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Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008 01:50 am

The nuclear football

When it comes to nuclear power, will President Obama punt or play?

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Illinois is the most nuclear state in the nation, leading the U.S. in number of reactors and producing one-tenth of the country’s nuclear energy. Forty-eight percent of Illinoisans’ electricity is generated by nuclear power (coal accounts for the other 50 percent).

With energy issues inextricably tied to the economy and national security, Barack Obama pledged to make solving the energy crisis a centerpiece of his administration with a focus on improving efficiency and expanding use of renewables.

So where will that leave Illinois’ nuclear industry? Chicago-based Exelon Corp., which runs 17 generating units, including all 11 in Illinois, was a top contributor to Obama’s Senate and presidential campaigns.

But Obama has never exactly been a friend to nuclear energy; nor is he a foe. Now groups on both sides of the nuclear issue are looking to the new president to pick up their cause.

Dave Kraft, director of the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, which opposes nuclear power, believes that the president-elect will be against nuclear expansion.

“Go back and listen to what he said during the campaign. He would talk about keeping the nuclear option open but he identified a number of hurdles to jump in order for it to be considered clean and safe,” Kraft says.

One of the biggest hurdles, storing nuclear waste safely, is impossible, Kraft says. Moreover, Obama and many Congressional Democrats, who will hold significant majorities in both chambers, reject the U.S. Department of Energy’s proposed Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada, which has long been a political football.

“It’s not that he was just blowing smoke,” Kraft says. “We have to be concerned with safety in a post 9-11 world.”

Speaking in Iowa last year, just before the state’s crucial presidential caucuses, Obama responded to a question about his nuclear position by saying, “I start off with the premise that nuclear energy is not optimal and so I am not a nuclear energy proponent.” He added: “Unless nuclear industries prove they can produce clean, safe energy without enormous subsides from the federal government, I don’t think that’s the best option.”

However, throughout Obama’s career in the U.S. Senate, he often spoke of the need to leave all options, including nuclear, on the table in order to meet the nation’s energy goals, an encouraging sign to nuclear proponents.

Tom Kauffman, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.,-based Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s main lobbying arm, says Obama could be more open to nuclear energy than many believe.

“Throughout the campaign, he said he doubted the goal could be reached without nuclear,” Kauffman says. “He wasn’t as aggressive about nuclear as his opponent, Mr. McCain, but certainly recognized the importance of nuclear power.”

In addition, Obama has advocated an aggressive “cap-and-trade” policy on carbon emissions whereby each emitted unit of carbon or greenhouse gas is charged to the polluter — and even the NEIS’ Kraft agrees that a carbon tax could make nuclear more attractive.

Kauffman does take exception to Obama’s notion that nuclear energy has been heavily subsidized, noting a recent NEI study that finds the bulk of federal tax dollars for energy research and development since 1950 have gone to the oil, coal, natural gas, and renewables industries.

Nuclear is poised to fill the energy gaps, says Kaufman, whose organization estimates that the U.S. will need to construct 250 new power plants by the year 2030 to keep up with the nation’s energy consumption.

While Illinois maintains a moratorium on new nuclear power generation – a task-force was commissioned in July to examine the suspension and is scheduled to present its findings in January 2009 – other states, such as Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina are rocketing forward with plans for new nuclear facilities.

“I haven’t seen anything that demonstrates that getting a new generation of [nuclear] plants in this country will stop,” Kauffman says. “The country needs the energy.”

Contact R.L. Nave at rnave@illinoistimes.com

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