Rocky Barker: Nuclear rebirth needs government

rbarker@idahostatesman.comJune 9, 2014 

Just six years ago, the nuclear power industry was touting a renaissance in this country.

Congress had approved loan guarantees for new nuclear power plants. Yucca Mountain, the nation's spent fuel storage site, was all but completed and going through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission licensing process.

A bipartisan group of senators was putting together a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions that were causing global warming. Such a plan would value nuclear power, with its very low carbon footprint, significantly more than coal and natural gas, the only other baseload power sources.

President Barack Obama actually authorized the first new loan guarantees for plants back East, something the Bush administration was unwilling to do. But then the Democratic administration, acceding to Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, withdrew the license application for the Yucca Mountain spent fuel storage facility in Nevada, which meant there was nowhere for nuclear waste to go.

The cap-and-trade program went down in flames as Republicans made higher priorities out of skepticism of human-caused climate change and the need to drastically cut the federal deficit. Meanwhile, the deregulated electric markets around the nation priced power from nuclear plants the same as intermittent power from wind plants.

The technological breakthrough of fracking drove natural gas prices lower, reducing the economics for nuclear plants even further. Then there was the Fukushima nuclear accident in Japan in 2011.

The French government-backed nuclear company Areva put on hold its $3 billion uranium enrichment plant near Idaho Falls because of a lack of demand for fuel. It already had an NRC license.

Nuclear renaissance?

"It's clearly not that," said Idaho National Laboratory Director John Grossenbacher last week to the Idaho Statesman editorial board.

The future of the Idaho lab, indeed Idaho's economy, has been tied to the nuclear industry since 1949. Here, the technology for the nuclear Navy was developed. The first commercial nuclear reactor design concepts were tested here.

The commercial nuclear power industry was born out of the huge federal investment in nuclear weapons technology. Public-private partnerships between the federal government and state-regulated, investor-owned utilities, which included large government investments and liability and risk protection, allowed nuclear energy to grow to more than 20 percent of the nation's electric power generation.

Under this environment, the Idaho lab thrived, reaching an employment base of more than 13,000 people by 1990. When the Cold War ended, the money dried up; to date, it has dropped by more than half.

Republicans nationally place budget-cutting ahead of nuclear power as the growing libertarian base of the party rejects subsidizing the industry. Idaho Republican Rep. Raul Labrador voted against INL funding and said he rejects that Idaho's economy depends on its government programs.

On the other side of the aisle, Democrats have a strong antinuclear contingent in the party base who, like members of Idaho's Snake River Alliance, hope the industry has no future.

China and India, both nations that don't question climate change but place their critical development needs above it, are fully committed to nuclear power. Therefore, it will continue to thrive outside the U.S. But for the Idaho lab to grow, the nuclear industry in the U.S. must also expand, Grossenbacher said.

"I don't know how you can do that without government intervention," he told the editorial board.

The Obama administration's proposal a week ago to reduce carbon emissions by 30 percent from 2005 levels is the best news the nuclear industry has heard in a long time. But since its traditional supporters in the Republican Party remain skeptical about human-caused climate change and are fighting the rule, even the industry is muted.

But this one act alone could keep open several nuclear plants that are closing. That just might be enough for Areva and the French government to decide to move forward with their Idaho investment. Ironically, the Snake River Alliance, which opposes the uranium plant, supports the carbon rule and the Idaho congressional delegation does not.

Rocky Barker: 377-6484

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