When asked about their views on nuclear power, President Obama and his advisers say they support it. "I believe in nuclear power as a central part of our energy mix," Energy Secretary Steven Chu recently told Congress.
The phrase, both inclusive and relatively vague, has its advantages. But now on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, there are growing doubts over just how much the Obama administration really means it.
The first telling sign came in the stimulus debate, when a push to include tens of billions of dollars in insurance for new nuclear reactors failed. Then, the Obama administration came out this month against storing nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.
Now, a third front, with far-reaching consequences, is about to open up. The Senate Energy Committee will begin debating an ambitious bill next week that could, among other things, decide whether nuclear power will be treated as a renewable energy source. Democrats are pushing for it to include a national "Renewable Electricity Standard" that would require utilities to generate a significant percentage of their electricity from renewable sources, including wind, solar, and geothermal. Under the current proposal, nuclear energy would not qualify.
These moves are provoking testy criticism from pro-nuke Republicans, who are fully aware of the powerful market boost such a rule would have for nuclear were it included. Meanwhile, in utility boardrooms, people are asking, "Where is the administration on this?" says Marvin Fertel, the Nuclear Energy Institute's president.
This debate is not just a partisan one. In fact, it's setting off something of a regional clash, with a particularly loud cry coming from the Southeast, where state officials say that the rules could punish their region, which is not well situated to take advantage of most kinds of alternative energy. "It's going to be hot as blazes here come July and August, but we're still not going to be a great solar resource," says Stan Wise, a Georgia public service commissioner. "Give us credit for the new nukes we are going to build."
Even Democrats are arguing among themselves over how much to support nuclear energy. Few are flat-out opposed to nuclear, the country's leading source of low carbon-emitting electricity, but many prefer to support true renewables. And as Wise, who recently testified before the House, says, "I got a hint of support from some of the moderate Democrats. My concern is, can they stand up to their committee chairs and this powerful agenda?"
Pushing back, Chu and congressional Democrats say the criticism is overblown. Yucca Mountain, they note, had been so controversial that it was unlikely ever to get built. A comprehensive energy bill could include the industry's coveted loans. And a renewable standard, they say, is supposed to be for renewables; nuclear can get help elsewhere. "The policy that would do the nuclear industry the most good would be federal legislation that would cap emissions," says Tom Cochran, former director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's nuclear program. "It would actually change the underlying economic competitiveness of nuclear." Of course, getting a climate change bill through Congress won't be an easy task, either.