Upcoming Decisions on US Nuclear Program

March 16, 2011

Will the events in Japan cause a rethinking of US nuclear energy policy?

The United States under the Obama administration and the Democrat-led 111th Congress has already made serious re-commitments to nuclear power as part of the domestic energy mix and a response to the greenhouse warming caused by fossil fuels. Most significant, perhaps, were tens of billions of dollars worth of loan guarantees for construction of the first new nukes in a generation. The loan guarantees are necessary because the free market regards nuclear plants as too risky to invest in. Solar and alternative energy does not receive this level of federal subsidy. Despite the availability of the pre-approved federal bailout, new nuclear construction has yet to start.

The question remains: will the newly budget-conscious GOP-dominated 112th Congress fund all the nuclear loan guarantees currently available or in the pipeline?

The much-touted "nuclear renaissance" (a term coined in a multimillion-dollar PR campaign by the industry's lobby arm, the Nuclear Energy Institute) also depends on issuance by the NRC of licenses for new US nukes. This has not happened yet — although applications are now before the NRC.

The NRC expects to decide by late summer on approval of Westinghouse's AP1000 reactor design, which would then be the basis of several new reactor licensing decisions.

But the signals from the Obama administration — even after the Japan meltdown — are that it will push forward with its nuclear plans, despite budget deficits and safety perils. It is one of the few Obama policies that gets strong support from the GOP.