The US nuclear energy industry is set to receive significant support for building new reactors, research and development, and training more highly-skilled staff under the Democratic climate change bill introduced to the Senate this week.
Increasing the supply of nuclear power is a key plank of the Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act, introduced this week by Barbara Boxer of California, head of the Senate environment and public works committee, and by John Kerry of Massachusetts, chairman of the foreign relations committee.
“We are uniting behind a spectrum of energy solutions: renewable energy, natural gas, enhanced domestic oil production, safe nuclear power, clean coal technology, and energy efficiency and conservation,” Ms Boxer told senators after unveiling the bill on Wednesday.
The Boxer-Kerry bill goes further than the legislation passed by the House of Representatives in June by providing financing for loan guarantees and regulatory risk insurance for nuclear power generators, and creating new programmes for research and development for advanced nuclear technology and nuclear waste management.
It also provides for programmes to train people to build, construct, operate and maintain nuclear facilities. New reactors will launch a “new era for the nuclear industry, and translate into tens of thousands of jobs”.
“It is the policy of the US to facilitate continued development of nuclear power, given its important role in the transition to a low-carbon economy,” the draft bill says. “The US will facilitate this growth by reducing financial and technical barriers to construction and operation and providing incentives for nuclear-related workforce development and the growth of the industry.”
Almost 20 per cent of US power was supplied by its 104 nuclear power plants last year, nearly as much as is supplied by natural gas. In some states, as much as half of electricity comes from nuclear power, the only major energy source that does not emit greenhouse gases.
The bill is short on details but Joe Lieberman, the independent senator from Connecticut, is understood to be preparing a floor amendment this month that would flesh out the fine print.
With the bill likely to face a rocky ride through the Senate, nuclear energy could be one of the issues that attracts bipartisan support, said Paul Bledsoe of the National Commission on Energy Policy.
“Nuclear power, along with agriculture and natural gas, has the potential for negotiations among the key moderate senators who could break the political bottleneck for the climate change bill,” he said.
Mr Kerry told reporters on Wednesday that “if we are willing to show significant movement on nuclear, I believe we can gain some Republican supporters”.
Republicans including John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee are strong advocates of nuclear energy and have said the bill should provide for the expansion of nuclear power.
“We should take practical steps to produce low-cost, clean, carbon-free energy and create jobs,” Mr Alexander said after the bill was released, calling specifically for 100 new nuclear plants to be built.
Marvin Fertel, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, said the nuclear energy provisions in the bill were “a start in the right direction” but that “additional substantive provisions” were needed.
“We know we need to build additional nuclear power plants to meet our climate goals,” Mr Fertel said, citing an Environmental Protection Agency assessment that an additional 187 nuclear power plants were needed by 2050 just to fulfill the lesser provisions of the House bill.
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