Udall risks enviro wrath by floating bill to boost nuclear industry

Colorado U.S. Sen. Mark Udall Wednesday took his boldest step yet on the road to a national nuclear renaissance as part of a program designed to combat global warming. He introduced the Nuclear Energy Research Initiative Improvement Act of 2009 in a lengthy speech on the Senate floor in which he acknowledged he was likely stepping on an environmental landmine.

Sen. Mark Udall
Sen. Mark Udall

“For some, news that a Udall is speaking favorably about nuclear power will come as a stark – and perhaps unpleasant – surprise. But I also believe public and expert opinion on the risks and benefits of nuclear power has changed,” Udall said, referencing the 1979 Three Mile Island power plant meltdown and the industry’s struggle to improve its public image in the ensuing three decades.

“Looking beyond environmental concerns, and as we face perhaps our greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, we also need an ‘all of the above’ solution to jump-start our economy. That means continuing our development of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and biomass, as well as traditional energy resources like coal, oil and cleaner fuels like natural gas,” said Udall, a member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

The Senate bill, co-sponsored by Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, would clear the way for the U.S. Department of Energy to engage in research into modular and small-scale nuclear reactors, cost-efficient manufacturing for nuclear power facilities and enhanced proliferation controls.

The bill is largely viewed as an olive branch to key Republicans who insist nuclear power, a nearly carbon-free source of energy, must play a bigger role in the pending Boxer-Kerry climate change bill, which would set a cap on carbon emissions and penalize the nation’s largest polluters.

“The scale of the energy changes we must make dictates that we be open to the widest variety of energy options, particularly those with domestic potential and those with cleaner emissions,” Udall said, repeating a favorite phrase. “In other words, there is no silver bullet that can solve all of our energy challenges; we are going to need silver buckshot.”

Keith Hay, energy advocate for Denver-based Environment Colorado, said Udall’s own state would bear the environmental brunt of a revival of the nation’s nuclear power industry, which currently accounts for a about 20 percent of the nation’s electrical power, although no new nuclear plants have come online since the Three Mile Island disaster.

“We don’t think that renewable energy is a silver bullet; we just think that there are some things that shouldn’t be part of the buckshot going forward, and nuclear [power] certainly shouldn’t be part of that buck shot,” Hay said. “We certainly agree with Sen. Udall that climate change is important and a pressing need, but we clearly disagree with Sen. Udall on the path forward.”

Udall talked about bringing several new reactors online in the coming decade in order to work out the costs associated with nuclear power, which he admitted are relatively unknown given the dormancy of the industry over the past 30 years.

“Environment Colorado believes, and the numbers show, that what we need to do is efficiency first, clean energy second and then there may be other solutions,” Hay said. “But to move nuclear to the head of the line when it’s one of the most costly solutions that we have is just not the right step.”

Udall acknowledged that the National Academy of Sciences puts the cost of electricity from new nuclear plants at between 8 to 13 cents per kilowatt-hour, a big range given the average national price of electricity from all types of energy was 10.42 cents in July of 2009, according to the DOE’s Energy Information Administration.

“The first wave of nuclear power plants will go a long way towards telling us whether new plants can be built on budget and on schedule in the United States,” Udall said. “I hope the answers are ‘yes’ and ‘yes,’ and that the final cost of electricity is at the lower end of the uncertainty range. I say this because – if nuclear energy is to survive as a viable option – it will need to compete against other low-carbon technologies in the long run.”

Hay said nuclear plants have a track record of coming online behind schedule and way over budget.

“The road going forward is a renewable energy road and it doesn’t make sense to start building new nuclear plants on the hope that they’ll come in on time and under budget,” Hay said. “We just don’t think that investing in nuclear power and putting the taxpayers on the hook for that bill is a responsible and sensible solution to meeting our energy needs or combating global warming. It just doesn’t do either of those things as well as the other alternatives that we have.”

One of Hay’s biggest concerns is what a nuclear power revival will mean for Colorado, one of the West’s leading uranium producers in the past but a state with a legacy of mining pollution.

“Colorado is on the front end of any nuclear renaissance, and in fact we’re on the dirty front end of any nuclear renaissance,” Hay said. “So to say nuclear is a clean energy solution ignores the impacts that people in the state are going to feel from increased uranium mining, from impacts to their water to all of the other impacts that go with the mining industry.”

Udall has in the past said new technology and better practices will alleviate a lot of the problems associated with uranium in the past, but that state regulators will need to closely monitor a resurgent Colorado uranium industry.

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