Environmentalists and Nuclear: Not Such Strange Bedfellows

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

U.S. President Barack Obama is set to deliver a landmark speech on the regulation of greenhouse gases from existing power plants on June 2 that has the potential to completely alter the trajectory of America’s energy future. It will also highlight the enormous amount of common ground that exists between two constituencies who are often at odds: the nuclear power industry and environmentalists.

The U.S. environmental movement has opposed nuclear power for decades. It was the issue that first galvanized people around an environmental issue when so many Americans protested the construction of many of the nation’s nuclear power plants in the 1960s and 1970s.

As climate change has emerged as the most threatening and insidious environmental threat the world has ever faced, opposition to nuclear power has softened, owing to a nuclear reactor’s ability to generate carbon-free electricity. Still, many environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, are still wary of nuclear power or actively oppose its expansion.

For its part, the nuclear industry and its allies believe environmental groups and renewable energy advocates are standing in the way of meaningful action on climate change. On one hand, that’s a purely business-driven position. For example, Exelon — the owner of the largest nuclear fleet in the country — made fighting subsidies for wind and solar its number one lobbying priority in 2013 because its reactors face stiff competition from low-priced clean energy. But more broadly, the nuclear industry and allies like The Breakthrough Institute argue that environmental groups are making greenhouse gas reductions much more difficult due to their irrational opposition to nuclear power.

The arguments on both sides have their problems. Environmental groups often ignore the fact that less nuclear capacity would lead to higher carbon emissions, and that solar and wind won’t be able to replace coal and natural gas on their own, at least in the short-term. At the same time, the nuclear industry puts an inordinate amount of blame on green groups for its own problems. In reality, utilities simply don’t want to build more nuclear plants for a variety of reasons — including high upfront costs and the abundance of cheap natural gas — most of which are beyond the influence of the environmental lobby.

Related Article: Obama’s On A Winning Streak In Drive To Curb Air Pollution

But let’s leave all of that aside. The common interests of these two factions are much bigger than their differences. The overarching goal for environmental groups is to phase out fossil fuels. This dovetails nicely with the interests of nuclear power, with principle competitors being natural gas and coal.

That’s why the June 2 announcement that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will limit carbon emissions from existing power plants, which will disproportionately hit coal-fired generation, is being enthusiastically welcomed by both environmental groups and the nuclear industry.

“Our goal is to work with EPA to make sure the rule works,” Joe Dominguez, senior vice president of Exelon, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg News. “There needs to be a pathway towards meaningful reductions.” Bloomberg also notes that some utilities actually support the new EPA regulations, especially companies that have nuclear capacity in their portfolio.

If Obama sets an ambitious target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions — early reports say it will be 20 percent by 2020 – it would be an enormous boon to both renewable energy (supported by environmentalists) and nuclear power. As coal plants are retired, not only can solar and wind scale up, but nuclear reactors can remain profitable and stay in operation for longer.

While environmental and nuclear advocates will never see eye-to-eye, they don’t need to. By focusing their efforts on supporting mandatory limits on greenhouse gases, both sides win big. Similarly, by supporting a future price on carbon — through a cap-and-trade system or carbon tax — environmental and nuclear groups can make much more progress on furthering their agendas.

The Sierra Club and Natural Resources Defense Council foresee renewable energy scaling up in a major way in coming years, with dozens of gigawatts of solar and wind installed. The nuclear industry can go on the offensive, becoming more competitive as a source of power compared to natural gas and coal. Both sides can claim success in tackling climate change.

Originally written for OilPrice.com, a website that focuses on news and analysis on topics of alternative energy, geopolitics, and oil and gas. OilPrice.com is written for an educated audience that includes investors, fund managers, resource bankers, traders, and energy market professionals around the world.

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