Is Republican Nuclear Support a Wedge Issue Or Long Overdue Leadership On Energy And Climate?
On Monday, June 8, 2009, Senate Republicans have scheduled a hearing co-chaired by Senator Lamar Alexander and Senator John McCain to discuss a vision of building 100 new nuclear plants in 20 years. According to the email accompanying the press release announcing the event, this hearing is the kickoff for a major effort to change the conversation on energy and climate to include serious consideration of nuclear power as a major tool.
Though most of you know that I consider myself a proud liberal, I cannot help but cheer for this effort. It is long overdue; abundant energy, clean air and clean water are goals that all who seek a better future should be able to support. No true liberal should fail to listen if conservatives propose a path forward that actually provides the opportunity to produce good jobs, excellent training opportunities, well supported public education systems, industrial strength energy from domestic sources, emission free power, and high technology development.
In fact, the proper response after listening carefully to people with a different, but achievable way of achieving common goals is to co-opt those methods and make them a part of your own platform. One of the real strengths of the American political system is the ability for all parties to recognize that some tools are not partisan property. Just as Bill Clinton recognized that the strength of the economy was as important to his base as it was to the Republican base, it is time for the Democratic leadership to recognize that abundant, clean energy from the atom is as beneficial to union members as it is to small town business leaders.
The “100 plants in 20 years” is a modest understatement of the potential outcome, but it is a worthy goal that can always be revised upward. It is worth noting that the US has exceeded this goal once before – during the period from 1963-1983 there were far more than 100 nuclear power plants started and completed including the submarine and surface ship power plants that GE, Westinghouse, Babcock and Wilcox, and Combustion Engineering produced in cooperation with shipyards at Mare Island, Pascagoula, New York, Portsmouth (aka Kittery), Newport News, and Groton.
Series produced, right-sized atomic fission power plants have a real opportunity in the market, even in the US. I would not be surprised if we were able to create a path forward that enabled the construction of several times 100 plants in the next 20 years. The leaders at NuScale, Hyperion, General Atomics and Toshiba would probably agree that a goal of a thousand of plants in 20 years is not out of bounds. (Disclosure: As the founder of Adams Atomic Engines, Inc., I have a vested interest in trying to make this prediction a reality.)
This jobs producing effort will be made so much easier when active support for nuclear power becomes a bipartisan issue where leaders compete with each other for the opportunity to create new ways to increase the population of trained workers, to increase the efficiency of license reviews, and to enable more rapid technological improvement. It is important to remember that the job generating ability of cheap, clean energy sources is not limited to those who directly produce the energy; there are plenty of people in the world with great ideas for new products that will be energized if they are provided the right tool – reliable, low cost electricity.
This would not be a complete post if I did not mention that there will be plenty of well endowed opposition to this plan. As Charles Barton pointed out in his recent Energy from Thorium post titled Curious Green Gas Attack mainstream advocacy groups like Greenpeace are wedded to the notion that it is somehow better for the world’s climate to replace even already built nuclear power plants with plants burning natural gas. According to the Greenpeace report titled Energy [R]evolution: A Sustainable USA Energy Outlook it would be a good idea to nearly double the consumption of natural gas for electricity production in the US while decommissioning nearly all nuclear power plants by 2030. Here is a quote from page 9 of the report:
There is no role for nuclear power in the energy [r]evolution.
Greenpeace is not alone in their stubborn refusal to accept the strongest tool in the box in the fight against global climate change, but they can be marginalized as more and more people recognize just how powerful fission can be. It will not be an easy battle; when I clicked on the link to the Roll Call article about the GOP push for nuclear power as an alternative way to reach emission targets, I was met with a full page ad for natural gas (clever programmers are figuring out ways around standard popup blockers.) Knowing the type of people who dominate the readership at Roll Call, I assume that particular ad is not aimed at the average consumer, but instead is a reminder to the policy makers about a major source of money and power in Washington.
Joe Romm, one of my “favorite” climate focused (and Democratic Party partisan) bloggers, is apparently enamored by the prospects for a dramatically increased role for natural gas. Since his early training in energy issues came from the petroleum endowed Rockefeller Foundation and Amory Lovins’s Rocky Mountain Institute, Romm is a committed disciple of the “anything but nuclear” philosophy that inevitably enables continued domination of the energy markets by fossil fuels like natural gas. His interest in even fracking enabled shale gas is not terribly surprising, but the zeal with which he discusses it is a bit over the top:
There is simply no doubt that, other than energy efficiency and conservation, the lowest-cost option for achieving large-scale CO2 reductions by 2020 is simply replacing electricity produced by burning coal with power generated by burning more natural gas in the vast array of currently underutilized gas-fired plants (as I will discuss in more detail in Part 2). Natural gas is the cheapest, low-carbon baseload power around.
And it’s not just suppliers and industry experts calling for a major expansion of natural gas. In its detailed analysis of how the U.S. can quickly slash CO2 emissions and transition off of coal without building new nukes, Energy [R]evolution, Greenpeace (!) assumes a 50% growth in natural gas power generation by 2020. (Emphasis in the original.)
Interestingly enough, quite a few of his readers at Climate Progress have taken him to task for his interest in such potentially damaging technology. Here is an example from the comment thread:
Year 2200 man Says:
June 3rd, 2009 at 6:59 pm
Sounds horrendous. I thought the idea was to get off fossil fuels, not find more of them.
One way or another we have to get off fossil fuels eventually, if only because they will run out some time. The sooner the better in my opinion.
This summer is shaping up to be one where the traditional Washington slow season will be filled with some interesting and important discussions.
Unfortunately, my day job schedule for Monday does not support my attendance at the Senate Republican Conference hearing, but I sure hope that there are plenty of Democrats that go and listen and realize that the goals that they have for their constituents can best
be met if they increase the strength of their atomic advocacy and simply thank Republicans for helping them see the light.