Probably more than the last five administrations, including the present one. That’s because nuclear energy can’t shine on the climate and low-carbon front until we actually have a climate plan we follow, something that has been lacking.
As the Democratic Convention begins today, it is good to remember that all the leading climate scientists say we cannot address climate change without significant nuclear power, so supporting nuclear power – or not – is a clear signal about how serious a candidate is about climate change and how serious they are about supporting science over mere activism.
The idea that Republican Administrations are pro-nuclear and Democratic ones are anti-nuclear is one of those enduring myths, like the idea that Republicans are better for the economy than Democrats. When either party had control of Washington in the last 40 years, neither did anything great for nuclear power.
That’s because nuclear has no real constituency. There’s no West Virginia like there is for coal, no Texas like there is for oil, no Pennsylvania like there is for natural gas, and no national environmental movement like there is for wind and solar. Nuclear has always been a national asset, and now it’s suffering from hostile regional forces and a fractured Nation unable to make important national decisions.
That said, there has been some recent political and legislative movement on nuclear energy, including passage of the Nuclear Energy Leadership Act, Lifting of the Prohibition on Nuclear Funding, adoption of the Democrat’s America’s Newest Climate Plan that includes nuclear, and DOE’s funding of the Advancing Nuclear Research initiative and the Advanced Reactor Demonstration Project.
The fact that Joe Biden has a $2 trillion climate plan that includes nuclear power means that things might actually move forward when he is elected – depending on what happens with the Senate.
In particular, Biden’s plan calls for development of small modular reactors, specifically because SMRs are ideal for load-following or backing up wind, even better than natural gas. The Plan calls for “leveraging the carbon-pollution free energy provided by existing sources like nuclear and hydropower.”
The Plan also calls to “Create a Advanced Research Projects Agency on Climate, a new, cross-agency ARPA-C to target affordable, game-changing technologies to help America achieve our 100% clean energy target, including… advanced nuclear reactors, that are smaller, safer, and more efficient at half the construction cost of today’s reactors”
Many are questioning how much Biden’s VP choice, Kamala Harris, supports his plan for nuclear. In one of the few insights into her thoughts on the subject, when she was asked “Do you support the use of nuclear energy?” she answered, “Yes, temporarily while we increase investment into cleaner renewable alternatives.”
Not the most ringing endorsement, but now that she is hooked up with the ticket, it’s likely she will endorse Biden’s plan. The Democratic Party Platform, still in draft form, also calls for a technology-neutral approach, including new and existing nuclear, so again, she is likely to adopt that as well. Note that most of the platform discussion of nuclear involves weapons, threats and denuclearization of places like the Korean Peninsula.
There is no specific call for carbon pricing or Cap&Trade that is really needed to support nuclear along with all non-fossil sources, so I’m not sure how to get this kick-started economically. But Biden’s Plan does call for various tax incentives and credits for clean energy, carbon capture and electric vehicles, that are similar.
And the Party Platform mentions “applying a carbon adjustment fee at the border to products from countries that fail to live up to their commitments under the Paris Climate Agreement, because we won’t let polluters undermine American competitiveness.”
Since Biden will rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, things are bound to evolve.
Besides, if democrats want any clean energy plan to succeed at all, it better include nuclear. All one has to do is look at last week’s rolling blackouts in California to see the effect of having too much renewables relative to baseload when extreme weather hits. Whether it’s a heat wave, a polar vortex or hurricanes, nuclear is always able to avoid catastrophe as it keeps on providing power as these events wreak havoc on renewables.
In a section of Biden’s plan labelled Identify The Future Of Nuclear Energy, the plan says Americans “must look at all low- and zero-carbon technologies. That’s why Biden will support a research agenda to look at issues, ranging from cost to safety to nuclear waste disposal systems, that remain an ongoing challenge with nuclear power today.” Not that safety is a problem with nuclear.
A good big-picture look at Biden’s various proposals, including his climate and energy plans, is given by K&L Gates.
There are other political forces that affect nuclear energy in this election. Professor Aseem Prakash and colleagues at the University of Washington looked at how Labor Unions view the Green New Deal as an indicator of Democratic support for these plans, since unions have been a backbone of the Democratic Party since they formed.
They found that 40 of the 50 unions studied had not taken a position on the GND, probably because of internal tensions between union members concerning jobs versus the environment. Many members consider that too strong environmental regulations drove many union jobs out of the country.
Of the remaining 10 unions, 7 support the Green New Deal and 3 oppose it.
The Democratic ticket touts high-paying green jobs, even though almost all jobs in the energy sector are high-paying, with nuclear paying the highest and generating more jobs than any other energy source.
And there is definitely a generational divide on these issues. Since 2016, young people overwhelmingly favor Democrats because of environment issues like global warming, coal use and new oil pipelines.
Surveys of attitudes towards nuclear power indicate a general favorability of all age groups, but males aged 18-34 have the highest approval at 73% (see figure).
Nationally, voters aged 18 to 39 have nearly tripled their early voting rate since 2014. That’s increased their share of the early vote by more than three percentage points.
The early voting share of voters aged 50 to 64, meanwhile, has fallen by more than 2.5 percentage points. The share of those 65 and older has fallen nearly five points.
These numbers are not lost on the 2020 presidential candidates and is probably one reason why President Trump is attempting to undermine the U.S. Postal Service and block early voting.
So expect an up-turn in nuclear energy in a Biden-Harris Administration.