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Obama's Climate Action Plan: Nuclear Energy?

07/11/2013 09:39 am ET | Updated Sep 10, 2013

Last week, President Obama presented his Climate Action Plan. The plan sets out 1) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon; 2) to prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change; and 3) to lead international efforts to avert global warming.

Although less in the headlines than the plan's position on coal-fired power plants, hydraulic fracturing and the Keystone XL Pipeline, nuclear energy forms a crucial component of President Obama's climate action plan. And action is moving ahead by leaps and bounds.

Nuclear Energy as "Clean Energy"?

Currently, there are 104 nuclear reactors nationwide at 65 nuclear power plants, providing about 19 percent of electricity and 8 percent of energy. The last new nuclear reactor to come on-line in the United States was the Tennessee Valley Authority's (TVA) Watts Bar 1 reactor in Tennessee in 1996.

According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commissions (NRC), active applications for 28 new reactors have been placed as of early 2012. Most of the commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S. are east of the Mississippi River. To date, 31 states have nuclear power plants.

President Obama's Climate Action Plan discusses nuclear energy as "Clean Energy Innovation", which the plan states encompasses "a range of energy technologies, from advanced biofuels and emerging nuclear technologies -- including small modular reactors -- to clean coal." To bill nuclear energy as a "clean energy" source is a sleight of hand.

A slew of issues put the safety of nuclear power plant into question. Numerous nuclear power plants, such as the recently shut down San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, are located near seismic fault-lines.

Other nuclear power plants, too, are located in earthquake, tornado or hurricane-prone zones. For example, the Indian Point nuclear power plant in New York and the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, 100 miles north of Santa Barbara, rest on fault-lines or active plates.

Many nuclear power plants are located near water, either rivers or the ocean, which they draw on for cooling. This factor puts plants at risk from flooding or rising sea levels. For example, the Fort Calhoun power plant, 19 miles north of Omaha, Nebraska, closed in 2011 due to the flooding of the Missouri River.

And throughout the U.S., nuclear power plants are located close to cities: Indian Point sits 24 miles north of New York City; Pilgrim rests 38 miles southeast of Boston; and Turkey Point is 20 miles south of Miami.

This proximity is increased by growing cities. An Associated Press investigation found that populations around nuclear power plants have grown four-fold since 1980, while safety planning is not keeping pace with this urban sprawl. According to the AP, the "evacuation zones have remained frozen at a 10 mile-radius from each plant since they were set in 1978."
Add to this cauldron of concerns, looming expiration dates. All of the currently operating nuclear power plants in the U.S. were begun before 1974, leading some to refer to them as "zombie nukes."

A recently released study also suggests that uranium supplies are dwindling, creating a nuclear energy crunch.

The costs of insuring and decommissioning nuclear power plants are also prohibitive. "By sharp contrast," says Terry Tamminen, former secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency, "the solar industry needs no such taxpayer protection - in part, because the fuel costs absolutely nothing and there is nothing left over to clean up."

Given all of these safety concerns amidst the imminent expiration dates, the viability of nuclear energy has faced increased scrutiny.

In 2013, four nuclear power plants were closed: 2 plants at San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, California; Crystal River 3 in Florida; and Kewaunee in Wisconsin. While this could mark the beginning of the U.S.'s nuclear phase out, it seems the Obama administration's policies are headed the opposite direction.

Small Modular Reactors

Perhaps as a result of these concerns, President Obama's climate speech mentions nuclear energy only once, in tandem with energy security.

He touted that the U.S. will build "the first nuclear power plants in more than three decades -- in Georgia and South Carolina."

The new reactors form part of the fleet of small modular reactors currently being proposed for construction in the U.S.

Last February, the NRC voted to approve the application to build and operate two new nuclear reactors at the Vogtle plant, near Augusta, Georgia, where two reactors already operate. These two units are the first to receive construction approval in over 30 years.

Additionally, two new reactors are planned for Summer, located about 20 miles northwest of Columbia, South Carolina. It is anticipated that these two units will come online in 2016 and 2019.

U.S. Plans to Promote Nuclear Energy Worldwide?

