Dec 3, 2020 - Energy & Environment

Nuclear power subsidy sign of climate debate to come

In this illustration, a three leaf clover is shaped like a nuclear power symbol.

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

A bipartisan Senate bill subsidizing existing nuclear power plants and backing new kinds of such technology passed a congressional committee on Wednesday.

Why it matters: It won’t become law before year’s end, but it’s likely to resurface in 2021 as an example of the type of bipartisan compromise expected under a divided Congress with President-elect Joe Biden in the White House.

Where it stands: 16 senators on the Environment and Public Works Committee supported the measure, and five (all Democrats) opposed the measure, called America’s Nuclear Infrastructure Act.

  • A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), declined to comment on whether he would bring it to the floor before this Congress is over in the coming weeks, but it’s unlikely given the bigger debates on economic stimulus.
  • Analysts at the nonpartisan ClearView Energy Partners said in a research note to clients on Wednesday that the bill is likely to be reintroduced and “may represent an initial area of potential cooperation. Indeed, this year’s action may be positioning it for inclusion in next year’s likely climate-conscious stimulus debate.”

How it works: The bill would create an Environmental Protection Agency system that financially supports existing nuclear power plants that may shut down before federal licenses require due to economic pressures.

  • Other components include a program to encourage competition around advancing new nuclear power technology and efforts to streamline the review process for that type of tech.

The intrigue: The bill garnered an unusually broad coalition of lawmakers and interest groups, including labor groups and some environmentalists, who support the jobs and carbon-free power nuclear provides.

Yes, but: At least two letters were sent by two different sets of environmental groups expressing opposition, citing several concerns, including safety.

  • One letter was signed by more than 100 organizations, many of them smaller and local, categorically opposed to government support for nuclear power.
  • The other was by three of America’s most influential environmental groups also opposing the bill, but noting that subsidies for existing nuclear should “only be considered as part of a broader suite of policies that also support renewables and efficiency.”

What I’m watching: Whether such a bargain surfaces next year. One of Washington’s most influential progressive leaders, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), also made such a comment in Wednesday’s meeting.

  • “I’d be willing to talk about a program to support nuclear power, but you can’t just have one side of the conversation,” said Markey, referring to how Republicans weren’t supporting wind and solar subsidies.

The bottom line: Given Democrats still control the House, it's likely any deal with this measure would need to have a hefty renewable-energy component too to pass.

Flashback: The left’s nuclear problem

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