Obama, Corzine, and the Politics of Nuclear Energy

While the national media currently focus on the economic stimulus program of President Barack Obama, a major internal battle is

While the national media currently focus on the economic stimulus program of President Barack Obama, a major internal battle is shaping up between his environmental team, led by Carol Browner, who will seek a greenhouse gas cap-and-trade program and a carbon tax, and his economic team, led by Larry Summers, who will almost certainly oppose such measures as having a significant deleterious effect on economic recovery. There is no doubt that the economic team will prevail.

President Obama, however, does not need either a cap-and-trade program or a carbon tax to attain his laudable air quality and greenhouse gas reduction goals. Over 40 per cent of all greenhouse gases generated in the United States emanate from coal fired power plants. A national program to begin the process of replacing coal plants with nuclear power plants would eliminate this greenhouse gas generation and likewise overwhelmingly reduce America's smog (ozone) and soot (particulate matter) pollution.

During the campaign, both President Obama and Vice President Biden spoke of an end to coal-fired power plants in America, but they were vague as to what would be the alternative power source. While both spoke of renewables such as solar and wind, neither was foolish enough to claim that solar and wind power could significantly meet the base load energy deficit left behind from the elimination of coal.

One would think that President Obama would thus readily embrace nuclear power as an alternative substitute for coal. The President, however, has never definitively supported the expansion of nuclear power in America. He has expressed his reluctance to do so due to his concern about the nuclear waste issue.

There are two clear solutions, however, for the disposal of nuclear waste. The first set of disposal options, expressed cogently by the administration of former President George W. Bush in his Global Nuclear Energy Partnership (GNEP) initiative, involve recycling of spent fuel into more fuel available for energy production, also thereby reducing the quantity of nuclear waste. The ultimate solution for the disposal of America's high level nuclear waste, however, is the Department of Energy's nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. While serving as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA, I visited Yucca Mountain, and I am absolutely convinced of the facility's safety and viability.

Obama's reluctance to embrace GNEP is understandable from a political point of view, given that his political base in the Democratic Party consists largely of anti-nuclear power liberals and a large segment of the environmentalist community. The President could embrace GNEP and still retain the loyalty of this segment of his party, however, given his success in implementing significant core portions of the liberal agenda in the stimulus package. Unfortunately, he has a most formidable obstacle to making Yucca Mountain operational: the opposition of Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada).

Reid's opposition is obviously purely a NIMBY (not in my back yard) issue. Senator Reid is currently 70 years old, and if he nevertheless chooses to run for reelection in 2010, his victory is not assured. If he is reelected and remains as Democratic Senate Majority Leader, however it will be most difficult for Obama to move forward with the Yucca Mountain facility.

This paralysis on nuclear waste is most unfortunate, not only for the nation but especially for New Jersey. During the next three decades, it is highly possible that nuclear fusion, which generates very little waste, will be perfected to an extent that it can replace nuclear fission as the method of nuclear power generation. Until then, however, both recycling as per the GNEP plan and Yucca Mountain are vital components of any alternative plan to the current storage of nuclear waste on site.

In New Jersey, Governor Jon Corzine is heading into election year 2009 with a most dismal air quality situation which, to be fair, is not of his making. With regard to compliance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards regarding smog, the entire state is in a nonattainment status, and, with regard to soot, most of the state likewise fails to comply with EPA limitations. This nonattainment results from three sources: 1) car and truck traffic; 2) smog and soot pollution carried into New Jersey from upwind states; and 3) coal fired plants.

Governor Corzine has also set ambitious goals through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and Executive Order #54 for the reduction of greenhouse gases. There is no possibility, however, that New Jersey will meet these goals or ultimately substantially eliminate smog and soot pollution in the Garden State unless coal fired power plants are phased out over time and nuclear power plants established in their place. The belief that solar and wind power can meet the base load energy deficit resulting from the phase out of coal is a pipe dream, particularly in New Jersey. Both these renewables require substantial parcels of land and reliable continuing wind and sun conditions. While these two sources of energy are highly salutary from an environmental point of view and should be encouraged where possible, neither is viable, even taken together, as a practical alternative to meeting rapidly expanding base load needs in New Jersey.

To Corzine's credit, he initially contemplated nuclear power as a component of New Jersey's increasing needs for clean energy in the April, 2008 version of New Jersey's Energy Master Plan. In the face of opposition from a substantial segment of New Jersey's environmentalist community, however, this language regarding nuclear power was removed from the later October, 2008 edition of the plan.

As we head into this 2009 gubernatorial election, any debate between Governor Corzine and his likely Republican opponent, Chris Christie on the economy must also involve New Jersey's increasing need for clean energy. Such a discussion must also involve a serious focus on nuclear energy not only as an option but as an environmental and energy imperative.

Nuclear power generates no greenhouse gases and absolutely negligible amounts of soot, smog, and any other air pollutants. Although the cost of constructing a nuclear power plant is high, the ultimate operation of such a facility is most profitable, given the relatively low cost of nuclear fuel. Europe has already opted for the nuclear energy option – in fact, France now generates 80 per cent of its energy through nuclear power. In short, nuclear energy is green, both in terms of the economy and the environment.

I think it is quite possible that President Obama will ultimately develop a more positive view of the necessity for expanded nuclear energy, and I certainly hope, perhaps naively, that Jon Corzine and Chris Christie will, in a bipartisan fashion, both endorse nuclear power expansion for New Jersey during the campaign. The major challenge going forward, ironically, may not be the politics of Washington nor Trenton but the NIMBY politics of Nevada.

Alan J. Steinberg served as Regional Administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush. Region 2 EPA consists of the states of New York and New Jersey, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and seven federally recognized Indian nations.

  Obama, Corzine, and the Politics of Nuclear Energy