CleanTechies is fortunate to have some of the sharpest minds in the energy and clean tech industries as regular readers, but even if you don’t have a Ph.D., you should be able to answer this quick math quiz: “Which price tag is cheaper, $8 billion or free?”
Don’t hurt yourselves!
On Tuesday, President Obama officially announced $8 billion in government loan guarantees for construction of two new nuclear plants in Georgia, the country’s first expansion of nukes in more than 30 years.
A day later, the Vermont state legislature officially began deliberations on the question of relicensure of Entergy’s Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. While there are some transaction costs associated with keeping Vermont Yankee open past 2012, the cost is nowhere near $4 billion.
Given the commitment the president made to clean, domestic nuclear power just 24 hours earlier, you would expect the White House to jump right in on the question of relicensure in Vermont, right? Not so fast.
Political observers saw the president’s Georgia announcement as more than just a fit in the president’s running “clean energy economy narrative.” It was also a continuation of the political nod to the GOP (and Blue Dog Dems) that began with the Waxman-Markey compromise and came into full flower with the announcement of the proposed Kerry-Graham Senate climate bill, complete with clean coal subsidies, offshore drilling and a lot of nuclear.
But, if the White House saw the long-term potential in a nuclear “olive branch,” they may have underestimated the political peril in entering the nuclear fray just as debate is beginning to rage about relicensure of many of the nation’s plants.
Surely the White House will cite Tip O’Neill’s political axiom that “All politics is local,” and attempt to steer clear of the black-and-blue battle brewing in the Green Mountain State. But it will be difficult for the president to keep a straight face on the $8 billion commitment while remaining silent on the relicensure of an existing plant. To do so would vitiate the political purpose of the nuclear play in the first place.
That leaves two choices: get behind relicensure or point out why the White House is all about nukes — just not this one, in particular.
Vermont Yankee is in some trouble, giving the latter option some promise. The plant is embroiled in an ill-timed revelation of tritium leaks and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has been very public in opposition to relicensure. But, to make these arguments about Vermont Yankee in particular would force the White House to acknowledge some of the most damning arguments that nuclear opponents offer in general: safety and spent fuel.
The president might point out the technological distinctions between the existing Vermont plant and the proposed next generation, but that kind of nuance is tough to convey in an emotional political fight like this.
Moreover, if the White House decides to weigh in against relicensure in this particular fight, they have set a precedent for coming battles, as other 1970’s-era plants come up for renewal or closure during the Obama presidency, and well before the Georgia plants will come online.
On the other hand, getting behind relicensure as consistent with the $8 billion commitment is politcally perilous. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” still stands. Guantanamo remains open, and more troops are in Afghanistan today than a year ago. And, never mind a public option, a health care bill of any kind remains very much in doubt. That’s the GLBT coalition, the anti-war crowd and the health care constituency, three stalwarts of the progressive block, all left unfulfilled.
Backing Vermont Yankee risks further alienating environmental progressives, a fourth tent pole of the coalition that swept Obama into office 15 months ago. The timing could not be worse. The president’s approval ratings have already slipped below 50 percent just as mid-term elections loom for 2010.
Greens are already concerned. The House Waxman-Markey bill was widely panned on the left as an excess of compromise (at best), or a failure and sell-out (at worst). The Senate could not get a bill to the floor before the line in the sand that the Copenhagen conference represented, and the bill that is now working its way through the Senate has a lot of hardcore greens blue in the face.
It says a lot about American politics and the energy debate that even in today’s economic conditions, an $8 billion bet comes with better odds than a freebie, but that is the situation the White House faces.
Indeed, in the ultimate irony, a president who entered office with a friendly super-majority and high hopes for energy and climate reform is now at risk of running into the arms of the GOP and running afoul of his base on the most significant single energy technology play of his young presidency.
President Obama will have to keep his fingers crossed in hopes that as the debate in Vermont heats up, the prevailing winds will blow the fallout in a direction other than Washington.