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Why is the Obama administration supporting nuclear energy rather than bargaining with it?

Republicans have, in recent years, become full-throated promoters of nuclear energy. At the same time, many Democrats have softened their stance against the technology. This would suggest an obvious compromise: The Obama administration embraces nuclear energy in return for Republican support on the broader energy agenda. Makes sense, right? Then why, Dan Weiss asks, did the White House offer up the nuclear energy guarantees in return for nothing?

One down side of the president’s budget is that it includes a misguided expansion of nuclear loan guarantees. The Obama administration proposes to triple funds for nuclear loan guarantees from $18.5 billion to $54 billion. This huge growth exposes taxpayers to billions of dollars of potential liability if the nuclear debtors default on their loans. The Congressional Budget Office found that nuclear investments are very risky, stating, “CBO considers the risk of default on such a loan guarantee to be very high — well above 50 percent.”

[...] This proposal is also dubious political strategy because it provides huge subsidies for nuclear power without securing the support of pronuclear senators for comprehensive, bipartisan global warming pollution reduction legislation. Many of the nuclear industries biggest backers — including Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) — refuse to support comprehensive, bipartisan clean-energy and global warming legislation. Providing additional goodies for the nuclear industry unconnected to such a bill makes little political sense.

It's a good question.

By Ezra Klein  |  February 3, 2010; 7:14 AM ET
Categories:  Climate Change  
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Obama is an incompetent negotiator. That also explains why he gave up the public option and single-payer for nothing.

Of course, the alternative explanation is that he is a devout right-winger pretending to be a progressive, and looking at his actions and policies this just might explain everything.

Posted by: Lomillialor | February 3, 2010 7:42 AM | Report abuse

The Dems (not just Obama, not even primarily Obama) gave up single payer and the public option in order to get something passed. Then blue dogs and Republicans decided that, after that's the deal they got, they didn't like it any more.

They didn't give it up without an expectation of something specific in return (enough votes to pass the bill) just, after being lead to believe they were going to get something, Republicans decided the deal wasn't sweet enough.

"Okay, you have to drop the public option, totally fund a new sweeping nuclear energy program, and cut taxes for rich people. Then we'll vote for it. Maybe. No, seriously, we will. Possibly. Okay, me and my friends were talking, and now we'll vote for it if you do a little dance."

The Republicans aren't really negotiating in good faith--in part because, early on, the Dems thought they could steamroll this into law--so that's why it looks like they keep giving things away.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 3, 2010 7:51 AM | Report abuse

to take Kevin's point further with this talk of side-car reconciliation still gives the premise of it being "steam-rolled". It gives the idea that if MA was about forcing the Dems to bi-partisanship (no matter how unrealistic that is) that they're still not listening.

I also find it just reprehensible that the person that's third in line of succession to the President is spending part of her day on a conference call with progressive bloggers. Really? If/when Michelle Bachman hung out with the Tea Party loonies Republicans got plenty of flak for that which was well deserved but this to me is much worse because this woman shapes legislation where Bachman has almost no power to do anything. Its like if Trent Lott got together with Glenn Beck and talked strategy with him. Just sickening and no one will talk about it (especially not here)

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 3, 2010 8:02 AM | Report abuse

The budget proposal is about possibilities not probabilities. The item may be in the budget to allow room to negotiate for more nuclear subsidies without re-configuring the budget numbers later. There's no commitment there.

Posted by: marvyT | February 3, 2010 8:15 AM | Report abuse

Despite what Kevin said, the fact remains that health care reform (not even a centrist version of it that the GOP could in theory support) has not been enacted and likely will not be enacted.

This is because Obama did not insist on starting negotiations with a bill of his own making that included a pubic option or single-payer and a fierce determination to threaten to steam roll it through a Democratic congress. Again, the current state of affairs is due to Obama being an incompetent negotiator and a naive politician (or a wolf in sheep's clothing).

Posted by: Lomillialor | February 3, 2010 8:28 AM | Report abuse

Kevin, how can you possibly look at the months the bill got bogged down in Baucus's committee while he was fruitlessly talking to Enzi and Grassley (and only slightly less fruitlessly talking to Snowe) and say that it was not a good faith effort?

Posted by: Chris_O | February 3, 2010 9:07 AM | Report abuse

The fact that liberals (or progressives or populists or whatever they are calling themselves these days) see nuclear power as a bargining chip proves that global warming is just a political tool and not a real problem. If they really thought that CO2 was killing our planet they would want every CO2 reducing technology, including nuclear power, implemented as quickly as possible. If a person was really drowning they would gladly take any flotation device that was offered to them. When they say "I will only take the red life preserver if you also include the blue life preserver" you know they are not really drowning.

