Democrats balk at expanding nuclear power despite pushing 100% carbon-free electricity

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Congressional Democrats want no part in expanding nuclear energy, even as they contemplate large-scale and radical measures to tackle climate change.

Since entering office, President Biden has tasked Democrats on Capitol Hill with designing comprehensive legislation to reach the Paris Climate Accord’s goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The most notable bill that Democrats have devised in that regard is the Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s (CLEAN) Future Act. Tucked within the bill is a bevy of progressive proposals, ranging from hastening the transition away from gas-powered vehicles to removing fossil fuels from the electric grid. The latter commits the U.S. to reaching a 100% carbon-free electricity standard by 2035.

To reach that goal, the CLEAN Future Act prioritizes solar and wind power, while nearly ignoring nuclear energy — which does not emit carbon or other greenhouse gases.

In fact, one of the only mentions of nuclear power within the bill’s nearly 1,000 pages is language creating an Energy Department pilot program for at “least one long-term” agreement “to purchase electricity generated from advanced nuclear power technologies.” In comparison, the CLEAN Future Act earmarks upward of $1.25 billion over nine years for installing solar panels in low-income and “underserved” communities.

The reluctance by Democrats to commit to investing in the expansion of nuclear power has left some mystified.

Republican lawmakers, in particular, point to the fact that nuclear energy is not only a stable alternative to oil and coal, but also fits into the White House’s ambitions to promote “clean electricity.”

“Nuclear technology is fundamental to meeting our energy, environmental, and national security goals,” said Sen. John Barrasso, Wyoming Republican and ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “Nuclear power is our nation’s largest source of carbon-free electricity. It’s critical to reliable electricity, resilient electricity and affordable electric service.”

Data from the Nuclear Energy Institute indicates that 55% of all carbon-free electricity produced in the U.S. comes from nuclear power plants. Furthermore, nuclear power is estimated to provide roughly 10% of all electricity across the globe.

Despite the realities, most Democrats have yet to come around. The party has long been averse to nuclear power since at least the 1970s. The fear stems, in part, from environmentalists, who argue nuclear waste poses a grave threat even if disposed of properly. 

Environmentalists have also invoked the threat of meltdowns and accidents, including the 1979 incident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, as proof that nuclear power plants are unsafe.

Democratic dislike was on display during the 2020 presidential primary contest. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat then vying for the nomination, pledged to not allow any new nuclear reactors to be built. Mrs. Warren even suggested that she would seek to phase out the use of nuclear power by 2035, a goal similarly proposed within the Green New Deal.

Mr. Biden, who campaigned as an avowed moderate against Mrs. Warren and other progressives, was slightly more open to the idea. Mr. Biden pledged that “advanced nuclear” reactors would part of his “clean energy” agenda.

Although the Biden campaign never explicitly what he meant, his lukewarm support for the power source was enough for Democrats to include a provision within their platform endorsing “advanced nuclear.” The inclusion was the first time in nearly 50 years that the party’s platform expressed a positive note about nuclear power.

A significant number of congressional Democrats, who will have significant influence on overall climate change and energy legislation, remain unconvinced.

“One of the great challenges of developing new nuclear energy assets, beyond the costs, is the fear,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper, a Colorado Democrat that has shown some openness to nuclear power. “There is still this residual concern and fear [whether] this new facility going to be built in my community and what is the risk.”

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