A New Fission Provision
Air Date: Week of February 5, 2010
Peter Bradford, is a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and teaches at the Vermont Law School.
The Obama administration’s 2011 budget includes a provision to triple the amount of money dedicated to nuclear power loan guarantees, to a total of 54 billion dollars. Some opponents fear that money for nuclear projects displaces resources that could go to renewable energy sources, like wind and solar. Host Jeff Young talks with Peter Bradford, a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to sort out what the increase of money would mean for the future of nuclear power.
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YOUNG: Now, the President’s budget also aims to change energy: it would do away with fossil fuel subsidies and put more into clean energy. But the part that’s really generating buzz has to do with nuclear energy. President Obama’s budget calls for 54 billion dollars in federal loan guarantees, tripling the amount companies could tap into to help build new reactors.
Peter Bradford is here to help us put that in perspective. Mr. Bradford does not oppose nuclear power, in fact, as a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, he put his name on the licenses for several reactors. But he does oppose the president’s decision.
BRADFORD: Well the nuclear industry at the moment is unable to finance construction of any new nuclear plants. Early in the Bush administration, Congress passed legislation providing for tax credits to encourage new nuclear plants, and also several years ago provided 18 billion dollars in loan guarantee authority. And for the nuclear industry, things just haven’t worked out as intended. A number of companies came forward with applications for a total of 31 new plants. They’ve all run into trouble of one kind or another. There have been cost overruns, cancellations, suspensions, delays, and in two cases in Florida and in Texas there have been scandals, as well.
So the nuclear renaissance has not been a great success to date, and in that context it seems a little eccentric to be tripling down and say, okay, if 18 billion in loan guarantees didn’t do it, maybe 54 will.
YOUNG: So, you don’t think that the 54 billion in loan guarantees would be enough to shake loose the private investment from Wall Street?
BRADFORD: Well, no. I mean loan guarantees aren’t a certificate of fiscal health anymore than blood transfusions are a certificate of physical health. You resort to loan guarantees because the enterprise isn’t healthy, and the problem with that scenario for nuclear power is that it’s in theory a mature industry; it’s been with us for 50 years and even though there are some new designs at this point, it really shouldn’t been needing this kind of help.
The only thing that’s going to persuade Wall Street or private investors would be to have those plants built at competitive prices and to have them run well. And that’s a scenario that will take quite a few years to play out.
YOUNG: And what do you make of nuclear power as a climate change solution? That’s pretty much how this is being marketed, that this is carbon-free, or at least low-carbon source of base load power, therefore, it’s our path to cutting our carbon emissions.
BRADFORD: Nuclear power is a low-carbon source, even when you take the full nuclear fuel cycle into account, but it’s a very expensive low-carbon source, at least in today’s energy markets it’s too expensive to be an effective climate solution.
It’s as if a homeowner with a leaky roof to their house decided that the solution was to put in a second furnace, rather than fix the roof. It takes too much of the money that societies around the world are going to be able to spend fighting climate change and devotes it to a source that just can’t respond quickly enough.
But it’s even more problematic than that. If you look back at what happened, say, in New England with the Seabrook nuclear plant, as companies try to build these very expensive units and got into trouble they cut way back on their efforts at energy efficiency at other sources--such as even their own natural gas divisions in order to both husband the resources to finish the plants and in order to make sure that demand was there for the kilowatt hours at the end of the day. So, we know that nuclear power has that ability to displace interests in other resources when it gets into trouble.
YOUNG: How does this level of support for nuclear energy compare to the support that we see for other forms of energy – let’s say new wind or new solar?
BRADFORD: New wind and new nuclear are both eligible for production tax credits, but new nuclear has trouble using them because with a production tax credit you have to produce something and the wind people have been able to do that. But, with new nuclear the concern is that the plants may not come online.
YOUNG: I take it from your comments so far you don’t think it’s a good idea in the short view. But is this a good approach long-term to looking to say a new generation of reactors many decades hence?
BRADFORD: Well, what’s a defensible approach is perhaps to back a limited number of plants in return for getting cap and trade, and then see how those plants perform. What does make sense would be to put a cap and trade bill in place, use the 18 point five or 54 billion, whatever it turns out to be, to find out what new nuclear plants can do. But, meanwhile, the cap and trade regime will establish a new energy market place, in which we’ll find out what it really costs to clean up the atmosphere of greenhouse gases. And we’ll see whether nuclear really has a place.
YOUNG: Peter Bradford’s a former member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, now a teacher at the Vermont Law School -- thanks very much.
BRADFORD: It’s been a pleasure.
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