By Andrea Jennetta, Publisher
The top White House energy and climate adviser said the Obama administration wants to help the nuclear industry build a power plant for the first time in decades, Reuters reported on January 11.
“We have not built a nuclear plant in this country in a long time but we want to work with the industry to make that happen in the not too distant future,” Carol Browner, Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate, said yesterday in a live chat on the White House website. “We have been working with the nuclear industry to understand exactly what it is they need.”
Browner also asserted that President Obama “believes that nuclear needs to be a part of our energy future.”
If you subscribe to the axiom that actions speak louder than words, then you will agree that the current administration isn’t serious about “working with the industry” or understanding “what it is they need.” You might even be cynical about Browner’s statement.
As proof, look no further than the inexplicable delays in the nuclear reactor loan guarantee program. Congress authorized $18.5 billion for nuclear loan guarantees in 2005. But five years later, the U.S. nuclear industry is still waiting.
In mid-December, the head of Department of Energy’s nuclear energy office predicted that it would have loan guarantees “by the end of the year.”
One week later, though, DOE Deputy Secretary Daniel Poneman said the agency’s negotiations with energy companies for “first mover” reactors “still had some distance to cover.”
The foot-dragging is widely thought to be the result of a standoff between DOE and the Office of Management and Budget over the pricing of credit subsidy premiums, Reuters reported. Conventional wisdom puts that figure at 10% of the loan guarantee amount.
Poneman told the New York Times on December 24, “[W]e have worked with, and continue to work with OMB very cooperatively, on trying to get these things resolved ... . It’s obviously mission-critical to figure out if the [project] transactions will work. It’s not surprising that this would be a number that gets pretty closely scrutinized. We’re getting close, but we’re not done.”
While DOE and OMB dicker over the details, the four companies on the short list for the guarantees—NRG Energy, SCANA, Southern and Constellation—are operating in business limbo. If the goal of the loan guarantee program is to reassure investors that building new reactors is an acceptable, predictable financial risk, the government is failing spectacularly.
This is why it is difficult to take Browner’s comments seriously—or believe that the Obama administration really supports nuclear power, despite its efforts to expand the role of nuclear energy in a climate change bill currently stalled in the Senate to attract support from opposition Republicans.
(I could now launch a rant about how irresponsibly the White House has “managed” the national nuclear waste disposal program, but you’ll have to wait for a future post.)
I know I speak for the entire (hooting, laughing) U.S. nuclear industry when I say I’ll believe it when I see it.