Nuclear renaissance in U.S. at the crossroads: industry elbows are too low

Everybody is wondering where U.S. nuclear policy is going under the current administration and congress. Early indications are not encouraging: the stimulus bill signed last week excluded nuclear power from a package that aims to spur development of low-carbon energy. This though nuclear is by far the most realistic large-scale replacement for coal-fired power. Coal plants in the U.S. crank out 2 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases (GHGs) every year.

There are applications for $122 billion worth of loan guarantees for nuclear projects in the U.S. The current program is budgeted to cover only $18.5 billion. This is for a technology that produces enormous amounts of cheap baseload power—i.e. power that is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week—with no GHGs. The energy portion of the stimulus package instead will put $50 billion to renewable forms of energy, chiefly wind and solar. These are intermittent sources, and need to be heavily backed up by power sources that are instantly dispatchable to a modern grid. i.e., natural gas.

So the $50 billion for renewables was a major victory for the gas industry, and a major defeat for the nuclear industry. Chalk one up for the environmentalists who successfully lobbied to take support for nuclear out of the stimulus bill. One of the anti-nuclear groups, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS), said the loan guarantees are “nothing more than a preemptive bailout of the nuclear power industry.”

Never mind that the loan guarantees would not mean a cash transfer from the government for a nuclear project. Rather, they would provide assurance for a lender that the government would step up in the event of a default. There’s a world of difference between the two, but not surprisingly NIRS elected to use the loaded word “bailout.” The group’s acronym should be NMRS.

Regardless, it is clear that current industry efforts to counter anti-nuclear misinformation have failed.

I honestly hope there’s a communication Plan B, and that it is a bit more aggressive than Plan A. Elbows up, nuclear industry.

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