Posted by: cummije5 | February 3, 2010 9:08 AM | Report abuse

"Why . . . did the White House offer up the nuclear energy guarantees in return for nothing?"

The answer, I suspect, is simple arithmetic and policy logic.

First, the country urgently needs to expand its electricity generation capacity, especially given lags between planning, plant completion, and production.

Second, modern nuclear power plant designs are many, many times more safe than Three Mile Island or Chernobyl. Safer and abundant nuclear fuels, such as thorium, are also now feasible.

Third, if one believes that reducing or limiting the growth in CO2 emissions is urgent, then no other "green" technology other than nuclear energy is remotely capable of providing the incremental capacity needed given expanding demand for electricity -- wind, solar, etc., are more costly, unproven, unreliable as a stable source, and have other disadvantages that may or may not be overcome through continuing R&D.

In view of these realities, Democrats are simply realists in advancing their central objectives to collaborate in rehabilitating the acceptability of greater future reliance on nuclear energy. France did so successfully and certainly serves as a proof-of-concept. The nuclear waste disposal puzzle needs to be resolved, but if Harry Reid is defeated in November, perhaps Utah-NIMBYism will go down with him and Yucca Mountain will be back on the table -- otherwise a national fuel recycling program might be explored.

Posted by: rboltuck | February 3, 2010 9:18 AM | Report abuse

This is doubly insane. The nuclear industry would benefit greatly from cap-and-trade policies because nuclear power plants emit no carbon. Passing cap-and-trade reduces the relative cost of nuclear energy, making the loans less likely to go into default.

Posted by: rukkyg | February 3, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

Why did the White House offer up the nuclear energy guarantees in return for nothing?

Because they're terrible at negotiating?

Posted by: TWAndrews | February 3, 2010 9:41 AM | Report abuse

There are other technologies that cannot advance without subsidies. In particular green techs like wind, solar and geothermal. We are convinced to like these so they advance with subsidy. Other black techs like nuke, coal-to-liquid, clean coal do not advance because we are convinced not to like them. It seems obvious why we we like one versus the other. The ones we like seem benign with no operational emmissions. The ones we don't like operationally emit noxious gases and killer rays. I submit we are being stupidly shortsighted which is our nature. First, if we consider green tech from cradle-to-grave, we find the factories and processes to create the devices have a black side. Then in-service maintenance and disposal are not considered. Also green tech is very young so we do not know long term effects of harvesting wind and sunshine. Second, We know a great deal about how to mitigate black techs' negatives but lack the will to pay for it. Coal-to-liquid could go a long way to freeing us from Mid-east crude but our leaders refuse to subsidize it. Investors will not put up their own money when their investment can be rendered moot by a Saudi Prince or a crazy leftist dictator lowering the price of crude. Finally, none of these techs are the end-all. We should invoke them when they can help us and not shun them to our detriment.

Posted by: BertEisenstein | February 3, 2010 9:47 AM | Report abuse

"Kevin, how can you possibly look at the months the bill got bogged down in Baucus's committee while he was fruitlessly talking to Enzi and Grassley (and only slightly less fruitlessly talking to Snowe) and say that it was not a good faith effort?"

Okay. Let's say that was actually a good faith effort at bi-partisanship. I'm dubious, but let's say it was.

It still lays the blame on the Republicans and/or Democrats in the house and senate. Successful advancement of an agenda that is relatively popular and most of the Democrats agree on should not require superhuman perfection from one man--in this case, Obama--to be successful. Obama has clearly tried to advance HCR--the ABC Healthcare special? The HCR townhall? Literally hundreds of interviews and speeches? The guy has made a serious effort.

