By Max Schulz
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Wednesday, December 19, 2007 7:29 PM
Nuclear power is on the verge of a renaissance in the United States. Though there hasn't been a new nuclear plant licensed and built in over 30 years, the nation's de facto ban on nuclear power expansion is coming to an end. The nuclear industry reports there are 17 companies and consortiums pursuing licenses to build more than 30 new nuclear reactors. Construction on the first of these could begin within a few years.
If any of these plants actually gets built and the nuclear revival comes to pass, no small part of the credit will be due an unlikely source: liberal Democrats. The recent push for nuclear power couldn't have occurred if not for a softening of the reflexive opposition to nuclear power that has long been a staple of liberal and Democratic political orthodoxy.
The attitude toward nuclear power in leftwing quarters has changed in a relatively short time. The 1984 Democratic Party platform, for instance, "strongly oppose[d] the Reagan Administration's policy of aggressively promoting" nuclear power. The 2004 party platform, on the other hand, limited its comment merely to opposing the siting of a nuclear waste dump in Nevada.
Meanwhile prominent Democrats of all stripes are expressing openness to the possibility that nuclear power should play a significant role in the nation's energy future. The moderate Democratic Leadership Committee issued a report praising nuclear power's "great potential to be an integral part" of America's diversified energy portfolio. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Senator Dianne Feinstein, and presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Chris Dodd have each made cautious statements favorable to nuclear power. Even Al Gore, though hardly a proponent, makes sure to signal that he is "not reflexively antinuclear."
While it is far too early to say that a significant number of Democrats are decidedly in favor of nuclear power, the fact that growing numbers of party leaders are not necessarily hostile is still significant. So what accounts for the breakdown in the once-unified Democratic front against atomic energy?
There are two answers, one obvious, the other less explicit. The first is climate change. As the Democratic Party rallies around global warming as a signature issue, it gets harder to ignore the only technology capable of generating large volumes of baseload power while producing no greenhouse gas emissions.
The second factor is a growing recognition, if not exactly acknowledged, that the renewable energy sources prized by liberals are incapable of meeting a significant portion of America's future energy needs, especially if projected increases in demand pan out. Despite billions of dollars in government subsidies for wind and solar power over nearly four decades, these technologies produce less than one percent of America's electricity. Worse, electricity from these sources is intermittent and unreliable. Windmills and solar panels might improve from "negligible" to "marginal" in terms of their contribution to future energy production, but they won't supplant heavy hitters like coal, natural gas and nukes.
Not every major Democratic officeholder is on board the nuclear train. New York Governor Eliot Spitzer has come out against the re-licensing of the two reactors at Indian Point, a nuclear plant about 30 miles north of Manhattan. The governor claims the facility is vulnerable to terrorist attack and incapable of withstanding potential earthquakes. Moreover, he says, there is no clear evacuation plan for the millions of residents who live nearby in the event of a catastrophe.
It should be pointed out, however, that the plant has operated safely and without incident since its 1974 opening, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency approved a post-9/11 evacuation plan in 2003. The final say rests with the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which will take two years to decide. Still, the call to close Indian Point would seem to put Governor Spitzer in something of a bind. It is one thing to espouse a general opposition to nuclear power -- as many Democrats still do -- but quite another to oppose an existing nuclear plant while bearing some responsibility for providing credible replacements to make up for the lost power.
Closing Indian Point would remove 2,000 megawatts at a time when the operator of the state's electricity grid says more power is needed in the next few years just to keep the lights on. Renewables are unlikely to pick up the slack. Indian Point's reactors generate more than five times as much electricity as all 390 of New York's windmills can on their best day.
Add to this the fact the Spitzer administration is committing New York to a key role in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multi-state compact designed to force significant greenhouse gas cuts. New York's five nuclear reactors don't just provide 30 percent of the state's electricity, they also avoid the release of more than 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Shuttering Indian Point would it make considerably harder to reduce emissions levels as part of RGGI.
This is no longer the 1970s, when the fashion was to shout slogans and protest nuclear power plants in a bid to close them. With his opposition to Indian Point, Governor Spitzer, leader of what is arguably the most important state in the Union, looks increasingly anachronistic compared to fellow Democrats who are warming to nuclear energy's potential. Let's hope more Democrats resist the temptation to follow Spitzer and turn back the clock on nuclear power.
Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute