The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Green New Deal is already sparking debate over nuclear energy

with Paulina Firozi


As Democrats last week rolled out their long-awaited Green New Deal, one of the plan's lead sponsors also released a fact sheet to explain in plain English how the United States could drive down to zero greenhouse gas emissions over the next decade.

Such explainer documents are typical when members of Congress introduce new bills. What was notable about this one was the fact sheet and the official Green New Deal resolution it was supposed to be explaining didn't see eye-to-eye on one crucial piece of the nation's energy mix: nuclear power. 

The Green New Deal "will not include investing in new nuclear power plants," read the fact sheet shared with reporters by the office of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). Another fact sheet posted on Ocasio-Cortez's website Thursday morning contained similar language.

The resolution itself, however, does not say a word about nuclear power — either for or against its inclusion in a climate change action plan. Rather, the nonbinding measure simply calls for getting 100 percent of the nation's power "through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources" over the next 10 years.

According to its backers, the Green New Deal is right now just a framework that Democrats can start debating -- one that will be filled in over time as lawmakers discuss how best to fight worsening climate change. Nuclear energy's role is one of those to-be-decided specifics.

"We've drafted it in a way which can get the support of progressives and moderates inside of our caucus," Sen. Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who is the lead sponsor of the resolution in the Senate, told reporters at a news conference Thursday. "That's how it's drafted and that's what we're already beginning to see happen."

But as the fact sheet made its way around the Internet, the exclusion of nuclear energy irritated some would-be Green New Deal supporters. By Friday, Ocasio-Cortez's office took the document down from its website.

"We just wanted to let the resolution stand on its own for now," Ocasio-Cortez spokesman Corbin Trent said.

The disagreement revived a rift among Democrats and their environmentalist allies about the role nuclear power should play in mitigating climate change. And as Democrats prepare actual Green New Deal legislation, it is also a preview of coming fights over which energy sources the federal government should support to tackle global warming.

Nuclear power has always been somewhat unpopular on the left, due to the risk of accidents like the Three Mile Island meltdown in 1979. But the growing realization of the dangers of man-made climate change has caused a bit of soul-searching among environmentalists over the issue of nuclear power.

In the United States, one in five megawatts powering homes and businesses comes from nuclear reactors. That is the single largest source of electricity in the nation that comes from power plants that do not release significant amounts of climate-warming carbon dioxide into the air.

Experts at home and abroad note the necessity of nuclear power in staving off dangerous warming. The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says more nuclear power plants are needed in most scenarios to keep warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius. Barack Obama's energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, issued a report last week urging the United States to spend more on developing the next generation of nuclear reactors.

"Nuclear has been the backbone of [the United States] carbon-free energy and will play a crucial role in meeting future climate goals," said Lindsey Walter, an energy policy advisor at the center-left think tank Third Way, which supports federal research in and tax breaks for advanced nuclear reactors.

But that low carbon source of energy is threatened by a cutthroat marketplace. Existing nuclear power is having trouble competing with cheaper forms of generation like natural gas-fired power plants. And the few new nuclear reactors being built in the United States are plagued by huge cost overruns

Nuclear lobbyists applauded the noncommittal language in the Green New Deal resolution, while simultaneously pressing for pro-nuclear language in the actual legislation.

“We commend efforts to promote the adoption of clean and zero-emission sources of electricity to address climate change," Nuclear Energy Institute president Maria Korsnick said. "Any approach to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions requires all clean energy technologies, including nuclear, to work together to address that urgent problem."

But the question facing environmentalists is whether to support efforts that seek to keep open struggling nuclear reactors that may be replaced by fossil-fuel generation. 

For example, the Union of Concerned Scientists, a longtime critic of the nuclear industry, recently came out in support of keeping existing nuclear plants open in many circumstances.

The "sobering realities" of climate change "dictate that we keep an open mind about all of the tools in the emissions reduction toolbox—even ones that are not our personal favorites," Ken Kimmell, the organization's president, wrote in a blog post last year.

Markey pointed out the tough economic headwinds faced by nuclear reactors, but said he doesn't want to see the U.S. government spend billions of dollars subsidizing them.

"Nuclear power has met its maker in the marketplace," Markey said. "We're adding no new nuclear not because of any granola-chomping protesters outside the construction site but because they're not economically viable."

Other congressional Democrats — including those who backed the Green New Deal resolution with an eye toward running for president — instead hope to revive the U.S. nuclear business, suggesting nuclear energy may become an issue in the 2020 race.

One of them is White House hopeful Cory Booker. The New Jersey Democrat has put forward many pro-nuclear bills during his time in the Senate, including the Nuclear Energy Innovation and Modernization Act. That proposal which seeks to ease the rollout advanced nuclear reactors, was just signed by President Trump last month.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) is officially running for president in 2020, joining a crowded and diverse field of Democratic candidates vying for the nomination. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

— Amy Klobuchar is running for president: Speaking from a park on the banks of the Mississippi River in the middle of a snowy scene Sunday, the Minnesota Democrat announced her candidacy and talked of plans to address climate change, pledging to “put forth sweeping legislation to invest in green jobs and infrastructure.” She vowed to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on her first day in the White House.

Trump, meanwhile, wasn’t having it: In a tweet that same day, Trump mocked Klobuchar for talking about “fighting global warming while standing in a virtual blizzard of snow,” calling it “bad timing.” As this newsletter and many, many others have pointed out before: Global warming means average global temperatures are on the rise, and a single snowy day in Minneapolis in the middle of February doesn't mean climate change is not happening.

— Trump also weighed in on the Green New Deal: And unsurprisingly, he doesn't seem to be a fan, mockingly urging Democrats on.

— EPA inspections hit decade low: The agency’s inspection rate for 2018 is half of what it was at its peak in 2010, The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis report. It’s a downward trend that started in 2012, and just one of similar declines in enforcement the EPA has experienced, according to data the agency released Friday.

By the numbers: “The number of civil cases the division started and completed in 2018 hit a 10-year low, and the $69 million in civil penalties it leveled represents the lowest in nearly a quarter-century,” they write.

Why it's happening: Recent budget cuts have contributed to the decline. And another trend toward companies audit their own operations is contributing, started during the Obama administration. “The Trump administration is obviously accelerating things and deferring to the states," said Matthew Thurlow, partner at Baker Hostetler who litigated environmental enforcement cases at the Justice Department between 2008 and 2011. "There’s more self-auditing and self-reporting going on than ever before.”

— Dems call for Bernhardt’s calendar details: House Natural Resources Chairman Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and the panel’s Oversight and Investigations subcommittee chair T.J. Cox (D-Calif.) sent a letter to acting Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, calling for his complete calendars and schedules.

They suggested some versions of his calendar obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests have omitted key details. The letter was sent just three days after Trump announced he plans to nominate Bernhardt for the permanent role at Interior. Bernhardt "has no problem with his calendar being available to the public," Interior spokeswoman Faith Vander Voort told CNN.

— Park funding fiasco: Surprised by the about-face, lawmakers want to probe the Trump administration’s reversal of its decision to use park entrance fee revenue to pay for costs during the partial government shutdown, the Hill reports.

“It’s amazing, we squandered assets through the shutdown for nothing,” said Grijalva. “This is a very bad precedent to give an administration such latitude that they are able to use predesignated funds and set them somewhere else without a challenge, so we intend to challenge that.”


— California’s wildfire woes: As homeowners in the Golden State look to insure their properties in anticipation of future wildfires, they’re finding it harder to find an affordable policy or are turning to nonstandard policies that will take on the risk.

“California has always been prone to wildfires, but insurers say the risk is increasing as fire-prone areas have become increasingly populated and a warming planet adds new uncertainty to natural catastrophes,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “The vast majority of California homeowners are still insured by standard insurers like State Farm and Farmers Insurance. But growing numbers are buying insurance from surplus carriers that specialize in unusual risks, an option that is available only to homeowners rejected by traditional insurers. Surplus policies tend to be more expensive, and they don’t need state approval for the prices they charge.”

— Climate kids suing federal government ask court to block fossil fuel production: The nearly two dozen kids and young adults suing the government over a lack of climate action are calling on a court to stop the government from granting permits for drilling on federal land and offshore regions. In a motion filed last Thursday with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the group called for a temporary injunction of such approvals while an appeal of their case against the government is being considered, Climate Liability News reports.


— “Fraud, corruption, and self-dealing at Hanford will simply not be tolerated”: The Justice Department announced it’s suing defense giant Lockheed Martin over an alleged kickback scheme connected to a $232 million contract for a nuclear waste cleanup site. “Federal attorneys accused Lockheed of paying more than $1 million to executives from Mission Support Alliance, a joint venture that it partially owned, in exchange for ‘improper favorable treatment’ when MSA awarded the $232 million subcontract for management and technology services given to another Lockheed Martin subsidiary, bypassing open competition to give the company inflated rates,” The Post’s Aaron Gregg reports.

Lockheed Martin and Mission Support Alliance dispute the charges: But the federal lawsuit is just the latest in numerous allegations of contractor wrongdoing that’s emerged from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, a decommissioned plutonium production plant in Washington near the Oregon border.

— The road ahead for Tesla: Customers are finally receiving Tesla’s Model 3 sedans. But as the electric automaker “is still learning some of the basics of the auto business,” some are facing a  long wait time for repairs and services that come up, the Wall Street Journal reports. Tesla’s chief executive Elon Musk acknowledged repairs will be a priority in 2019.


Coming Up

  • The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on energy holds a hearing on the Energy Department's "inaction on efficiency standards" on Tuesday.
  • A House Appropriations subcommittee holds a hearing on the Energy Department’s weatherization assistance program on Tuesday.

— A “mass invasion” of polar bears: Dozens of polar bears have been spotted on an Arctic archipelago in northern Russia, terrifying the small town that has a population of about 2,000. “Polar bears are typically born on land but live mostly on sea ice, where they hunt and feed on seals,” The Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker reports. “But as arctic ice thins, which is linked to the acceleration of climate change, the animals move ashore, ravenous. They scavenge, sometimes coming into contact with human populations.”