Division on Biden’s Clean Energy Fission

The world is betting on the Biden administration to do something serious about climate change. But it seems to be sending mixed signals on one of the most significant zero-carbon energy sources in the clean energy arsenal, nuclear power.

A new report from the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) notes that “the procurement of nuclear power” is an example of a project that “Will Not Benefit a Community.”

WEHJAC was established to provide recommendations on climate and economic justice to other White House organizations, including The Council of Environmental Quality.

The recommendation to oppose new nuclear energy seems to be at odds with White House climate advisor, Gina McCarthy’s, statement last month that noted the administration’s plan for a clean electricity standard is “going to be inclusive” and incorporate nuclear power.

It also seems to contradict the fact sheet produced by the White House for the Biden Leader’s Summit on Climate. It identified one of the U.S. summit deliverables as “Launching the FIRST Program to support the use of small modular reactors.”

FIRST is a State Department initiative, coordinated with other key government agencies, that seeks to build capacity with partner nations “on secure and safe nuclear energy infrastructure” with a focus on small modular and advanced reactors. The program notes that it is assisting the U.S. in its leadership to address the climate crisis and “conserve our environment.”

The administration also is spending well over $1 billion on numerous programs at the Department of Energy in support of existing and new types of nuclear energy. All aligned with the administration’s prioritization of addressing climate change.

Further, the Good Energy Collective, a progressive energy policy organization, has identified specific actions that can be taken in the nuclear energy area to support the administration’s Justice 40 Initiative. This is part of an Executive Order that requires 40% of the benefit of federal funding for climate-related energy activities be provided to disadvantaged communities. Justice 40 is prominently featured in the WHEJAC assessment.

The dissonance on the role of nuclear energy in supporting a zero-carbon agenda isn’t unexpected. There remains squeamishness in embracing nuclear power as clean energy among some climate advocates.

This attitude may extend to administration climate change officials who have been reluctant to publicly identify how nuclear energy beyond the existing fleet will fit into their carbon-reduction plan over the next 30 years.

But the reality is that nuclear reactors now provide over 50% of U.S. carbon-free electricity and it will be extremely difficult to impossible to achieve net zero-carbon by 2050 without it.

This reality is not exclusive to the U.S. Its allies are increasingly warming to the role that nuclear power will have to play in achieving their 2050 carbon reduction commitments.

Canada is already deeply committed to the development of next-generation small modular reactors for three clean energy purposes.

The largest application is on-grid electricity to replace fossil fuels, accommodate energy demand growth, and support renewable energy. The numerous remote communities in the country are heavily reliant on diesel fuel and these small reactors would replace that dependency. And the use of these technologies in heavy industry and resource extraction would reduce their carbon footprint and potentially produce clean hydrogen.

Similarly, the United Kingdom government has embraced nuclear as clean energy in its most recent energy white paper. It anticipates a mix of new, large reactors and small modular and advanced reactors as essential elements of its domestic clean energy plan.

Even Japan and South Korea, with populations and politicians deeply scarred by the Fukushima nuclear accident, are slowly moving forward with next-generation, small nuclear reactor development to support their mid-century net-zero carbon commitments.

When the President states that climate change is an “existential threat” to the U.S., its economy, and the planet and that “we can’t wait any longer” to act with urgency, the expectation is that all elements of the administration will be pulling out all the stops to achieve this objective.

But there seems to be a disconnect inside the Biden bureaucracy on the nuclear issue.

This can be remedied if the White House assigned at least one and preferable two officials to direct the climate-nuclear agenda. One person could focus on the domestic and regulatory issues and the other on exports, nuclear geopolitics, and international security. Both would need the authority to strategically direct and harmonize the actions of the key government agencies.

The urgent need for this is obvious. The COP26 meeting in Glasgow in November needs to supercharge global clean energy strategy. If nuclear energy is consigned to the back bench at that event, then achieving zero-carbon in 2050 could disappear into the atmosphere.