How a nuclear bill became this Congress’ first big energy win

By Andres Picon | 06/20/2024 06:35 AM EDT

The bipartisan nuclear energy package had a turbulent path to passage. Climate and economic benefits helped secure support.

Nuclear bill vote.

Almost every senator present supported legislation Tuesday to encourage nuclear energy development. Senate Television

In what has become an exceedingly rare phenomenon, lawmakers on Capitol Hill this week reached across the aisle and coalesced around a piece of energy legislation to send it to President Joe Biden’s desk.

The support was resounding. The sweeping nuclear energy bill known as the “ADVANCE Act” sailed through the Senate as part of S. 870, the “Fire Grants and Safety Act,” on an 88-2 vote Tuesday, just over a month after the package garnered more than 390 votes in the House.

It was an especially noteworthy achievement for a divided Congress roiled by partisanship on nearly every subject — including energy policy — and in the throes of an election year adding increased scrutiny to lawmakers’ every vote.


Passage didn’t come easily. And whether the effort can be replicated with other major energy packages winding their way through Congress is far from certain.

Lawmakers involved in the effort and observers off Capitol Hill say that’s because nuclear energy and the multibillion-dollar industry behind it represent a unique form of power generation that has something to offer for nearly all lawmakers — regardless of their views on energy policy or climate change.

Indeed, supporters of the “Accelerating Deployment of Versatile, Advanced Nuclear for Clean Energy Act” have hailed it as an “all-of-the-above” bill that represents a lifeline for the beleaguered nuclear energy industry, a boost for carbon-free energy, a boon for energy security and a one-way ticket to global nuclear energy dominance — all in one neat package.

“I’m not sure what our colleagues would call that in their states, but in Delaware, something like that, we call it a win-win-win situation,” said Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee and one of the bill’s architects.

Nuclear energy is among the few energy sources that can produce zero-emission, reliable baseload power at a large scale. Reactors account for nearly 20 percent of all American energy production and are by far the biggest domestic source of carbon-free electricity.

While geothermal and hydropower similarly provide clean, consistent power, they comprise a small fraction — about 6 percent combined — of the country’s electricity generation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

On nuclear energy, which has already picked up significant bipartisan support in recent years, there was an opportunity to find consensus on a wide range of energy issues, said Ryan Norman, senior policy adviser for Third Way’s climate and energy program.

“For the Democrats, I think this was another data point in the broader story of the work that the Biden administration has done” on clean energy, he said. “And if you’re a Republican, this was a story about how to serve those communities focused on fossil fuels and how to move onto the next thing.”

Carper said Tuesday that Biden has pledged his support for the bill.

Building consensus

Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.).
Sens. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Tom Carper (D-Del.) during a hearing. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee and a lead sponsor of the “ADVANCE Act,” noted Tuesday that final passage was “months and years” in the making.

In a floor speech before the vote, Capito said that she, Carper and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I) introduced the bill in March 2023 because they knew the U.S. had to get ahead of future increases in energy demand “with policies that encourage investment and deployment of nuclear technologies right here on our shores.”

Senators passed the original version of the “ADVANCE Act” as part of the Senate’s version of the fiscal 2024 defense policy bill, but it was excluded from the final version as lawmakers on the House Energy and Commerce Committee pushed their own nuclear energy bill, H.R. 6544, the “Atomic Energy Advancement Act.” It was sponsored by Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).

Capito, Carper, Duncan and DeGette spent months negotiating the current compromise bill and finally reached an agreement earlier this spring.

They were initially unsuccessful, however, in finding a vehicle for passage. Efforts to add the measure to fiscal 2024 spending packages and a reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration were in vain.

Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.).
Reps. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.) and Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) at the Capitol last year. | Mariam Zuhaib/AP

Ultimately, Michigan Democratic Sen. Gary Peters’ widely popular “Fire Grants and Safety Act” carried the bill across the finish line. The bill to reauthorize a number of federal firefighting programs would have garnered bipartisan support with or without the nuclear bill.

The personalities behind the bill’s original sponsors also helped. Capito, ranking member on the Environment and Public Works Committee and a member of the Senate Republican leadership team, led the monthslong negotiations with the House.

