Congress

Nuclear power would get support in bipartisan Senate bill

With support from industry, legislation touted as a way to extend the lifespan and efficiency of America’s nuclear plants

“My overall goal is to develop legislation that can pass the Senate,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

A bipartisan pair of senators unveiled nuclear energy legislation Wednesday, describing it as a serious and pragmatic approach to tackle climate change and connecting it to rising greenhouse gas emissions specifically.

Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware and Republican Martha McSally of Arizona floated the bill, which has support from the nuclear power lobby, as a way to extend the lifespan and efficiency of America’s fleet of nuclear power plants.

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“If we’re serious about reducing our carbon emissions, we need to get serious about nuclear energy,” McSally said in a statement.

The legislation would support “advanced nuclear” methods, referring generally to steps to make nuclear power produce less waste and generate electricity more reliably. It would establish a Department of Energy project to cut costs at power stations, increase research and development and create an apprenticeship program for the industry.

McSally’s sponsorship marks the latest action from a Republican in Congress to offer a tool to fight climate change, following bipartisan carbon tax bills that were introduced last week. Florida Republican Rep. Francis Rooney introduced a carbon pricing bill. And Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick is expected to unveil a separate bill to tax emissions after the August recess.

Industry executives are behind the Coons-McSally bill. Kathleen Barrón of Exelon Corporation, a nuclear-heavy utility, cheered the senators for “their leadership on legislation that supports the largest source of always available, zero-emission energy in the country — nuclear power.”

The U.S. gets about 20 percent of its electricity from nuclear power — juice that is almost emissions-free once the plant is operating.

Maria Korsnick, president of the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s primary voice in Washington, D.C., issued a statement of support. And Rich Powell, director of ClearPath, a conservative advocacy group that backs nuclear, hydropower and carbon capture as ways to curb greenhouse gases, said, “This legislation will help sustain the existing fleet in a safe and affordable way, while bolstering the domestic supply chain.”

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But the industry faces significant political and financial headwinds. Beyond the waste issue — spent nuclear fuel is piling up in dozens of states nationwide absent a federal waste disposal plan or site — nuclear power is unpopular with the Democratic base.

Six nuclear reactors closed down between 2012 and 2016 as operators cited a combination of pressure from low wholesale electricity prices and rising costs for upkeep.

Renewables such as wind and solar power are also undercutting the nuclear market as their costs drop. And the future of other plants, such as Diablo Canyon, a California facility owned by Pacific Gas & Electric, which filed for bankruptcy this year, are unclear due to financial worries facing their parent companies.

“Climate change poses an existential threat to our economy, our environment, and our national security,” Coons said. “I’m proud that this legislation will allow the Department of Energy to provide nuclear power plants with the requisite tools and research to increase their cost-competitiveness and develop the new technologies they require to operate efficiently.”

In the last Congress, Coons introduced a carbon tax bill with then-Sen. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican. That legislation would have created a Carbon Dividend Trust Fund, which would have paid out dividend checks from the revenue gleaned by taxing carbon emissions.

On a call with reporters last week, Coons said he has not found a new Republican co-sponsor for that legislation. Instead, he introduced a different carbon tax bill with California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.

“My overall goal is to develop legislation that can pass the Senate,” Coons said.

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