The near-meltdown of nuclear reactors in Japan may derail already shaky prospects for a US clean energy standard (CES) and an expansion of the US nuclear fleet.
Prospects for a federal CES, which would force utilities to source a proportion of their power from renewables and nuclear, were already threatened by the partisan divide in Congress before the Fukushima nuclear plant was hit by an earthquake and tsunami.
President Barack Obama has stated his support for an expansion of the US nuclear industry, saying that nuclear power can count towards his goal of generating 80% of electricity from clean energy sources by 2035.
This position was reiterated last week by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and in the administration’s requested fiscal year 2012 budget, which asks for authorisation to provide $36 billion in loan guarantees to the nuclear sector.
“It seems a clean energy standard is an ideal place to make [expansion of nuclear power] a reality,” said Elizabeth Horwitz, policy advisor, clean energy programme of centrist think-tank Third Way. “I think we’re in a moment where everyone is asking the same question.”
Nuclear power currently supplies about 20% of US electricity, but no additional plants have been built since the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in Pennsylvania in 1979.
Nuclear revival slows in US
Hope for a revival of the US nuclear industry “probably has been slowed down by the recent events in Japan”, Congressman John Garamendi (D-California) said at the International Emissions Trading Association’s Carbon Forum North America conference in Washington, DC last week.
Germany has suspended its oldest nuclear generators, while Italy has imposed a one-year moratorium on building any nuclear plants. China’s Five Year Plan sets a target of 43GW by the end of 2015, but last week the government suspended approvals for new nuclear plants until safety rules are reassessed.
Opinion polls have shown dwindling support for increased use of nuclear power in the US after the ongoing nuclear emergency in Japan. Currently, 39% say they favour promoting more nuclear power while 52% are opposed, compared to 47% in favour and 47% opposed last October, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.
In light of the accident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will conduct stress tests at all 104 US nuclear plants to examine their vulnerabilities and correct any deficiencies. About one fifth of the US facilities use the same model as the damaged reactor in Japan.
“The US industry is justifiably proud of a 30-year safety record,” said Richard Caperton, policy analyst for progressive think tank the Center for American Progress. “But there is always a risk that something bad can happen.”
A CES, which would allow utilities to trade credits generated from clean energy sources to meet the target, was on thin ice even before the nuclear accident, amid the partisan divide in the current Congress.
“This certainly does not improve the situation for including nuclear in a clean energy standard,” Caperton said.
Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico) and ranking member Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) released a white paper this week soliciting comments on key questions and the potential designs elements of a CES (see box. right). Responses are due 11 April.
CES already a remote prospect
A more conservative House of Representatives generally opposed to government mandates makes any chance of action remote, although some House Republicans say they are willing to consider a CES.
“I’m not sure we need any kind of an energy standard, but I think myself and others would be willing to look at it,” said Joe Barton (R-Texas). “It depends on what the definition of clean is and I think any definition should include clean coal, nuclear and natural gas.”
“I don’t hold up much hope for the Congress to move forward on clean energy standards or feed-in tariffs,” Garamendi said.
And the nuclear accident has emboldened anti-nuclear legislators such as Congressman Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who has proposed a moratorium on new nuclear facilities in seismically active areas, and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has long advocated for the Indian Point nuclear facility to be shut down over safety issues and its proximity to New York City.
“Certainly, you see people digging in their heels,” Caperton said.
What is clear is that the chances of achieving Obama’s target will be difficult without nuclear power. The US currently derives about 40% of its power from clean energy sources (including natural gas, renewables and nuclear), but would need a large increase in wind and solar, clean coal and some fraction coming from nuclear power, Chu said.
“It would certainly make it harder,” he said, if nuclear was to be excluded.
By. Gloria Gonzalez