Obama Nuclear Energy Push

Matthew Lebovitz
March 16, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: Image of now-closed Nuclear Power Plant in San Onofre, California. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Since President Barack Obama's re-election in 2012, he has made a push to increase the amount of nuclear energy in the United States. In his administration's 2012 budget proposal, Obama included a request for money to help develop small "modular" reactors that would supply energy to a government lab. What are small modular reactors (SMRs)? Small reactors are defined by the International Atomic Energy Agency as those with an electricity output of less than 300 MWe. Modular reactors are created at a plant and brought to the site fully constructed. They require less construction on site and heightened nuclear materials.


Why did Obama push for these reactors in his 2012 proposal? His short-term goal was to help the Energy Department meet a federal target for reducing its carbon dioxide emissions, putting focus on clean energy and less on gas and coal. The Energy Department, like other federal departments, must reduce its carbon footprint by 28% by 2020, according to an executive order. [1] His long-term goal was to allow assembly-line production of small reactors at less of a cost compared to the construction of conventional reactors. These reactors would then replace old coal power plans that do not meet federal emissions regulations. The construction of a modular reactor ranges form a cost of a few hundred million dollars to $2 billion. In comparison, a twin-unit nuclear complex can have a price tag of up to $10 billion. The output is 20 times larger for a twin- unit complex compared to a modular reactor. [1]

Reasons Behind the Push

Changes in electicity markets and expensive repairs resulted in the retirement of Dominion Resources' Kewaunee plant in Wisconsin, Duke Energy Corp's Crystal River plant in Florida, Edison International's San Onofre plant in California, and the Yankee nuclear plant in Vermont. [2] Included in this report is a picture of one of these now closed plants, specifically the San Onofre plant in California. (See Fig 1.) These big nuclear plants just cost too much money. But the Obama administration is still committed to nuclear energy. On September 30, 2014, the Department of Energy announced as much as $12,6 billion in loan guarantees could be extended to help finance the next generation of nuclear energy technologies. Small modular reactors are among these technologies. The push for Nuclear Energy in the Obama Administration exists because of the need to combat climate change. During his State of the Union address in January of 2014, Obama stated, "But the debate is settled. Climate change is a fact. And when our children's children look us in the eye and ask if we did all we could to leave them a safe, more stable world, with new sources of energy, I want us to be able to say yes, we did." [3]

© Matthew Lebovitz. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] M Wald, "Administration to Push for Small Modular Reactors," New York Times, 12 Feb 11.

[2] J. Levitz and R. Smith, "Vermont Nuclear Power Plant Shut Down as Industry Evolves," Wall Street Journal, 29 Dec 14.

[3] "Obama's State of the Union 2015 Transcript," New York Times, 20 Jan 15.