Bipartisan legislation supporting advanced nuclear technology may someday be viewed as the missing piece to the low-carbon technology puzzle that Congress has been painstakingly putting together for the past decade — but without the mind-blowing multitrillion-dollar cost of the Green New Deal.
The march to find technological ways to combat growing emissions that cause climate change started in earnest in 2009, when the Obama administration’s $800 billion stimulus package included $90 billion for investments in renewable fuels, a smart grid, electric cars, better batteries and other miscellany.
This spending was basically a “green new deal” by itself. A decade later, American wind capacity has tripled, solar has increased sixfold and the number of electric vehicles has increased from practically zero to 1 million.
But on the negative side, the U.S. fuel mix — the amount of fossil fuels used as a percentage of total energy consumption — has remained steady at about 80 percent, even with the tens of billions of dollars invested in renewables. Additionally, any positive political benefits from the stimulus spending was undermined by its single-party support and the larger failures of the legislation. For instance Solyndra — a solar panel company that took over $500 million in federal funding before going bankrupt in 2012 — became the posterchild of green crony capitalism and poor public infrastructure design.
While Solyndra was bad, the Green New Deal calls for an electrical-grid taxpayer investment of a cool $5.4 trillion — that’s trillion with a ‘T.’ Given the current level of trust Americans have in their political institutions, did anyone really doubt that a public spending proposal this massive would sour the electorate on any top-down investment in green positional goods?
That’s where the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act (NELA) comes in — and why it is both different and better than the Green New Deal. This bill, sponsored by Senate Energy Committee Chair Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and ranking member Joe Manchin of West Virginia, represents a bipartisan effort that builds on the foundation of two companion nuclear bills signed into law last September and January.
These earlier laws opened the door to advanced nuclear reactor regulation by federal authorities. NELA takes things a step further by ordering the Department of Energy to develop a 10-year strategic plan to support advanced nuclear research and development goals.
In technical terms, “advanced nuclear” means smaller, safer reactors that use different mediums to control nuclear reactions. In economic terms, advanced nuclear allows private capital to invest in nuclear technology with less fear of major liability while allowing utilities to upgrade 60-year-old technology with new fission technology that creates less nuclear waste and can shut down by itself.
Nuclear power currently supplies about 20 percent of U.S. electricity but is headed for permanent decline. American engineers and designers have good ideas but not enough resources to figure out a way for the industry to better compete with cheaper fuels like natural gas, which is less polluting, or wind and solar, which remains heavily subsidized by the government.
That’s a problem, because despite the claims that the Green New Deal will effortlessly decarbonize the U.S. economy by 2030, most serious minds disagree. Obama’s Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, former NASA scientist James Hansen, and Columbia University’s Earth Institute Director Jeffrey Sachs, to name just a few luminaries, believe a low-carbon economy that reverses global emissions growth by midcentury cannot exist without major growth in nuclear power.
NELA itself does things to benefit the marketplace for nuclear power, like extending power purchasing authority for the federal government from 10 to 40 years. These long-term agreements act as collateral for startup companies to apply for financing from banks or hedge funds. NELA also orders the DOE to build a new fast-neutron research facility by 2025 that tests new reactor technology and advanced nuclear fuels.
Currently, the only places capable of this testing are located in Russia and China, two competing nuclear powers that force American nuclear scientists to wait in line for experiments — and have the potential to cancel visas and block or steal research at any time.
Reasonable people no longer argue about whether climate change exists, but rather over what remedies are needed and on what scale. The biggest failure by Green New Deal-promotors is their inability to see what major benefits new nuclear reactor technology can bring to the zero-carbon energy table.
In Congress, 15 senators from both parties see a future for nuclear in America that hasn’t yet reached the general public. Let’s all root for bipartisanship so that Congress can reinvigorate nuclear technology aimed at solving some of our most difficult problems.
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