Nuclear energy gets place at climate change table

Posted Aug. 02, 2009, at 6:56 p.m.

In the congressional debate over climate change legislation, nuclear energy has been getting plenty of attention.

There is a reason for this. In an effort to get undecided senators to vote for the climate bill, Senate Democratic leaders indicated they might be willing to increase incentives for the construction of new nuclear plants.

A sense of urgency is evident in this offer. Failure to pass climate legislation would deal a severe blow to ongoing efforts to reach a binding agreement on combating global warming when world leaders meet in Copenhagen in December.

However, if Congress approves legislation that would make a meaningful difference in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, with nuclear energy playing a key role, it would be a telling argument for getting nonparticipating countries such as China and India to join in. Major developing countries need to reduce their emissions. The International Energy Agency estimates they will account for 85 percent of the increase in greenhouse emissions in future years. Therefore, if they continue to pollute, any reduction in emissions by industrialized countries will be canceled out.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., who leads the Republican Policy Group, called for constructing 100 nuclear plants in 20 years. Other key Republicans, including Arizona Sen. John McCain, said they favored the idea. But when Senate Democratic leaders indicated they might agree to increased financial incentives for construc-tion of a new generation of nuclear plants, Alexander and other Republicans backed off. Alexander said no amount of nuclear incentives would tempt him to support a climate bill that involved “cap-and-trade.”

Cap-and-trade is a market-based system that has succeeded in curtailing acid rain, and it’s also being used to control mercury emissions from coal plants. Under a House-passed bill, cap-and-trade would bring about a shift from carbon-intensive fossil fuels to low-carbon energy sources, notably renewables and nuclear power, with the goal of achieving an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

The House bill is not perfect. It would create a clean energy bank to provide loan guarantees for advanced energy technologies, including nuclear power. Loan guarantees are essential, due to the high capital cost of building power plants, particularly nuclear plants. Without loan guarantees, few if any utilities would be able to get private financing from Wall Street banks. But the House bill would restrict nuclear’s share of loan guarantees to 30 percent of the total. That ceiling would allow for construction of only a few nuclear plants, not enough plants to replace older reactors that need to be retired, let alone enough to meet a projected increase in electricity demand or reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

The Department of Energy has said that at least 60 nuclear plants would need to be added by 2030 in order to reduce emissions to acceptable levels. Energy Secretary Steven Chu and White House science adviser John Holdren have emphasized the importance of including nuclear power in a mix of low-carbon energy sources.

It would be bad for the United States — and the world — if Congress fails to approve climate change legislation. Five months remain until negotiators meet in Copenhagen. The Senate should not allow partisan politics to block passage of this necessary measure. The danger of runaway climate change is real and alarming.

Donald A. Grant is professor emeritus of mechanical engineering at the University of Maine.

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