Smiles in Tough Times for Nuclear Power

Federal backing for the first new reactor in decades has given a lift to an industry that has lots of issues.

MIDDLETOWN, PA - MARCH 28: The Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant is seen in the early morning hours March 28, 2011 in Middletown, Pennsylvania. (Photo Jeff Fusco/Getty Images)
National Journal
Clare Foran
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Clare Foran
Feb. 21, 2014, 1:29 p.m.

Amid cheers over an ad­min­is­tra­tion de­cision to give fin­an­cial back­ing to a pair of nuc­le­ar re­act­ors, in­dustry boost­ers are quick to point out that the pres­id­ent’s re­cord on nuc­le­ar power is mixed.

“The ad­min­is­tra­tion has done some pos­it­ive things with re­spect to nuc­le­ar power. But we don’t agree with all of the de­cisions that have been made,” Richard My­ers, vice pres­id­ent for policy de­vel­op­ment at the Nuc­le­ar En­ergy In­sti­tute, a pro­nuc­lear lob­by­ing group, said in an in­ter­view.

So what makes it in­to the “pro” column when it comes time for the in­dustry to weigh in on ad­min­is­tra­tion policy?

To start, the pres­id­ent has lent sup­port to nuc­le­ar as part of his “all of the above” en­ergy policy, with En­ergy Sec­ret­ary Ern­est Mon­iz em­phas­iz­ing on more than one oc­ca­sion that nuc­le­ar is a key in­gredi­ent in plans to lower car­bon emis­sions across the coun­try.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has also backed nuc­le­ar with mon­et­ary muscle.

The En­ergy De­part­ment fi­nal­ized a loan guar­an­tee Wed­nes­day to the tune of $6.5 bil­lion dol­lars to fin­ance con­struc­tion of two nuc­le­ar re­act­ors at South­ern Com­pany’s Vo­gtle plant in Waynes­boro, Ga. Once com­plete, the re­act­ors will be the first to be built in the U.S. in three dec­ades.

The ad­min­is­tra­tion has also doled out grants to sup­port nuc­le­ar R&D, in­clud­ing a $452 mil­lion fund ad­min­istered by DOE to help de­vel­op small mod­u­lar re­act­ors, a new gen­er­a­tion of re­act­ors the in­dustry hopes will prove less costly and more flex­ible than lar­ger power gen­er­at­ors.

All this sits re­l­at­ively well with the in­dustry. But there have also been policies that haven’t gone down as smoothly.

A ma­jor thorn in the in­dustry’s side is the very lit­er­ally ra­dio­act­ive prob­lem of what to do with nuc­le­ar waste from ex­ist­ing power plants — an is­sue the in­dustry sees as one largely cre­ated by Pres­id­ent Obama.

Dur­ing his first term in of­fice, Obama put a hold on con­struc­tion of a nuc­le­ar-waste stor­age site at Yucca Moun­tain in Nevada. Last sum­mer, a fed­er­al ap­peals court ruled that the Nuc­le­ar Reg­u­lat­ory Com­mis­sion should pro­ceed with con­sid­er­a­tion of an ap­plic­a­tion to con­struct the re­pos­it­ory, but Yucca’s fate re­mains un­cer­tain. In the mean­time, nuc­le­ar waste is pil­ing up in in­ter­im stor­age fa­cil­it­ies across the coun­try.

“We don’t be­lieve Obama had the leg­al au­thor­ity or the sci­entif­ic basis to can­cel the Yucca pro­ject. We do not think that was the right move,” My­ers said.

Some in­dustry back­ers also find fault with the re­cently fi­nal­ized loan guar­an­tee.

The loan guar­an­tee “turned out not to be the game changer we had hoped,” said Mar­garet Hard­ing, a spokes­wo­man for the Amer­ic­an Nuc­le­ar So­ci­ety, a non­profit sci­ence and edu­ca­tion­al mem­ber­ship or­gan­iz­a­tion. “The re­act­ors were on track to be built any­way largely be­cause of state-level sup­port. So it could have been more ef­fect­ive for pro­jects that face a harder time get­ting off the ground to have re­ceived ad­min­is­tra­tion back­ing.”

One of the ma­jor reas­ons the in­dustry is fo­cused on ad­min­is­tra­tion policy is be­cause nuc­le­ar isn’t faring well in the free mar­ket. Most power com­pan­ies are opt­ing to build nat­ur­al-gas-fired plants over nuc­le­ar and oth­er forms of fuel such as coal due to the re­l­at­ively low cost of con­struc­tion and the low price of nat­ur­al gas. As a res­ult, if nuc­le­ar needs a boost, in­dustry is look­ing to states and the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment to provide it.

Crit­ics of nuc­le­ar power warn, however, that dif­fi­cult hurdles re­main.

“Nuc­le­ar can’t com­pete with nat­ur­al gas, and it’s also go­ing to have a hard time com­pet­ing with re­new­ables,” said Mi­chael Mari­otte, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the non­profit Nuc­le­ar In­form­a­tion and Re­source Ser­vice, an an­ti­nuc­lear watch­dog group. “What we’re see­ing with dis­trib­uted gen­er­a­tion like sol­ar is a new mod­el for elec­tri­city gen­er­a­tion and de­ploy­ment, and it’s a mod­el where large base-load forms of power gen­er­a­tion like nuc­le­ar just don’t have as large of a role to play.”

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