Although not touched on in his climate speech, the Climate Action Plan clearly outlines the Obama administration's intent to ramp up nuclear energy and waste management not only domestically but also worldwide through bilateral and multilateral agreements.

President Obama's climate action elaborates on how nuclear energy will form part of the "global energy mix" in the "Sustainable Energy for All Initiative":

"The United States will continue to promote the safe and secure use of nuclear power worldwide through a variety of bilateral and multilateral engagements. For example, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission advises international partners on safety and regulatory best practices, and the Department of Energy works with international partners on research and development, nuclear waste and storage, training, regulations, quality control, and comprehensive fuel leasing options. Going forward, we will expand these efforts to promote nuclear energy generation consistent with maximizing safety and nonproliferation goals."

The plan states: "In the past three years we have reached agreements with more than 20 countries around the world, including Mexico, South Africa, and Indonesia, to support low emission development strategies that help countries to identify the best ways to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while growing their economies."

Two particular initiatives are named: the "U.S. Africa Clean Energy Finance Initiative" and the "U.S.-Asia Pacific Comprehensive Energy Partnership." These initiatives will seek to fund and bring an a mix of energy sources, including natural gas, nuclear power and "clean coal" to developing nations.

Each of these energy sources is fraught: natural gas produces methane; nuclear power generates nuclear waste; and "clean coal", which involves carbon capture and sequestration, has not been proven to work. Moreover, although energy efficiency is mentioned, renewable energy appears nowhere on the list.

Like the Obama administration's plans for coal and natural gas, this ramped up funding for nuclear power globally is not necessarily intended to solve climate change, even if they form part of President Obama's Climate Action Plan. Coal produces carbon and natural gas produces methane, the first and second highest ranking greenhouse gas emissions unleashing and contributing to global warming. Thus, their promotion globally does not solve climate change.

Similarly, even if nuclear energy is often touted as a "clean energy" source, given that it does not produce greenhouse gas emissions, it is agreed to be far dirtier than renewable energy. Thus, why not fund renewable energy instead and help developing nations leapfrog to a sustainable economy.

In California, for example, the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station once generated 17% of the state's electricity. But increased energy savings through energy efficiency upgrades, and renewable energy, including solar, wind and geothermal, as well as natural gas now fulfill this demand.

Why We Still (Do Not) Need Nuclear Energy

Given that Ernest Moniz, President Obama's new Secretary of Energy, who took office in May 2013, is a nuclear physicist, these new policies promoting nuclear energy should not surprise.

In 2011, Moniz published an article entitled "Why We Still Need Nuclear Energy," in Foreign Affairs (Nov/Dec 2011). His article dovetails remarkably with President Obama's Climate Action Plan.

First, Moniz argues that a nuclear renaissance is currently taking place and that it could address an increased need for "clean energy."

Second, the piece lays out a clear blueprint for building a new fleet of small modular reactors in the U.S.

Third, Moniz's article outlines plans to promote nuclear energy internationally, which dovetail with Obama's climate action plan.

Fourth and lastly, Obama's climate action plan and Moniz's article seek to solve nuclear waste management, which has been stuck since plans for the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada were scrapped when federal funding ended in 2010.

The solution? "Work with international partners." One solution that Moniz's article proposes is that "nuclear fuel could be leased to produce electricity."

So the combined climate action plan and Moniz's article might well delineate the proposed future of nuclear energy, in the U.S. and worldwide.

In the past two weeks, numerous steps have been taken to move nuclear energy policy forward.

Recently, the Senate approved Allison MacFarlane as the new head of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The same day, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled legislation to identify new temporary and permanent storage sites for nuclear waste. And earlier legislation proposed a separate Nuclear Waste Agency that would be led by someone appointed by the president.

To be sure, after an extended period of steep decline, marked by the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant disaster; nuclear phase-outs in numerous nations; and nuclear power plant shutdowns in the U.S., it seems that the Obama administration is taking the surprising step of reinvigorating its commitment to nuclear energy. It remains to be seen whether nuclear energy will experience a renaissance, as predicted by Moniz, or collapse under the pressure of the various factors mentioned.