The following post is by Jane Nakano, a Fellow in the Energy and National Security Program and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
One of the policy issues that has gone through a notable evolution under the administration of President Barack Obama is nuclear energy. Several years since his cautious acknowledgment of nuclear energy during the presidential campaign, the Obama White House has begun rolling out several measures in support of nuclear energy development in recent months. What is the current nuclear energy policy under the Obama administration? Is there a “Nuclear Renaissance” in the United States? What does the Obama nuclear policy mean for Japan?
Candidate Obama and Nuclear Energy—Cautious Acknowledgment
High oil prices in 2007-2008 coincided with the last years of the presidency of George W. Bush. During the months preceding the presidential election, energy security quickly became a major concern of the American public. Particularly, the public increasingly clamored for “energy independence” which would reduce energy prices, release the U.S. from dependency on foreign energy sources, utilize clean energy technologies, and emit fewer climate changing pollutants. Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Senator Obama recognized a role for nuclear power in a society which would strive to reduce dependency on imported oil as well as on highly carbon-emitting sources of energy. Meanwhile, then-candidate Obama’s campaign messages also included the need to address the safety, waste and nonproliferation challenges associated with the development of civilian nuclear power program. Specifically, his campaign commitments included federal efforts to seek a safe, long-term disposal solution for the nation’s nuclear spent fuels. During his campaign in the State of Nevada for the presidential primary, then-presidential hopeful Obama voiced an opposition to pursuing the permanent spent fuel repository at the Yucca Mountain site in Nevada. Because Obama’s candidacy was strongly supported by many progressive grassroots organizations, including environmental groups—which often are anti-nuclear, his opposition to Yucca Mountain came as no surprise. As an energy source that does not depend on imports and is low-carbon emitting, nuclear energy thus became a politically uneasy yet viable policy option for then-candidate Obama in his efforts to craft a set of policies which would advance his energy security and climate change agenda once elected.
U.S. Nuclear Industry in the Limbo
Today, there are 104 operating nuclear reactors at 65 plants in 31 states in the U.S. In 2008, nuclear power provided one fifth of total U.S. electricity and constituted nearly 70 percent of total U.S. non-emitting electricity generation. However, no plant that was ordered after 1973 has been completed. An accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania in 1979—although it did not result in known deaths or illness—stirred public opposition to nuclear power, and essentially halted the development of civilian nuclear power for the three subsequent decades. In contrast to the strongly pro-nuclear presidency of George W. Bush, the inauguration of the Obama administration was received by the U.S. nuclear industry with much anxiety. Throughout much of the first year of the Obama presidency, many in the nuclear industry grew increasingly anxious about what they saw as the lack of support for the construction of new nuclear reactors and feared the reversal on the Bush era pro-nuclear momentum.
Obama White House and Nuclear Energy—Reticent Embrace?
It was at the State of Union, on January 27, 2010, where nuclear energy drew a spotlight. In the context of job creation, President Obama endorsed the continued development of civilian nuclear power, as he stated: “…to create more of these clean energy jobs, we need more production, more efficiency, more incentives. And that means building a new generation of safe, clean nuclear power plants in this country…” In subsequent weeks, the administration began sending a strong signal in support of nuclear energy. First and foremost, President Obama’s FY2011 budget request included a $54 billion in guaranteed loan volume authority for advanced nuclear power plants—a $36 billion increase from the program under the Bush administration. Moreover, in mid February, the U.S. Department of Energy offered conditional commitments for a total of $8.33 billion in loan guarantees for the construction and operation of two new nuclear reactors in Burke, Georgia. These loan guarantee commitments are the first since the loan guarantee authority was established under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The Georgia project is the first U.S. nuclear power plant to break ground in nearly four decades. In announcing the commitments, the White House cited industry projections that the project will create approximately 3,500 onsite construction jobs, and 800 permanent jobs once the reactors come on-line. Meanwhile, President Obama did follow through on his campaign promise to re-examine the nation’s permanent spent fuel repository plan. The Obama administration drastically cut funding for the permanent repository at the Yucca Mountain site in his FY2010 budget request, calling the project “not a workable option.” In the FY2011 budget request, the finding was entirely eliminated. In early March, the U.S. Department of Energy filed a motion with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, withdrawing the Yucca Mountain license. Moreover, the President has set up a commission to review policies on managing spent nuclear fuel and waste, and announced in late January, members of a commission. Co-chaired by former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) and Brent Scowcroft, the 15-member panel is tasked with providing an interim report within 18 months, and a final report within 24 months.
(Part 2 of this Guest Author piece to follow shortly)