And Carper, the committee chair who has bonded with Capito over their shared West Virginia roots, similarly leveraged his influence and their relationship to secure support for the measure.

It is also something of a legacy project for the retiring senator who over the course of his career has increasingly adopted climate change as one of his core legislative priorities.

“We work closely as a team, our staffs work closely as a team, and we look for how do we build consensus on important issues and to create a lot of jobs,” Carper said Tuesday.

‘Good jobs and a safer planet’

The “ADVANCE Act” would streamline the permitting process for advanced reactors, reduce regulatory fees for companies looking to license advanced reactor technologies and update outdated rules that limit international investment.

It would also require the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to develop a pathway to quickly license nuclear facilities at the sites of former fossil fuel facilities, including coal plants, that already have a connection to the grid.

Further, the bill would boost the NRC’s workforce, support training for nuclear trades and formalize coordination between the NRC and the Department of Energy on the use of advanced nuclear fuels, among other provisions.

The bill’s potential to drive the growth of the domestic nuclear industry and create jobs may have been the ultimate motivator for a number of lawmakers to support the bill — especially Republicans who are generally less excited by the sector’s climate benefits.

A similar dynamic is playing out with the Inflation Reduction Act, as growing numbers of Republicans are publicly embracing the clean energy spending that Democrats passed in the act after those investments resulted in new factories in their districts.

“People aren’t necessarily voting on this issue because they love nuclear energy but because they know nuclear energy is an offshoot for more jobs or decarbonization or whatever it may be,” Norman said.

Indeed, Carper told E&E News on Tuesday that the job-creating prospects of the “ADVANCE Act” were an integral part of his pitch to other lawmakers.

“I never talk about the importance of addressing climate change without talking about how we can address climate change in constructive ways and create a lot of jobs. We can do both,” he said. “Good jobs and a safer planet.”

The Nuclear Energy Institute, a leading industry group, estimates that a typical nuclear power plant employs 500 to 800 workers in addition to the up to 7,000 workers required during peak construction. And for every 100 nuclear power plant jobs, the group says, there are an additional 66 jobs created in the local community.

“No matter the reason you came to the party,” Norman said, “people recognize the same values in nuclear energy, and I think the economic factor was one of those pieces.”

The Biden administration’s embrace of nuclear energy and its goal to triple nuclear energy production by 2050 bode well for increased job production. Nuclear energy production tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act also stand to support longer-term investments.

“When you get this combination of a recognition of the potential economic, energy security and energy independence benefits of nuclear technology — combined with the recognition of nuclear as a key part of our clean energy future — you end up with an issue that can garner a lot of bipartisan support,” said Patrick White, research director at the Nuclear Innovation Alliance.

Safety concerns

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.) were the only “no” votes in the Senate. | Francis Chung/POLITICO

The economic and environmental benefits of the “ADVANCE Act” were not enough to convince some lawmakers.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) gave a lengthy floor speech before the Senate vote Tuesday, railing against provisions in the bill that he and other progressives have said could promote nuclear energy development at the expense of upholding important safety standards.

For example, one provision would broaden the scope of the NRC’s mission statement to ensure licensing does “not unnecessarily limit” the benefits of nuclear energy to society.

Language that would have supported cleanups of contaminated tribal lands and other communities disproportionately harmed by nuclear waste were dropped from the bill in negotiations with the House.

Critics have said those changes could effectively transform the NRC from an agent of oversight and safety into a cheerleader for the nuclear energy industry

“It puts promotion over protection, and corporate profits over community cleanup,” Markey said before voting against the bill with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission shouldn’t be the Nuclear Retail Commission,” he said. “The commission’s duty is to regulate, not to facilitate.”

White, of the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, said that despite those provisions in the bill to boost licensing efficiency, there’s confidence among nuclear backers that the NRC can remain an effective regulator.

“Can an agency both be effective and efficient at what it does? Having one doesn’t necessarily mean losing the other,” he said. “It really has, I would say, nothing to do with reducing the safety of the regulator at the cost of efficiency. We think that we can have both efficient and effective regulation.”