GOP Gains in Congress; Kiss Cap & Trade Goodbye

By: Nancy E. Roth, Managing Editor
Fuel Cycle Week

Many nuclear industry advocates and observers expect the industry to benefit from this week’s election results, which delivered a Republican majority to the U.S House of Representatives, while significantly narrowing the Democratic majority in the Senate.

After all, constituent groups that favor nuclear energy tend to vote Republican, and it stands to reason that their representatives in Washington would reflect that in relevant energy legislation. Retired Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) was easily one of the best friends that nuclear ever had in Congress. The most outspoken nuclear advocates on the Hill, such as Sens. John McCain, Lamar Alexander and Lisa Murkowski (who at this writing has apparently managed to keep her seat in a write-in race), are almost all affiliated with the G.O.P.

Conversely, most antinuclear diatribes seem to spring from the Democrats’ side of the aisle, from figures such as Congressman Ed Markey (Mass.).

But these optimistic expectations do not bear up under scrutiny of what Republicans (apart from Domenici) have actually done to help nuclear development, as opposed to what they say they want to do. The disconnect is striking. And, judging by the boisterous antigovernment and anti-climate action platforms Republican candidates embraced this year, that disconnect is not going away anytime soon.

Nuclear Requires Government Involvement

Republicans philosophically oppose and actively campaign against activist government, which, among other things, would create financial incentives for new energy technologies and infrastructure, including nuclear plants. The Republican vision, at least as projected in political campaigns, is to create a minimalist government, leaving everything else up to the private sector.

Nuclear will need active government participation in order to thrive in the U.S., just as it has had in China, France, India, Japan, Korea and Russia. Nuclear does not magically happen by way of the free market. It requires farsighted planning and support that is beyond the purview of the private sector.

If the new Republican representatives and senators do what they have promised to do, nuclear development in the U.S. will gain no traction.

G.O.P. Foot-Dragging on Carbon Market

Republicans say they favor nuclear development but time and again have obstructed important initiatives that would help jumpstart a revival, such as a cap and trade system or other measures that would establish a market for carbon dioxide emissions.

This year it looked like Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) might produce the first bipartisan climatechange legislative package—but just before introducing the carefully crafted bill on the Senate floor, Graham, under pressure from his G.O.P. colleagues, dropped his sponsorship of the bill. Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I.-Conn.), a former Democrat, took up the slack, and the bill become the Kerry-Lieberman American Power Act.

It was Lieberman’s staff that crafted the legislation’s unusually supportive provisions for nuclear development, such as measures to expedite the processing of Construction and Operation License applications for nuclear reactors. The authors of the legislation consulted frequently with Senate Republicans over a period of months so as to reflect their nuclear-energy priorities, and hoping thereby to attract their support for the bill (FCW #377, May 20).

Ultimately not one Republican senator came out in favor of it, however, due to its cap and trade program.

Nor have G.O.P. members shown interest in promoting collateral developments that would improve prospects for nuclear, such the wider use of electric cars or high-speed electric trains. These would reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and create a new component of demand for electricity that would energize plant planning and building. Small-government Republicans favor minimal involvement by the federal government in transportation policy.

Dems’ Surprising Emergence as Nuke Advocates

Not that the Democratic Party has been an outstanding advocate for nuclear energy. Given the vehement antinuclear rhetoric of some of its fringe groups, it is difficult to believe nuclear could fare well in any legislative environment in which Democrats constitute a majority.

Once again, however, tuning out the words of each party while watching their actions brings about the inevitable realization that in its first two years the Administration of President Barack Obama, with Steven Chu as Energy Secretary, has done more to advance nuclear development in the U.S. than the George W. Bush Administration (with Sec. Spencer Abrahams, and later, Sec. Samuel Bodman) did in its entire eight years.

The Bush Administration’s centerpiece energy legislation was the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which created the deeply flawed Title 17 Loan Guarantee Program to encourage the development of new energy technologies, including Gen III nuclear. But the Republican-dominated Congress stuck it into the Department of Energy, which had no experience running a financial program, and, under the leadership of Sec. Bodman, seemed not to want any part of it. DOE required prodding by Congress to develop the regulatory framework and hire a staff for the program. Still, it issued not a single nuclear loan guarantee during the Bush Administration.

By contrast, under the watchful eye of Sec. Chu the office and program came to life, issuing its first loan guarantee for a nuclear project (for two additional reactors at Southern’s Vogtle plant) last February. In May it also granted a loan guarantee to AREVA for its Eagle Rock centrifuge enrichment plant in Idaho Falls. The mishaps that have befallen the program over the past month spring from flaws in the original design by Congress five years ago.

The course of events in regard to nuclear over the last several years makes it difficult to escape the conclusion that it will take a strong, centrist, bipartisan push that acknowledges the need for federal involvement, to foster meaningful industry growth in the U.S. But at this juncture, the Republican Party appears to be in no mood to participate.

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