Maybe he was a bit naive--or let's say inexperienced--but Obama expended a great deal of political capital on advancing healthcare. It's the Democrats in the house and senate that either caved, negotiated the bill into an arguably worse mess than it was before, or were out-manuevered by the Republicans. Either way, the lion's share of the failure of HCR this time around rests with the house and senate.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 3, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

does any liberal on here really think that the more conservative senate bill was ever fully going to take hold and not be "liberalized" either by the house bill or in conference? I would expect that Senate republicans had to push their negotiating stance so far rigth because they knew it was going to be pushed so far left once they had absolutely no power in it. Its amazing how so many in here conveniently forget that fact. I guess its only politics when Republicans do it.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 3, 2010 9:58 AM | Report abuse

One of the difficulties of green tech is the amount of opposition that shows up, once things are seriously underway. Windmill farms already suffer from both NIMBY and environmental complaints (noise, ultra-low frequency vibrations causing illness, killing birds). Solar solutions similarly suffer, as large-scale solar arrays require a lot of land, and may potentially displace an indigenous insect population. When plans move forward, there are protests, and not from Tea-baggers. All that is required for nuclear to become worse than coal is for there to be as many nuclear plants as coal powered plants. And the only thing it will take for wind power and solar power to become as bad as--or, at least as thoroughly protested and agitated against--is large scale deployment. Once solar and wind is producing meaningful energy, the same sort of hostility the coal industry feels now will be directed towards solar and wind. And for much the same reason--health, environmental impact, displacement of local flora and fauna.

That being said, I think our energy problems would be solved if we had a lunar base mining Helium3 and sending it back to earth, and the entire operation could be run by clones of Sam Rockwell.

Ah, cold fusion, where are ye?

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | February 3, 2010 10:03 AM | Report abuse

I'd guess the reason he's not bargaining with nuclear power is because the Republicans find cap and trade anathema no matter what goodies sugar coat it.

Obama's genuinely concerned about CO2 emissions, and no matter what else happens encouraging the development of new nuclear power plants is a way to supply the country with carbon free electricity. It's ultimately something anyone who believes global warming is a problem should sign on to.

You think Lisa Murkowski is going to sign onto cap and trade or something similar because of an add-on policy supporting nuclear power plants? Why wouldn't she oppose the whole idea until cap and trade is dropped and then support only the nuclear power plant loan guarantee part, knowing that Democrats who take global warming seriously should be pro nuclear power?

If you want to craft a true compromise in this area, you need to offer something Republicans actually like that Democrats wouldn't consider doing on it's own merits. Perhaps Democrats could push for a carbon tax, with the revenues offset by lowering taxes on labor.

Posted by: justin84 | February 3, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Probably because the people who oppose nuclear energy do so for not other reason than a knee jerk reaction. And for whatever else you think of Obama-- he certainly isn't a knee jerk reaction kind of guy.

If you really believe that global warming is one of the biggest threats we face then embracing nuclear power is the obvious place to start. Until people are open to nuclear I am pretty sure they don't really consider global warming to be that big of a problem. Glad to see that Obama is actually taking the problem seriously.

Posted by: spotatl | February 3, 2010 10:30 AM | Report abuse

@visionbrkr: comparing tea partiers to progressives? Really? I've come to expect at least a little sense in your posts, but you're phoning it in today.

Posted by: BigTunaTim | February 3, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

I think this may be overly political - focusing on what you can get as a compromise is often useful, but not always. I think this is one of those cases where the virtues of nuclear stands alone.

Unlike solar or wind, production can be dialed up and down to match output to demand. From a power production and transmission engineering standpoint, nuclear is the only carbon-neutral power production method that can fit easily at large scales into the existing power grid.

I'm pretty serious about carbon emissions, and think that the nuclear industry is the best stepping stone to a low carbon future.

Posted by: shanehuang | February 3, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse


sorry i'm grumpy today and Ms. Nancy really needs to re-think who she calls for advice.

Posted by: visionbrkr | February 3, 2010 11:44 AM | Report abuse

visionbrkr: what BigTunaTim said. Comparing teabaggers to progressives is like comparing evolutionary biologists to creationist hacks. Sure progressives have some unconventional (from a classical economics standpoint) views about how the economy should work, but they do start from the big universe of facts that we all share. Teabaggers start with Obama being a Kenyan, socialist, fascist, antichrist whose main goal is the destruction of the US and enslavement of its citizens.

Posted by: srw3 | February 3, 2010 12:39 PM | Report abuse

Oh and I forgot the teabagger rallying cry, "Keep your big government hands off my medicare!"

Posted by: srw3 | February 3, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

I think Obama is just bowing to the inevitable reality that if you worship at the alter of the all mighty global warming god, which Obama obviously does, the only way to cut CO2 emmisions and not totally destroy the economy is to build more nuclear power plants. I'm sure his lefty enviro advisors try to tell him that we can get rid of all fossil fuel power plants and replace them with wind mills but Obama is nothing if not practical about getting himself re-elected in 2012 and won't let left wing fantasies about wind power providing all of our electricity get in the way of that.

