Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm floats federal subsidies for nuclear power plants
Paul Gigot interviews environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg.
"The DOE has not historically subsidized plants but I think this is a moment to consider and perhaps in the American Jobs Plan or somewhere to make sure that we keep the current fleet active," said Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, in a hearing Thursday before a House Appropriations subcommittee. "We are not going to achieve our climate goals if our nuclear power plants shut down. We have to find ways to keep them operating."
The nuclear industry faces rising costs, aging infrastructure, competition from other energy sources, and political opposition. There are plans to close reactors at two nuclear plants in Illinois this year. New York State’s Indian Point shut last month. Only one reactor has come online in the past 20 years. Two new reactors are under construction in Georgia.
Yet the US still has more than 90 operational nuclear reactors, accounting for about 20 percent of American electricity generation and more than half the country’s emission’s-free electricity.
"President Biden’s net-zero electricity by 2035 power sector target outstrips even the greenest-leaning states’ targets to eliminate emitting generation by 2040-2050," said Timothy Fox, vice president at ClearView Energy Partners, an energy industry analysis firm. "Net-zero electricity by 2035 already looks like a heavy lift; doing it without the existing nuclear fleet seems more like magical thinking."
While Biden has publicly pushed spending for research on a new generation of advanced nuclear reactors, the White House has signaled that it also supports tax-credit subsides, likely as part of the administration’s infrastructure and spending plan, to keep existing reactors from closing, according to a Reuters report.
"I urge you to take action to preserve our existing nuclear fleet and prevent further closures," wrote Chairman Joe Manchin of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, in a letter to the president. "I believe the federal government must use all the tools it has to protect this vital resource."
The president has referenced the nuclear industry in selling his plans to boost American manufacturing and employment, though there is a split among Democrats on nuclear’s future.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has said the US should phase out nuclear power by 2035. In Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) Green New Deal pledge, he calls nuclear power a "false solution" and argues that "toxic waste byproducts of nuclear plants are not worth the risks of the technology’s benefit, especially in light of lessons learned from the Fukushima meltdown and the Chernobyl disaster."
"Paying to keep aging reactors online is courting disaster and guaranteed to slow the deployment of truly clean renewables," said Lukas Ross, the program manager of Friends of the Earth. "Congress and President Biden should not throw good money after bad."
Opponents point to the massive expense and cost overruns related to building new reactors. Once they’re operational, they face significant security costs and completion from falling prices of other renewable energy sources like wind and solar.
There’s also nuclear waste. The U.S. has over 80,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel from commercial nuclear power plants, according to the Government Accountability Office. Most spent nuclear fuel is stored at reactor sites around the country.
The administration’s decision to support nuclear could also affect other sources as the US tries to meet its aggressive emissions pledge.
"If President Biden is willing to spurn some environmentalists within his base to keep nuclear power alive, it may reinforce his seriousness about achieving the target, and that means natural gas should not expect support as a ‘bridge fuel,’" said Fox.