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Nuclear Energy Could Be A Godsend For Biden’s Green Agenda. Here’s What’s Holding It Back

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Nuclear energy is effective at scale and produces no emissions, but the technology may not be poised to play a leading role in President Joe Biden’s green agenda.

American policymakers, primarily Democrats and their appointees, are pushing hard to realize the Biden administration’s goal of having the U.S. power sector reach net-zero emissions by 2035, but wind, solar and other renewable generation sources have not yet shown the same degree of reliability that nuclear has demonstrated. Despite these facts, Biden and lawmakers have so far failed to simplify the nuclear regulatory and permitting process, according to energy sector experts who spoke with the Daily Caller News Foundation.

The Biden administration often mentions nuclear alongside solar and wind, but U.S. nuclear capacity has remained mostly stagnant since 1980, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). While new solar and wind projects are being announced and built with generally increasing frequency, only a handful of new nuclear reactors have come online in the past twenty years, a trend that may not change in the absence of significant policy and regulatory changes, according to EIA and power sector experts who spoke with the DCNF.

“Nuclear’s costs are enormous, because of the regulatory morass created by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). It would be better to scrap the whole thing and go back to the Atomic Energy Commission, which actually worked to ensure safe, secure and affordable nuclear technologies,” Dan Kish, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Energy Research, told the DCNF. “Nuclear would be the obvious answer if the Greens and Biden truly want to electrify everything and reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but they also oppose natural gas that has reduced coal emissions, so I wouldn’t hold my breath. They don’t seem to want anything that solves the problems they insist exist, so I expect them to continue to reject things that actually work.”

The Biden administration has spent at least $1 trillion to advance its climate agenda, and generous subsidies in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and bipartisan infrastructure law of 2021 are designed to accelerate a transition away from fossil fuels. Both the infrastructure package and the IRA contain provisions designed to forestall the early retirement of nuclear facilities. However, neither law sufficiently streamlined the complex regulatory environment for nuclear or significantly reduced the overhead costs of building new capacity, John Starkey, director of public policy for the American Nuclear Society, told the DCNF.

The incentives in the IRA and infrastructure bills are a “great start,” but “more assistance for cost overruns and early mover support for first-of-a-kind advanced reactors would also be helpful,” Starkey told the DCNF.

The administration has expressed a desire to build up a domestic supply chain for nuclear power, which is dominated by Russia and China. However, Biden also designated a nearly one million acres of uranium-rich land in Arizona as a national monument in August 2023, prohibiting future mining claims in the covered area.

There are currently 54 operational nuclear power plants and a total of 93 commercial reactors in the U.S., which combine to supply about 19% of America’s electricity, according to EIA. The average nuclear reactor is 42 years old, and licensing rules restrict their lifetimes to a maximum range of 40 to 80 years, according to EIA.

The potential promise of nuclear energy is also apparent to many policymakers from around the world; more than 20 nations, including the U.S., pledged to triple nuclear energy generation to bring down emissions during COP28, the United Nations climate summit held at the end of 2023 in the United Arab Emirates. However, realizing that pledge in the U.S. may be more difficult than making it given the high costs and regulatory environment that prospective builders and operators of nuclear plants must navigate, multiple energy sector and nuclear experts told the DCNF.

“I think the fundamental issue with nuclear power is a question of risk aversion. People have a very strong association of nuclear power with nuclear accidents and radiation leaks and very severe health hazards. And there is debate,” Brian Potter, a senior infrastructure fellow with the Institute for Progress, told the DCNF. “There’s a lot of debate, which I’m not an expert on, as to how real those risks are.”

“The organizations tasked with overseeing and managing tend to be very risk averse and have a very burdensome process for approval and getting these things built,” Potter continued. “And so overall, it just makes it really, really hard to build these things or to relax regulations around making them easier to build.”

In terms of levelized capital costs, nuclear energy is the most expensive per unit of energy produced of all forms of generation other than offshore wind under the assumption that operation will start in 2028, according to EIA data aggregated by Statista.

Notably, many Democrats and environmentalists are opposed to nuclear energy largely because of perceived safety risks. Historically, major nuclear incidents — Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima — have caused significant environmental damage or loss of life, and often are followed by increases in regulation designed to prevent another disaster.

But those incidents, tragic and destructive though they were, are not representative of nuclear power’s overall level of safety, according to Starkey.

“I sense a cooling even from a lot of environmentalist groups that used to sour on nuclear who are now saying ‘wait a minute,’” Starkey told the DCNF. “With regard to things that have happened in the past when it comes to nuclear accidents, the public and Congress, in a bipartisan way on both sides, I’m starting to see more of an understanding of what’s happened. And that deep fear of radiation from 10, 15, 20 years ago, it’s starting to tamper down a little bit.”

The NRC — the federal entity that is primarily responsible for regulating nuclear power —  does not impose a regulatory burden that is too onerous, Starkey added. However, the agency is trying to become “leaner and meaner” while also “maintaining a vigorous standard of safety,” Starkey said.

“We are focused on appropriately balancing our regulatory footprint while continuing to ensure we’re carrying out our safety mission,” an NRC spokesperson told the DCNF. The spokesperson also referred the DCNF to a March speech from NRC Chair Christopher Hanson in which he said that his agency is anticipating applications for two combined licenses, one design certification, one standard design approval, one manufacturing license, three operating licenses and nine construction permits.

Congress has also identified a need for streamlining in the nuclear space, passing a package of nuclear reform bills in the House this week in strong bipartisan fashion. However, the plan of some senators to use the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill as a legislative vehicle for the nuclear package failed, according to the Washington Examiner.

Despite the missed opportunity on the FAA bill, Starkey remains confident that the nuclear package could still find its way through the Senate at some point in the coming weeks as more chances come around.

The Department of Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

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