Posted by: RobT1 | February 3, 2010 12:41 PM | Report abuse

Obama starts off with what he thinks are good policy decisions and works from there. It's a "goo-goo liberal" way of thinking: focus on making good policy rather than the politics of getting what you want passed.

Which is just a fancy was of saying, as Lomillialor put it, "Obama is an incompetent negotiator." The political environment is such that you should KNOW that your proposals are going to be negotiated away, so you keep your bargaining chips in your pocket to use when needed so that you end up with good policy by the end.

Posted by: constans | February 3, 2010 12:58 PM | Report abuse

While failing to negotiate something in exchange for nuclear is an opportunity lost, nuclear power is still a worthwhile investment on its own merits. We're talking about a fairly mature technology with 0-runtime C02 emissions. As much as I'd prefer other technologies, I think the liberal opposition to nuclear is based mostly in ignorance.

Posted by: zosima | February 3, 2010 2:10 PM | Report abuse

Well duh. If nuclear is so great, why does it require such massive government subsidies?
It is hypocritical to oppose government investments in clean, green, and shovel ready energy programs, while supporting big, centralized goverment interventions that might (or might not) solve imminent problems in the distant future.
The problem for the nuke-nuts is low hanging fruit: investments today in energy efficiency begin paying for themselves tomorrow, and cutting net CO2 shortly there after. Investments in green power generation take a little longer (say next year).
Even if "shovel-ready", it will take 5 years of massive investment (government or private) in a nuke plant before any payback (and "pencil-ready" projects, much, much longer).
It's a lot like corn ethanol. The right-wingers could claim they were pro-environment while grabing goodies for their farm belt constituents, and screwing the less fortunates here & elsewhere who depend on cheap corn. (Not to mention corn based ethanol is not much better environmentally).
Yes, nuclear power might be needed in the long term. So save it for the long term, while grabbing the opprotunities we have now.

Posted by: Denswei | February 3, 2010 2:48 PM | Report abuse

You ask: Why did the White House offer up the nuclear energy guarantees in return for nothing? The answer is simple: realistic production of electricity with the greatest possible reduction in CO2 is already a triumphal bargain for the White House. It is something and far more than nothing.

Posted by: wolfgangwulff | February 3, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

The problem is simple: massive investment in nuclear energy NOW does too little, too late (10 years at the earliest)
Smart investment in energy efficiency NOW cuts CO2 from the atmosphere, and pumps money into the economy NEXT YEAR.
Smart investment in green energy production, a little longer.
It's always astounding to see how little nuclear energy proponents actually know about the technology they are promoting! (like how long it takes to plan & build a nuclear power plant).

Posted by: Denswei | February 3, 2010 3:25 PM | Report abuse

The only reason nuclear power is not very competitive right now is because of massive regulatory burdens. And there have been tremendous advances in the technology since the US dropped out, making those burdens obsolete.
Maybe some of you are still against nuclear power, but plenty of progressives are coming over. Unless you think Obama is still against it, it's crazy to complain that he's supporting it.
And he should make demands on the Republicans? What happened to bipartisanship? Doesn't that mean doing things that we can agree on?

Posted by: MikeR4 | February 3, 2010 4:01 PM | Report abuse

The Obama committment comment is a canard.

Obama shut down Yucca Mountain projects...after we have spend $9 billion already on no where to put spend nuke material.

And the EPA will never permit any nuclear sites and plans for they have blocked them for the last 25 years.

So Obama is just lying.

Bargaining is a cheap deal. He pledged to work for the people, and the people need national energy independence.

You journalists and pundits are idiots that have been around Washington too long.

The rest of us in the world are sick of your crap.

Posted by: joelevin | February 3, 2010 5:26 PM | Report abuse

The bigger reason nuclear power is not very competitive is the massive investment and risk burdens. A nuclear power plant is cheap to run, but expensive to build and expensive to decomission: while the cost of financing is huge (and requiring big government subsidies), the liabilities are orders of magnitude larger (requiring big government insurance).
Sure, the government can cut back regulations to make them cheaper, just like the government cut back regulations on Wall Street to make them more profitable.
Large centralized power plants are also a security risk: we can build them safe from dumb machine malfunctions, but keeping them safe from intelligent & committed terrorist is an order of magnitude harder, and safeguarding the fuel yet another order harder.
A terrorist diving an airplane into a nuke plant is tragic, a terrorist diving an airplane into a windmil is comic.

Posted by: Denswei | February 4, 2010 12:00 AM | Report abuse

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