Bush nuclear policy push gains green supporters
As the US Congress continues to wrestle with legislation for a national energy policy, the years-long push by President George Bush for more nuclear power is starting to bear fruit. Leading environmentalists have come out in favour of nuclear power, influential Congressional leaders are floating the idea of millions of dollars in subsidies for building nuclear, and Exelon Corp recently requested approval for a nuclear power plant site -- the first in decades. The trend was further strengthened in April when Bush stepped up his public support, saying: "A secure energy future for America must include more nuclear power."
About 20% of US electricity comes from nuclear, but no new reactor has been ordered and built in more than 30 years. In 2001, however, Vice President Dick Cheney began laying groundwork for a nuclear resurgence. Shortly after Bush first took office, Cheney met with energy industry representatives to write the Administration's energy plan, which has evolved over the ensuing four years. It calls for streamlining the licensing process for nuclear power plants and "risk insurance" for investors to mitigate the cost of possible delays in the licensing of new reactors.
Ironically, current efforts may provide a production tax credit (PTC) for the nuclear industry. One of nuclear's strongest proponents, Senator Pete Domenici, who chairs the Senate Energy and Water Appropriations Subcommittee, has supported the idea in the past and vows to propose them again. Meantime, a draft proposal for massive subsidies for nuclear power is being circulated among members of Congress by Senator John McCain.
U-turn on nuclear
With global warming casting an increasingly severe shadow, even some staunch green advocates have done an about-face on nuclear. In a recent front-page article, the New York Times quoted some of the nation's most prominent environmentalists saying that nuclear power may now be acceptable. The surge of interest is a direct result of the growing concerns over emissions from thermal power plants, says one of the new supporters, environmentalist Stewart Brand. Adding up the output from wind, solar and all other non-emissions sources, says Brand, comes nowhere close to meeting the nation's energy needs. "The only technology ready to fill the gap and stop the carbon-dioxide loading is nuclear power," he wrote in the May issue of Technology Review.
No impact on wind
Despite all this, Jaime Steve, legislative director of the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA), is not worried. "There's really no connection," says Steve. "Whatever's devised [in the energy bill] for other technologies has no impact on wind." Marchant Wentworth of the Union of Concerned Scientists also sees little threat to wind. "It's no accident that there hasn't been a nuclear power plant built in a long time," says Wentworth. "The answer lies in the financial sector. These things are very expensive. It's cost. They also have a big problem with safety and potential [weapons] proliferation."
Currently, all US energy legislation remains in the hands of the nation's lawmakers. The heavily Republican House of Representatives passed an energy bill in April and the Senate is still developing one. Steve says that from AWEA's perspective, the only significant element for the wind industry of any plan is whether an extension of wind's federal PTC is approved. The House energy bill does not contain a PTC extension, but Steve points out that the Bush 2006 budget proposal factors in an extension of two years beyond the credit's expiry date at the end of this year. He notes that while an energy bill could get stalled in the legislative process, as it has in previous years, a budget bill must eventually be passed. "The bottom line is, I'm confident we'll get an extension," says Steve. "I can't say today when that will happen or by which path."
Steve says one disappointment in the current energy proposals is the lack of a nationwide minimum standard for renewable energy in electricity supply portfolios, facilitated by a market for trade of renewable energy credits. "That is discouraging to us because we think it's good policy, we think it works, and works in the President's home state of Texas," says Steve. Bush signed the law instituting the highly successful Texas Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS) when he was governor.
Wentworth also describes the lack of a federal RPS as a disappointment. He remains hopeful, however, that one could materialise. "I anticipate that the [US Senate] committee will report a bill to the full floor in early June," Wentworth says. "And someone will offer an amendment to restore the RPS and that will carry."
Regardless of hopes or disappointments of the moment, until Congress acts the details remain far from certain. No timetable for the full Senate vote has been set. Once that branch of government acts, differences between the House and Senate bills must then be hammered out in a joint committee. And any compromise legislation that results must be signed by the president for it to become law.