White House summit boosts industry’s sagging spirits

By Jean Chemnick, Hannah Northey | 11/06/2015 07:01 AM EST

The nuclear industry hopes today’s White House summit is the start of a more proactive effort by the Obama administration to put reactors into the U.S. push to meet its international climate change targets.

The nuclear industry hopes today’s White House summit is the start of a more proactive effort by the Obama administration to put reactors into the U.S. push to meet its international climate change targets.

The summit comes as the days tick down to the Nov. 30 start of the U.N. climate conference in Paris aimed at producing a post-2020 emissions agreement. President Obama has staked out a large role in helping to broker a Paris deal.

But while administration officials profess that nuclear has a place in the United States’ low-carbon future, industry boosters say they have seen little action to boost the source of about two-thirds of the nation’s zero-carbon power.


The Obama administration has introduced numerous policies to bolster renewable energy and energy efficiency — goals for federal leasing for renewables on public land and regulations for efficiency and incentives programs as part of Obama’s climate push. And U.S. EPA has touted the role its Clean Power Plan is projected to play deploying renewable power and demand reduction.

But the administration hasn’t laid out a vision of nuclear power. Meanwhile, many reactors in the nation’s nuclear fleet are in danger of shutting down — a fact that nuclear advocates say would place the administration’s pre-Paris emissions pledges beyond reach.

Entergy Corp., for one, announced the closure of two nuclear power plants in the Northeast in the past month.

Senate Environment and Public Works Chairman James Inhofe frequently criticizes the administration for seeking to reduce carbon emissions at all and has spent considerable time trying to roll back its actions. But the Oklahoma Republican varied his message a little bit in a statement last night.

"Any serious plan to cut carbon emissions would have to include robust growth in the nuclear sector, which the president’s Climate Action Plan fails to address," he said of the White House summit.

Inhofe noted that EPA does not assume its final rule for existing power plants will lead to the construction of new nuclear facilities.

"The good news is the EPA will allow states to take credit for any increased output from existing nuclear plants," said Inhofe, referring to a change made between the draft and final rules in the way today’s power fleet would be counted under EPA regulations.

The version EPA unveiled on Aug. 3 did away with a proposed provision that counted planned nuclear projects like the two Georgia-based Vogtle units in a state’s emissions baseline under the rule — meaning the state would have to make up the lost emissions reductions elsewhere if those nuclear projects aren’t in operation by the time reduction requirements begin in 2022.

But Inhofe said the minor improvement in the final rule was more than offset by other actions the administration has taken to frustrate investments in nuclear energy, especially its decision to scrap the long-planned waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nev.

Paul Dickman, a senior policy fellow at the Argonne National Laboratory and former Nuclear Regulatory Commission official, said today’s summit should drive home the point that nuclear energy has a critical role to play.

"The reality is the world cannot, absolutely cannot, meet the International Energy Agency 2-degree-Celsius scenario without a massive investment in nuclear," Dickman said. "It’s technologically impossible to sustain global economies without nuclear energy playing a major role."

Dickman said he hopes the White House will also focus on the need for new infrastructure to support nuclear science, which has all but vanished in recent decades. He pointed to companies like Bill Gates’ TerraPower Inc., which are turning to Russia and China to work on next-generation nuclear technology and materials testing (Greenwire, Sept. 22).

While it’s not clear that funding of any type will be announced at the summit, Dickman said it is significant that it’s happening in advance of Paris talks and should be welcomed by nuclear energy proponents who will be in Washington next week for the American Nuclear Society meeting.

An industry source said he didn’t expect any major policy announcements to come from the summit but added that it was nice to see nuclear receive some recognition for its contribution to combating climate change.

"We need all the solar, all the wind and all the nuclear we can get, and we’re still not going to get enough control of carbon," he said.

‘Plug and play’

The Nuclear Energy Institute — which has among its members some of the country’s most heavily fossil fuel-invested utilities — has sometimes downplayed the climate message. But the institute noted that the two new nuclear units Georgia Power is building at its Vogtle power plant stand to produce more zero-carbon power than all U.S. solar photovoltaic in operation.

Many environmentalists, meanwhile, are struggling to fully accept nuclear.

Armond Cohen, executive director of the Clean Air Task Force, recalled that his career began when he worked on a campaign to shut down the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire. The proposal was to swap it for a natural gas plant.

But that was before climate change was the predominant environmental concern.

Today, Cohen is involved in efforts to boost nuclear energy as a way to avoid locking the U.S. power mix into a future of fossil fuel use — predominantly based on today’s natural gas prices.

One major consideration is convincing investors to back new nuclear.

"We have to get nuclear down to a cost that is within spitting distance of coal or gas," he said. If it isn’t competitive with other baseload sources of power, nuclear will always be dependent on government supports and its future will never be secure, he said.

Nuclear is already roughly on par with renewable energy, but federal, state and local policies exist that put it on an unequal footing with wind, solar and other industries, he said. Renewable energy standards don’t give credit for nuclear, even though they often exist to boost zero-carbon power.

The solution is to make those policies more technology "agnostic" so they can also support nuclear, Cohen said.

The administration could help lay the foundation for advanced nuclear facilities that would address many of the environmental community’s concerns about safety and waste, he said. It could ask the NRC to update its rules for project permitting to make them more appropriate to those technologies, making its reviews more efficient. And the Department of Energy could accelerate plans for a domestic pilot facility where innovators could demonstrate those new technologies.

"We’re just lacking a place where innovators can ‘plug and play,’" he said.

The Clean Air Task Force is working with other industry and environmental groups to launch the Nuclear Innovation Alliance, which aims to improve investing for advanced nuclear in the United States. A formal rollout is scheduled for later this month.

It’s not clear whether any or all of these ideas will figure in today’s event. An outdated agenda for the summit had Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and EPA acting air chief Janet McCabe speaking, though Moniz is not expected to attend now due to a scheduling conflict. White House science adviser John Holdren will offer opening remarks.

But at least one former high-level administration official strongly backs nuclear energy: Obama’s first-term climate adviser Carol Browner, who is now an advocate for nuclear energy.

"To address climate change we need a whole menu of clean and low and non-carbon energy sources," Browner said in statement last night. "Existing nuclear power already provides 64% of our country’s carbon-free power, and is an essential component of a clean energy future alongside renewables like wind and solar."