Congress is Santa and Scrooge for U.S. nuclear industry: but presents new Energy bill brilliantly

A year ago I encouraged the Canadian federal government to offer financial incentives to jump-start investment in new nuclear power plants. The incentives would emulate those in the U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005. Ontario’s stunning record of reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the power-sector—fifteen million tonnes less in 2006 than in 2003—had proved that nuclear power is the way forward to massive reductions in national emissions, and that it is worthy of incentives. The problem, for the politicians to whom I was offering this advice, was selling these incentives to influential, and skeptical, elites.

To sell them, I proposed that the Harper government expand the Wind Power Production Incentive (WPPI) to include nuclear generation, and announce it as an expansion of wind power.

Well, it looks like the U.S. congress and administration have done something very similar. Congress and the administration have agreed on a new energy bill, and the media is touting it as support for a “six-fold increase in ethanol use and energy-efficiency standards for appliances and lighting … [and] in commercial and government buildings.” House speaker Nancy Pelosi says the bill is “groundbreaking in what it will do.”

It’s groundbreaking, all right. But not because efficiency measures will play anything bigger than a marginal role in reducing U.S. GHGs. The truly important part of the bill is the confirmation of financial incentives for new nuclear power plants. Nuclear power, and not efficient lightbulbs or ethanol-blended gasoline, is how America will reduce GHGs.

Ask any of the environmental lobbyists who are applauding the bill’s efficiency measures if they like its nuclear incentives. Most will say no, and emphatically no. But they generally applaud the bill, which means it has been skilfully presented.

While congress was generous with nuclear construction incentives, it was stingy with the critical back-end of the industry. It cut funding for the Yucca Mountain spent fuel repository. This means the U.S. nuclear regulator will very soon be asking hard questions about what exactly utilities will do with the spent fuel piling up on their generator sites. If it can’t go to Yucca Mountain, where will it go? To one of the fast burner reactors proposed under the Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP)? Not much relief on that front either: congress gave the GNEP less than half what the president had asked for.

Moreover, a fast burner doesn’t currently exist in North America. Few experts are convinced fast burners can economically dispose of spent fuel. So the spent fuel problem remains unresolved.

Nevertheless, the new U.S. energy bill is a model for how the Canadian government can ramp up investment in true GHG-reduction technology in a way that is palatable to public opinion.

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