Monday, January 17, 2011

The Change in Congress:

What it Means for Nuclear Power

Many people in the nuclear industry are looking to the new Congress and hoping for action in some key areas to help jump-start the nuclear industry.

Having lived and worked inside the Beltway for more years than I care to admit to any more, I'd like to caution everyone that the Washington scene is extraordinarily complicated. There's an old saying around town that people who like sausage or the law should not watch either one being made. (In researching that saying, I see that a version of it was originally attributed to Bismarck, so it isn't only a Washington phenomena.) I am reminded of that saying whenever I try to assess the prospects for nuclear in the new Congress. Especially now.

Here are a few of the relevant factors in play right now:

• It is true that the Republicans have traditionally been more bullish on nuclear power, but the nuclear issue has never divided neatly along party lines, and today, the party lines are blurring even more on this issue.

• Even granting that the Republicans may be somewhat more favorable to nuclear power, there are at least two other traditional Republican positions that tend to push Republicans in other directions--first, they are not as convinced, as a group, of the connection between man-made carbon emissions and global warming, and they do not favor many of the policies, such as cap-and-trade, that have been proposed to reduce carbon emissions; and second, their commitment to less government interference in the marketplace makes them less favorable to some of the government support mechanisms that have been proposed for nuclear power, as well as for other energy technologies.

• Overlaid on all this is the concern about the Federal deficit, which will make new funding for anything even more difficult than otherwise.

• The Republicans have control only of the House of Representatives. They have gained seats in the Senate, but do not control it. Therefore, to the extent that issues do split along party lines, the Republicans are not necessarily going to be able to get the votes they need in the Senate to pass legislation they favor, nuclear or otherwise. And even if they can gain passage of some legislation, they certainly would have difficulty pulling together a veto-proof majority on most issues.

• At worst, this is likely to mean gridlock for 2 years. The best hope is that it will lead to compromise, but deals struck in smoke-filled rooms (even if they are now technically smoke-free) can sometimes take very unexpected turns. Many times, some totally unrelated issue will end up driving a decision on a nuclear issue. And frankly, outside a small cadre of people, the issue of nuclear power isn't first on very many people's lists. When it comes to compromise, even a pet nuclear project has sometimes been tossed for a bigger pet of some other type--a judgeship, an earmark, or whatever. Here's where the law is like sausage being made.

So, I am neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the prospects for nuclear power in the new Congress. Others, such as Matt Wald, have also indicated that the shift in power is only a part of the picture. The decisions that emerge will less likely reflect the shift in politics than it will the economy, the budget, the price of alternatives...and the bargains struck in the halls of Congress.



  1. From the article: ". . .and second, their commitment to less government interference in the marketplace makes them less favorable to some of the government support mechanisms that have been proposed for nuclear power, as well as for other energy technologies."

    So, don't ask them for funding/subsidies - perhaps ask them for less government interference in the nuclear industry?

    I don't speak from any experience, but I've seen several commentators on the nuclear industry claim that a lot of the expense and risk involved in building a new nuclear power plant in the U.S. is due to too much regulation, and lots of lawsuits from anti-nuke activists.

    One example I learned of a few months ago, though it is probably well known to a lot of nuclear industry types, is the Shoreham Nuclear Power Plant, which after investors spent $6 Billion to build, and with it not exhibiting any safety issues, was shutdown and torn down without ever having operated at full power, because the New York Governor 'vetoed' the plant at the 11th hour, by refusing to sign off on an emergency evacuation plan.

    How ridiculous is that?

    So, if you can't get funding for nuclear, from the GOP, try to get regulatory reform, perhaps?

  2. As you point out, the GOP still harbours some climate change sceptics: politicians who will dismiss science when it is inconvenient. If they are
    (currently) pro-nuclear for cynical reasons, that doesn't inspire confidence that they will make sound decisions regarding climate change in general.
    Basing decisions on the available empirical evidence is what matters; policies which coincidentally support carbon output reduction wouldn't be anything worth celebrating.