NUCLEAR: Environmental groups rethink power source, sort of

Darren Samuelsohn, ClimateWire senior reporter

Facing what some say is the nation's most serious environmental challenge -- the man-made emissions that are accelerating climate change -- environmental groups have been slow to change their long-held opposition to nuclear power. While nuclear is currently the biggest source of electricity that does not emit greenhouse gases, many environmental leaders remain unimpressed.

What is looming this year is a variation of a legislative push that splintered environmental groups three years ago on Senate global warming legislation. When the bill's sponsors included hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies to help with the construction of three new nuclear power plants, many environmental groups switched to the opposition and helped defeat it.

But two of the largest groups, the National Wildlife Federation and Environmental Defense Fund, bucked their movement's long-held anti-nuclear dogma and supported the bill with the nuclear incentives. They explained their shift by saying it was more important to see Senate action on a significant piece of climate legislation than to see no action.

By contrast, most of their colleagues challenged the bill, which was introduced by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). And when the Senate floor vote came, the Sierra Club, U.S. PIRG and other green groups had convinced four Democratic senators to vote against the climate bill because of where it went on nuclear power.

In a recent interview, former Lieberman aide Tim Profeta said the pro-nuclear subsidies nearly caused an even larger number of his boss' supporters to abandon the bill. "It could have been much more," he recalled.

Fast forward to 2008: Environmental groups and their allies again face a dilemma about how to address the nuclear industry within a Senate bill from Lieberman and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.).

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club, said the nation's biggest green groups are united this time. They are against giving the nuclear industry any big breaks.

"There's no substantial split on what this bill should say," Pope said. "We opposed the final version of McCain-Lieberman because it had excessive subsidies. There were some groups who supported it. But there are no groups saying that should be imported back into this bill."

"That was then," Pope added. "And now is now."
'Nuclear has to be on the table'

Environmental groups have spent decades campaigning against nuclear power and against a permanent solution to storage of nuclear wastes. It is an organizational issue, one that has helped many of them raise money and fatten their membership lists.

Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace who now works with the nuclear industry's Nuclear Energy Institute, said Pope's group is beginning to rethink its previous anti-nuke stand. "We know there's an internal discussion in the Sierra Club, right up to the top, as to how they should deal with this issue."

Josh Dorner, a spokesman for the Sierra Club, said that is "patently untrue." Sierra's "membership and leadership remain as opposed to nuclear energy as ever. Nuclear energy remains completely unaffordable without billions in subsidies from the taxpayers every year," he added.

Still, facing the challenge of climate change, leaders of some of the country's biggest groups are slowly making a rhetorical shift away from an absolute "no" on nukes.

"Given the size of the problem, nuclear has to be on the table," asserted Tony Kreindler, a spokesman at Environmental Defense Fund. "You can't take it off the table."

Environmental advocates like Kreindler acknowledge that carbon limits will, in themselves, be a benefit for nuclear power. They see that, in some ways, as a handy defense tactic that can be used to counter the argument of nuclear industry officials who are seeking more legislative incentives.

Kevin Knobloch, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists, said he too would welcome the nuclear industry in helping to deal with global warming.

"The science of climate change is so distressing that we're going to need virtually every tool in the toolbox," Knobloch said. "I'd like to see nuclear be a contender for a piece of the emission reduction pie."

But Knobloch's endorsement comes loaded with nuance. He can tick off a number of problems that the industry has not dealt with over the last 30 years since the near meltdown at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. "It's hard to see how they can get the job done," he said.

Other environmentalists still flatly doubt the economic viability of the industry, which now produces 20 percent of the nation's electricity.

"I have a wonderful nuclear amendment I'd really like to see," said the Sierra Club's Pope. "I'd like a nuclear amendment that says anyone who wants to build a nuclear power plant will do it with their own money instead of yours and mine. If you want to talk about a bubble, nuclear power is the bubble in waiting."

Gene Karpinski, executive director of the League of Conservation Voters, said the nuclear industry made out quite well in the 2005 Energy Policy Act -- thank you very much.

There, lawmakers approved billions of dollars in risk insurance, loan guarantee and research funding. The law also included major changes that will help speed up paperwork and permitting requirements -- 21 new permit applications are now working their way through the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "They don't need anything else," Karpinski said.

While NWF was one of the groups that bucked the environmental establishment in 2005, the group's president is willing to go no further. "I think nuclear has a lot of advantages right now," said Larry Schweiger. "They're coming back like they haven't for 30 years. They're hiring new engineers. It's already happening. I don't think they need any more lubricant."

Knobloch said environmental groups will fight hard against any sweeping changes proposed to the climate bill when it comes up on the Senate floor.

