Monday, December 31, 2007

Will the next president support nuclear energy?

The answers are yes, maybe, and absolutely not

[Hat tip to Lane Allgood, Partnership for Science & Technology]

Presidential candidates facing the Iowa caucuses next week are probably happy that a least one potentially contentious issue isn't on the agenda there. Because there is only one commercial nuclear power plant in Iowa, the subject rarely comes up. However, that hasn't stopped candidates in both parties from sounding off on nuclear energy and global warming even if they are speaking out of both sides of their mouths at least some of the time.

In most cases the candidates are appealing in the primaries to the most committed members of their parties. Sometimes the candidates follow the approach of "kiss a frog and hope for a princess." They try out an idea and wait to see what happens. It follows that anything the candidates say about nuclear energy during the primaries is at best is a trial balloon and doesn't represent a line in the sand. There is one exception.

The Los Angeles Times has a roundup of recent statements by democrats and republicans, but only one candidate, John Edwards, a democrat, has taken an unequivocal position against nuclear energy. In doing so he's clearly appealing to the greenest and most fervently anti-nuclear factions in the Democrat party's environmental wing. The LA Times reports,

Only former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina flatly opposes construction of new nuclear plants. Edwards says that concerns about safety in disposing radioactive waste form the heart of his rejection of new nuclear plants. He is unequivocal. "Would you be in favor of developing more nuclear power here in the United States?" someone asked him in Hanover, N.H. "No," Edwards answered. "Period?" the man persisted. "No," Edwards repeated.

It's not a new position. Last July he made similar statements as part of a debate forum. In response to a question from the audience, Edwards said he does not favor nuclear energy citing cost, time, and waste management concerns. Here's a video clip from that debate.

By comparison, the two front runners, New York Senator Hilary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama have been much more positive to varying degrees. Both Senators comes from states with significant nuclear energy infrastructure in them. The LA Times reports classic "keeping my options open" rhetoric from them.

Among the leading Democratic candidates, Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois hold similar positions. Though they have voted for legislation that includes loan guarantees for the nuclear industry, both say that federal subsidies have been tilted for too long toward fossil fuels and nuclear power and should focus on renewable energy sources like solar and wind. Yet both say that new nuclear power cannot be ruled out.

At a South Carolina rally, Clinton said: "I think nuclear power has to be part of our energy solution. . . . I don't have any preconceived opposition. I just want to be sure that we do it right, as carefully as we can."

Obama, whose home state has 11 nuclear power plants, the biggest concentration in the country, said while campaigning in New Hampshire: "I don't think we can take nuclear power off the table." If the nation can resolve the waste and safety issues, he said, "then we should pursue it, and if we can't, we should not."

The LA Times reports that Republican candidates, by contrast, urge a speedup and play down concerns. According to the newspaper, Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas said, "There's been a real bias against nuclear energy in the United States, going all the way back to Three Mile Island in 1979, but I think most of it is unfounded."

The LA Times also has these quick hits on the other republicans.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani told the newspaper that his work as a private consultant for Entergy Corp.'s Indian Point nuclear power plant convinced him that it can be made secure. Elliot Spitzer, the current governor, disagrees and is trying to close the place down.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson represented Westinghouse Electric Co. in its bid to build a federally subsidized nuclear plant in the 1970s. The project was killed in 1984.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said he favors developing nuclear power "in a more aggressive way" during a campaign stop in Portsmouth, N.H. He added that this country can learn to reprocess the spent fuel, as the French do. There is no hint his statement had anything to do with French President Nicolas Sarkozy's vacation trip to New Hampshire last summer. Sarkozy made a positive and lasting impression on the people of New Hampshire, a key primary state, so wrapping yourself in anything from France while speaking in that state is a smart move for a presidential candidate.

NEI publishes key nuclear energy statements

The Nuclear Energy Institute published a set of key quotes for each of the candidates in a newsletter to its members in early December and there is this interesting comment on the practical nature of the organization's politics provided by the LA Times.

"We don't really care how we get there. We're dancing with different partners, but it doesn't matter what music is played." -- John Keeley, a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute

The Quotes Themselves

Hillary Clinton: "When it comes to nuclear power, I'm an agnostic. We've got two big problems: What to do with waste? And how do we afford to build and maintain nuclear power plants? If we can deal with those two big question marks, I'm not against it."

John Edwards:
"Wind, solar, cellulose-based biofuels are the way we need to go. I do not favor nuclear power.....It is extremely costly...and we still don't have a safe way to dispose of the nuclear waste."

Barack Obama:
"Nuclear power is one of the few emissions-free energy sources available to us....I am open to the use of nuclear power production as a transition to new energy technologies, but I think answers to a variety of safety questions, such as how we are going to transport and dispose of nuclear waste safely, are required."

Bill Richardson: "The future in nuclear power is one that has to be on the table....Because nuclear power emits hardly any greenhouse emissions, and because its technology is improved, you have to look at it as an option."

Rudy Giuliani: “We’re going to have to find a way to expand nuclear power, because it’s one of the ways in which we can give ourselves [energy] independence and also not have it impact on the environment, on pollution, global warming – the things that concern people.”

John McCain:
“The fact is, nuclear energy is clean. It produces zero emissions in operations. It has the lowest carbon footprint and is, therefore, undeniably a valuable tool for reining in greenhouse gas emissions both quickly and economically.”

Mitt Romney:
“We’re using too much oil. We have an answer. We can use alternative sources of energy – biodiesel, ethanol, nuclear power – and we can still drill for more oil here. We can be more energy independent and we can be far more efficient in the use of that energy.”

Fred Thompson:
“I am committed to investing in renewable and alternative fuels to promote greater energy independence and a cleaner environment, [and] an energy policy that invests in the advanced technologies of tomorrow and places more emphasis on conservation and energy efficiency.”

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1 comment:

Kirk Sorensen said...

Hillary Clinton: "When it comes to nuclear power, I'm an agnostic. We've got two big problems: What to do with waste? And how do we afford to build and maintain nuclear power plants? If we can deal with those two big question marks, I'm not against it."

These are legitimate questions, in my opinion, and both can be answered through the use of liquid-fluoride reactors running on thorium.

A fraction of the waste of conventional reactors, and that waste is fission products instead of transuranics.

A fraction of the complexity and risk of light-water reactors, through the use of reactor vessels that operate at atmospheric pressure without water in the core, and have a completely passive and safe response to reactivity transients and loss of decay heat removal.