The Obama Administration talks a good game about shaping bipartisan energy and climate change policies. The talk is good. History shows that the best way to ensure that these policies work and survive shifts in the political winds is to pass it with strong support from both sides of the aisle.
But talk alone will not do the trick.
So, how can President Obama and his fellow Democrats in Congress persuade wary Republicans that they will, in good faith, move energy and climate legislation that is a balanced attempt to solve the problem rather than an ideological spasm to please the Daily Kos crowd?
Show us the atoms.
Show us that nuclear energy will have a significant place at the table for zero-carbon energy sources.
That could be any number of things:
- Prod the Department of Energy to fix its creaky loan guarantee program.
- Establish an energy bank to finance zero-carbon technology development.
- Crank up funding for advanced reactors that could produce both electricity and process heat for industry.
- Make a serious run at figuring out whether reprocessing is a safe and economical strategy for managing spent reactor fuel.
Reasonable people on the starboard side of the spectrum won’t insist that nuclear is a magic solution for picking apart the global warming and other energy knots that we’ve entangled ourselves in.
We must acknowledge that waste and proliferation issues need to be dealt with forthrightly.
We must also enthusiastically support scaling up a suite of technologies – efficiency, renewables, natural gas, biofuels, and carbon-sequestered coal, as well as nuclear.
But if the no-nukers in the Democrat base and left-leaning environmental groups succeed in badgering congressional leaders into leaving nuclear energy out of the equation, fixing our greenhouse gas emissions problem will be more difficult than it already is likely to be.
The scale of emissions reductions that climate scientists tell us are necessary is enormous. We don’t have the luxury to be picky about the technologies that should be mobilized.
Here’s a science-made-simple illustration of the daunting math, courtesy of Princeton engineering genius Robert Socolow.
Socolow identified 15 currently available technologies that can help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. These include low-carbon energy sources such as wind, solar, and nuclear, gains in automobile and building efficiency, carbon capture, and natural carbon sinks.
To stabilize emissions at current levels 50 years from now, while allowing for global economic growth, we must use manageable combinations of these technologies to build seven “wedges” that will each prevent 1 billion tons of CO2 emissions per year.
A mere tripling of today’s nuclear capacity would give us one wedge.
To get a wedge from wind energy, its worldwide generating capacity would have to be expanded by a factor of 30. To get a wedge from solar, its capacity must rise by a factor of 700.
Congressional Democrats, take note: Rule nuclear off the table in the interests of political correctness, however, and you make the task much more daunting. Filling it would mean finding another wedge: scaling up wind energy by a factor of 60 instead of 30, for example, or solar by a factor of 1,400 instead of 700.
The Democrats have a choice. They can be politically and technologically practical and support a thoughtful nuclear development policy. Or, they can pander to their base, keep nuclear in the shadows, and pray that their favorite technologies can carry the entire burden of ramping down greenhouse gas emissions.
Barack, Harry and Nancy, it’s your call.