"I think it's fair to say that our community is unified in opposing additional subsidies or streamlining of the permitting processes for new nuclear or new reprocessing facilities because of the proliferation risks," he said. "I think you'll see, when those amendments come up, a unified front."
But models show more nuclear plants

Despite their doubts and continuing opposition, environmental groups do seem willing to accept nuclear power when it comes to their own economic modeling.

The Clean Air Task Force last fall produced a study of the Lieberman-Warner bill that predicted 104 new gigawatts (roughly 100 new plants) of nuclear capacity would be built by 2030.

"I'd be the first to say that that is on the outside the bounds of even what's technologically doable if you have a green light all the way," explained Jonathan Banks, climate policy director at the Clean Air Task Force.

But Banks also said he did not constrain nuclear power in the study, given the Energy Department's own recommendations as well as the overall shift in industry trends, which include an analysis last year from the World Nuclear Association that found 27 new gigawatts of nuclear plants proposed or on order in the United States.

Banks maintained that the Lieberman-Warner bill will have "inherent" nuclear incentives.

"Looking at nukes in this day and age and looking at nukes the day after we pass a climate policy are two different things," Banks said. "The economic incentives to build a new nuclear power plant is going to be enormous the second we pass a bill. They get a huge incentive just simply by passing a bill. It's a paradigm shift."

Just as Banks acknowledges, other studies do not come anywhere close to the environmentalists' figures.

U.S. EPA last week released an analysis of the Lieberman-Warner bill projecting 44 new gigawatts of new nuclear power by 2030. Without a U.S. climate policy, 6 gigawatts of new nuclear capacity would come online in that same time period.

Industry-funded studies also come up well shy of the environmentalists' modeling.

"In most people minds, that's highly unrealistic," said Margo Thorning, senior vice president and chief economist at the American Council for Capital Formation. "We haven't built a new nuclear power plant since '78."

Thorning's group released its own study last week that found the Lieberman-Warner bill would lead to significantly higher price projections compared to the Clean Air Task Force's findings. Her work modeled 10 to 25 gigawatts of new nuclear power.

"We thought that was a reasonable, generous assumption given all the regulations and environmental and public objection hurdles to building a new nuke plant," Thorning said.

The Electric Power Research Institute envisions nuclear power playing a role in the future mix of energy supplies. But EPRI does not offer up specific modeling predictions.

Instead, the utility industry's main research arm published a study last summer that found both nuclear power and carbon capture and storage from coal plants represent the lowest-cost energy solutions with low to zero-carbon output. To get there, however, EPRI called for the federal government to invest significant amounts of money in research and development.

"Nuclear is a great asset to have in your quiver of arrows," said Revis James, director of EPRI's energy technology assessment center.
Battle lines on the Hill

Environmental groups may have to take sides right from the start when the Senate debate begins this June on the Lieberman-Warner bill.

The two cosponsors have pledged to offer their own nuclear amendment. Details of their amendment remain under wraps, but Lieberman aides in recent weeks have started to build a case that they will not need to do too much.

Last month, a Lieberman aide explained that the bill as written does more than enough to help the nuclear industry -- especially compared with a version of the McCain-Lieberman bill that lost four votes on the Senate floor in 2005.

The Lieberman-Warner bill sends a clear signal to industry to invest in nuclear power, the aide said. And it also has a cap-and-trade system designed to raise some $500 billion over the program's lifetime for research and development into "clean energy" technologies.

Nuclear power can compete for that revenue alongside "clean coal" and renewables -- something the bill's sponsors say deserves notice. "Even if you assume that nuclear will end up getting only one-fiftieth of that money, it would still be several billions of dollars," the Lieberman aide said.

But some players in the debate are determined to push for more incentives. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said last week he planned to introduce all of the nuclear amendments that he unsuccessfully pushed in December during a markup in the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. That means votes on creating new rules on loan guarantees and improved confidence in waste storage.

Isakson would not predict the outcome of his amendments but said he would make the case that his provisions also help to address global warming. "Nuclear is a strengthening amendment, not a weakening amendment," he said.

One clear opponent is Senate Environment and Public Works Chairwoman Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who was one of the four senators the environmental groups convinced to switch her vote in 2005. Last week, Boxer threatened to pull the Lieberman-Warner bill from the floor if any "weakening" amendments get added.

Asked to size up the nuclear debate, Boxer replied, "I would view any type of amendment that eased the rules about safety and health in regard to nuclear, I'd view as a poison pill," she said. "We can't give up that kind of protection."

Without hesitation, Boxer also predicted the nuclear debate would not blow up on the Senate floor. "I think we're going to be OK on this," she said. "I just have a good feeling about it."

Christa Marshall contributed to this story.