Nuclear power fights for share in Obama’s renewable energy, climate change goals

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By Jay Vincent,
Senior Vice President for Energy, The Saint Consulting Group

nuclearLast week, nuclear industry executives and allied interests met in Washington to carve out a role for nuclear power in the U.S. as a stable, base load source of energy generation that is both reliable and “green.”

Hosting several key Capitol Hill speakers, including House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, the event focused intensely on keeping nuclear energy in a position not to be left behind in the Obama Administration’s renewable energy goals and climate change policy endeavors. However, it’s not hard to think that nuclear is getting lost as the political “juice” lies with renewable energy generation like wind, both on Capitol Hill and increasingly at the state and local level.

Most headlines these days are about wind and solar versus coal, oil and natural gas. Even for fossil-fuel base load generation like coal, constant name recognition, albeit mostly negative, may not be a bad thing, especially when you have the protection of coal state congressional leaders that have leverage in the passage of final energy legislation.

Nuclear energy appears sandwiched between trendy wind and clean coal, both with respectable political support. Fortunately, Majority Leader Hoyer has the Calvert Cliffs project in his Maryland congressional district seeking new permits for nuclear generation.

At the local level, progress may be equally challenging. In the 2009 Saint Index survey of community acceptance toward energy uses, nuclear still ranked last (60 percent oppose, 36 percent support) in terms of what local communities want sited in their backyards, with a side note that opposition has dropped 5 percent since 2008.

Given that level of opposition, the nuclear industry should be finding more and more ways to identify passionate local issues to link their nuclear developments to – whether that be jobs or other benefits – to ensure that there is at least a semblance of voters and local residents to counter emotional opposition to new sites. They also need to put the rationality of nuclear power aside. There were many statements made during the various panel presentations about the rational role for nuclear power – its overall public support, its ability to address the intermittency of renewable sources like wind and solar, and how it actually has the support of half the environmental community based on its lack of carbon emissions.

The meritocratic overview concluded with the following statement (paraphrased); “it’s the argument that counts and we have the argument.” We’ll see. When all the opposition has to do is drop stock photos of Three Mile Island (TMI) on leaflets around the neighborhood and utilize the web to dig up every story and opinion about TMI, it could take a bit more than logical reasoning.

Splitting atoms may be the right formula for base load energy generation in the future. But relying on science to site nuclear power plants in local communities defies the laws of nature.

Jay Vincent is senior vice president for energy, The Saint Consulting Group, email vincent@tscg.biz, phone 312.970.5770 Ext: 7502

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