Rick Perry calls expanding nuclear energy “the real” Green New Deal

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Wednesday, March 27, 2019


The site of construction in 2017 for two new nuclear reactors at the Vogtle power station in eastern Georgia. (Georgia Power/Handout via Reuters)

President Trump loves to talk about coal-fired power: Whenever he travels to West Virginia or Kentucky he boasts of bringing back “beautiful clean coal.”

Trump talks far less at political rallies about his administration’s efforts to help the nation’s nuclear energy business.

Yet on Friday, the president’s top energy official just announced a major $3.7 billion boost to keep afloat the last remaining commercial nuclear reactors under construction in the United States.

At a speech to nuclear power plant employees in Georgia, where the two new reactors are being built, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said the taxpayer-guaranteed financing was part of a broader “goal of making America nuclear cool again.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, look around you,” he said at the beginning of his address. “This is the real new green deal.”

The financial boost from the Trump administration comes as debate has picked up in Washington over what to do about climate change. Progressive Democrats have pushed an aggressive, if vague, plan called the Green New Deal to rein in carbon emissions, though they cannot agree on what role nuclear energy would play in it. Some Republicans, meanwhile, have emphasized they would rather cut emissions though innovation — including by building new nuclear reactors — rather than regulation.

The loan guarantee for the project, being built at the Vogtle power station near Augusta, is significant since the pair of reactors had gone billions of dollars over-budget while fallen years behind schedule.

When federal nuclear regulators originally approved the project in 2012, the two reactors were thought to cost $14 billion. Now the cost projection is nearly double.

That $3.7 billion in guaranteed financing comes on top of another $8.3 billion in loan guarantees from the Energy Department under Barack Obama. The completion date has also been pushed back until 2022.

The Obama administration envisioned the new Vogtle project as part of a new fleet of new nuclear reactors to be built in the United States. But that so-called nuclear renaissance never came to fruition after the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011.

For years, the U.S. nuclear industry has struggled with justifying the cost of constructing new reactors. Increasingly, the nuclear power plants still in operation face stiff competition in electricity markets from newer and cheaper forms of generation, like natural gas, solar and wind power.

That, in part, has led to the two new Vogtle nuclear reactors to be the first to be licensed and begin construction in the United States in more than three decades.

But since Trump took office, time and again his administration has held up nuclear and coal power plants as essential to providing homes and businesses with a steady stream of electricity.

Unlike solar panels or wind turbines, nuclear and coal can generate power no matter the weather.

Flanked by energy executives and Georgia politicians on Friday, Perry hammered home that point.

“When you flip on that light switch, when you turn on the air conditioner in the summertime, we take it for granted,” Perry told reporters. “It’s about our national security. It’s about the security of our families. It’s about the comfort of our homes.”

During his first year in office, Perry made a version of that argument to the independent Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to justify subsidizing coal and nuclear plants that were struggling to compete with cheaper power from renewables and natural gas.

But the five-member commission, which at the time had four Trump appointees, unanimously rejected Perry’s plan.

Now it is Democrats who cannot decide among themselves whether or not to back building more nuclear power plants to address an issue their political base increasingly cares about: climate change.

Historically, progressives have been skeptical of nuclear energy over concerns about accidents like Fukushima. Yet nuclear power, which still supplies one in every five megawatts in the country, is the largest producer of electricity that does not contribute greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

That has led the Democratic drafters of the actual Green New Deal, which has captured the attention of so many in Washington and will be voted on this week, to punt on including any specific language on nuclear energy.

“We’ve drafted it in a way which can get the support of progressives and moderates inside of our caucus,” Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), one of the lead sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution, told reporters last month.