The State of the Union address–and nuclear energy

By Katy Huff

In his State of the Union address to the U.S. Congress in 2011, President Obama lauded nuclear power as an essential part of the non-carbon mix that he would champion while revamping our inefficient, high-carbon energy sector:

“Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all…”

In 2012’s address, the president mentioned “renewable energy” and “jobs”, but didn’t explicitly mention or neglect nuclear power. This year, however, he listed a number of energy sources on which the energy future of the United States would rely. Wind, solar, natural gas, and oil all made the list again this year, but nuclear power was absent. In the same breath that the president touted natural gas, he even pointed out “…our emissions of the dangerous carbon pollution that threatens our planet have actually fallen.”

This trend in the administration’s pronouncements, on the heels of a resignation announcement by Dr. Steven Chu, our nation’s first Nobel Prize-winning energy secretary, may seem disturbing signals for young nuclear professionals in the United States who have hinged their careers on a nuclear future. Meanwhile, the waste confidence conundrum continues to passively block new licenses and extensions, and a Department of Energy response to the Blue Ribbon Commission puts advanced reprocessing on the R&D back-burner indefinitely.

From the perspective of young nuclear professionals such as myself, this research and industry development outlook is not the Advanced Fuel Cycle Initiative/Global Nuclear Energy Partnership “renaissance” that was so promising when we entered university. Though members of the community in an older generation may have already weathered the political ups and downs of this industry first-hand, younger members may struggle to trust that the United States is not turning its back on new nuclear power and R&D.

A more encouraging development might be the potential candidacy of Ernie Moniz for energy secretary. For that, we’ll just have to wait and see.


ANS Nuclear Cafe welcomes new contributor Katy Huff. She is a PhD candidate in nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and a laboratory graduate appointee at Argonne National Laboratory working on computational fuel cycle analysis. She currently develops Cyder, a nuclear waste disposal system model, and the Cyclus next generation fuel cycle simulator.

17 thoughts on “The State of the Union address–and nuclear energy

  1. Andrea Jennetta

    Bravo, Jim(s)! I agree 100%. We can kill ourselves with technology developments but they will never resolve NIMBYism and radio phobia. We have to communicate. Period. There are no short cuts.

  2. JimHopf

    Dennis, James,

    I share your outrage about Obama’s actions on Yucca, and acknowledge that can be difficult to discern which party is better for nuclear. That said, if forced to choose I would say that nuclear has better prospects under Democratic/”environmentalist” administrations than it would under Republican ones.

    Nuclear’s main problem is a black and white regulatory double standard, where nuclear is held to requirements thousands of times as strict as those applied to fossil fuels (as measured by dollars spent per life saved, or any other objective measure). My opinion is that this problem will never be solved by coming up with some better nuclear technology. Nuclear engineers/proponents have a continuing tendency to attempt to find technological solutions to political problems (waste being one example). It is naive to think that any energy technology could ever be competitive and successful under such an unlevel playing field (James is right in this regard).

    So, the only way for nuclear to have any real prospects is either to have nuclear’s requirements be dramatically relaxed, or to have requirements on fossil fuels be dramatically tightened, so they resemble something like what nuclear is subjected to (i.e., a guarantee of complete containment of all wastes/toxins, with no pollution at all allowed).

    Frankly, reducing nuclear’s requirements down to anywhere near what fossil fuels currently enjoy is an absolute political impossibility. Any possibility of any movement in that direction vanished after Fukushima (which showed just how unaccepting the public is of any amount of nuclear pollution). Nobody is even suggesting any significant roll back of nuclear regulations; not Republicans or Democrats. (BTW, it’s not like Romney’s positions, even on Yucca Mtn., were that much better.) In my last two ANS Cafe posts, I have belatedly tried to call for re-examination of some of the uniquely excessive requirements/burdens placed on nuclear, but I have the sense that I’m just a voice in the wilderness.

    It seeems clear to me that nuclear’s best “hope” is for significant tightening of the requirements on fossil fuels, so that they can’t continue to just dump massive amounts of pollution directly into the environment, and cause massive harm on public health and the climate, for free. Unlike a dramatic relaxing of nuclear requirements, such measures are actually politically possible, and actually seemed probable just a few years ago (with the global warming push). Even now, pollution regulations are being significantly tightened by Obama’s EPA, causing the retirement of a large number of old, grossly polluting coal plants.

    Suffice it to say that any tightening of requirements on fossil fuels (which would make the playing field more fair) ain’t something you’re going to see under any Republican administration. If anything, they will endeavor to make fossil requirements even weaker than they are now, while leaving the much stricter nuclear (NRC) regulations/burdens largely intact (it being politically impossible to do otherwise). The result will be an even more unlevel playing field, and almost no future prospects at all for nuclear (IMO).

    The waste “issue” (which is costing nuclear utilities all of ~0.1 cents/kW-hr) is nowhere near as important a factor as the issues I discuss above. Not that the Republicans would be that much better on waste. Obama’s (effective) no new coal plant rule is of infinitely more significance. A law classifying coal ash as a hazardous material would also be far more significant, as would any tightening of fossil plant air pollution requirements. For these reasons, I (at least) am praying that a Democrat remains in charge of the executive branch (i.e., EPA) for the forseeable future, at least until Republicans grow up and acknowledge that environmental impacts are important/real, and are worth some tangible amount of money to reduce.

  3. James Greenidge

    I agree wholeheartedly, Dennis. Why pro-nukers are holding their breaths for a “green” administration to shine favorably on them is a beyond mystery to me. Can you spell waving a piece of paper proclaiming peace in our time? If nuclear industry/professional organizations wish to see movement on the public perception/favorability front they’re going to have to dig into their pockets and crank out some adult educational PSAs — not neighborhood tupperware teach-ins — (hey, if puppy rescue can PSA daily on NYC cable…) about nuclear energy and start turning a Fukushima lemon into lemonade by citing that the worst anti-nuker nightmares had three chances to come true under the very worst conditions and fizzled out with nil causalities — and COMPARE COMPARE COMPARE that industrial mortality score against the everyday operations/accident/health pollution consequences of other energy sources. Don’t know how to do it? Hire Tylenol’s ad agency! Really, this isn’t rocket science. It just takes the WILL to do something for your own best interest. Nuclear energy’s plight is mostly a circumstance of its own community’s making and inaction.

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  4. Dennis Mosebey

    Obama is no friend of nuclear. ANS should stop purporting that he is. He killed Yucca Mountain. The only reason money is available now for new reactors is that Bush cut it free and Obama has not been able to figure out a way yet to divert it. Given his choice between supporting nuclear and throwing money down the drain on solar and wind, he will go with solar and wind every time. ANS needs to stop the nonsensical reporting and get realistic.

  5. Nuclear Grrl

    You echo my thoughts so well. As a recent inductee to the nuclear field, the slowdown in the global market combined with the impacts of the Fukushima accident on new build progress can leave a person like me feeling like the future is tenuous. But I’ve found nuclear to be a resilient animal.
    If we, the new generation in nuclear, continue to hone our analytical skills and master the craft of communicating to our peers just what nuclear power is about – safety, energy security, reliable base load energy, environmentalism and growth – we can weather the ups and downs that accompany globalization.
    As Diana Ross said, we will survive.

  6. DV82XL

    You are being described as a professional anti-nuclear zealot. That accusation is nether wacky or a personal attack, but speaks directly to the credibility of your remarks.

    Your attempt to dismiss this as not relevant and failure to address it directly says volumes.

  7. Bob Johannesen

    The DOE does not need another academician, nor does it need another politician. DOE needs a manager, someone with business sense who understands the importance of turning technologies into commercial reality. We’ve spent so much on national lab and university studies and experiments; let’s turn those long researched products into useful products. How about a leader from industry to lead the DOE?

  8. Tom Clements

    Thanks for the attention to issues of concern, even if via wacky comments or personal attack aimed at me. Now that a few individuals are focused on me, here’s a blog I wrote on DOE’s out-of-control plutonium fuel MOX program and which they may want to read. Spending for the $7-billion MOX plant at the Savannah River Site is off the rails and is facing huge cuts. Rightly, this program, which some have hoped to help SRS get into reprocessing, is now a focus of continued concern. See “GAO Confirms Massive $2 Billion Cost Increase for Plutonium Fuel (MOX) Plant at Savannah River Site – NNSA Outed by GAO” – Substantive, thoughtful comments are welcome on why MOX has gone so badly. Or, if you can’t muster that then I guess the fall-back is wacky personal attacks for all to see.

  9. Anders

    Because my comment clearly was “MOX is great!”? Oh wait, it wasn’t. So please trot that hobby horse of yours somewhere else.

  10. Tom Clements

    Moniz seems to have good judgement about reprocessing and is thus against it. In Europe, countries outside France have all but stopped having their spent fuel reprocessed at la Hague , so even in France reprocessing is on life support. No wonder EdF places a zero value on the plutonium it is forced to use as reactor-grade MOX. The government-owned company AREVA is profiting from reprocessing and that seems to be the the real reason for it. Moniz likely understands all this and the failure of reprocessing.

  11. Anders

    I remember seeing Ernie Moniz in some news report basically talking down any nuclear more advanced than light-water thermal. Is the state of affairs in nuclear R&D really so dismal that he is the one to pin any hopes on?

  12. Tom Clements

    The Global Nuclear Energy Partnership was so ill-conceived and so over-ambitious it was clear the whole thing would tumble down, which it did. DOE couldn’t even issue the final EIS on the program, as some predicted would happen. The GNEP scheme was a feeble attempt to force political decisions to deploy reprocessing in the US even when there was no energy, scientific or financial reasons for doing so, which is not exactly a sound basis for any program. Reprocessing boosters hooked their efforts to the wrong wagon and it’s sad if they misled anyone into thinking that the dawn of reprocessing was going to happen in the US. Thankfully, GNEP was thrown into the dustbin. AREVA and EnergySolutions may see consolidated spent fuel storage as a foot in the door to get another shot at reprocessing but the justification reprocessing is just like it was in the GNEP days and now there’s even less possibility of government subsidies to pursue.

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