It’s deja vu all over again! Clean energy fans are gearing up for an epic legal battle against President* Trump’s new Affordable Clean Energy plan, announced just yesterday with coal miners in attendance. Funny thing is, ACE replaces President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which was also announced with great fanfare. That was back in 2015 and it, too, hit a legal wall. It never went into effect. The common thread here is that the US coal industry is caught in a death spiral, no matter what the policy makers over at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue dream up — and now they have nuclear energy breathing down their necks.
New ACE Plan Makes A Window For Nuclear Energy
Cheap natural gas has been the main driver pushing coal out of the US power generation marketplace. In recent years renewable energy has begun to threaten both coal and natural gas.
So, where does that leave nuclear energy? Lobbying hard for a foothold, that’s what.
The key word in the ACE plan is not “affordable.” It’s “clean.” Now that the facts about climate change are finally becoming part of the public conversation, all energy stakeholders are scrambling to toot the “clean” energy horn.
That’s why the oxymoronic “clean coal” label is experiencing a renaissance. Natural gas stakeholders are also ramping up their efforts to tout their operations as “cleaner,” with somewhat mixed success.
Meanwhile, nuclear energy stakeholders are bringing the big bucks to the table. Nuclear stakeholder Bill Gates and other top-dollar investors introduced their Breakthrough Energy Ventures group in the runup to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, and just a couple of weeks ago Michael Bloomberg launched his new $500 million nuclear-curious Beyond Carbon campaign.
Then there’s President Trump, who has been keeping the US nuclear industry afloat by partly by okaying the sale of US nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia, despite that awkward thing about state-sanctioned murder.
Nuclear Energy, Environmental Justice, & The Bitcoin Factor
Meanwhile, cryptocurrency stakeholders could also emerge as a lobbying partner for nuclear energy, in consideration of the carbon emissions related to producing digital currency.
That issue is especially fraught for Bitcoin, because the main hotspot for bitcoin mining also happens to overlap with a global hotspot for nuclear development: China, and elsewhere in Asia.
That brings up all sorts of environmental justice angles, considering who has the resources to mine bitcoin and profit from the platform, and who might wake up to find a potentially high risk energy development in their backyard.
Economic Development & Environmental Justice
With that in mind, CleanTechnica reached out to the Union of Concern Scientists for some insights on environmental justice and nuclear energy.
Edwin Lyman, the Acting Director for the organization’s Nuclear Safety Project, responded at length by email. Without addressing the Bitcoin angle specifically, Mr. Lyman noted that the environmental justice is a complicated topic with regards to nuclear energy.
“In the United States, most nuclear plants were sited many decades ago in rural areas and often actually served to drive local economic development through bolstering the local tax base and providing employment opportunities,” he wrote.
On the issue of racial disparity, Lyman also observed that “local communities tend to be very supportive overall of the nuclear plants in their midst,” though that is not always the case for new projects. He continued:
…in at least one case a new nuclear plant project was supported by the local NAACP chapter, although another project in a neighboring state was opposed by the local NAACP, partly on [environmental justice] grounds. (Neither were actually built.) Today, some communities around nuclear plants have grown more affluent because they abut otherwise desirable waterfront property.
What About Risks & Hazards?
So much for the good news. UCS has tracked nuclear safety issues since 1969, and Lyman draws out the difference between the perception of local nuclear power plants as an overall economic benefit, and the reality of nuclear risks:
…I believe that part of the reason for this [beneficial perception] is an underestimation of the risk of living near a nuclear power plant. The danger is unpredictable and not as apparent as, say, a coal plant or chemical plant that emit visible and noxious plumes.
So there is less fear and more complacency about nuclear plants in one’s backyard — until, of course, there is a Three Mile Island or Chernobyl or Fukushima. But those accidents have not had long-term impacts on public opinion.
Who’s Gonna Pay For All This?
In contrast to the “good neighbors” perception of existing nuclear sites, finding a place to put a new nuclear reactor in the US is likely to be a long, drawn-out battle.
Keep that context in mind as you consider Lyman’s take on the potential for establishing a new fleet of next-generation “small modular reactors” in the US:
With regard to new plants, the only reactors being built today in the U.S. are at a site that already has two nuclear reactors. If more new plants are built, they are also most likely to be located at existing nuclear plant sites.
However, there is an exception. Advocates of “small modular reactors” (300 MW or less) are hoping such reactors could be deployed at former coal plant sites.
Lyman also wrote that a disproportionate number of former coal power plant sites could be located in communities of color, though he cautioned that he has not researched that angle specifically. If you have any info on that score, drop us a note in the comment thread.
Another consideration is that real estate developers and urban planners may also be eyeballing former coal sites alongside desirable waterfront property for residential and commercial redevelopment, which could also displace existing communities (unless they aren’t displaced by climate-related chronic flooding first).
One last observation from Lyman, circling back around to the safety issue:
The [small modular nuclear] advocates are also pushing to reduce or eliminate the emergency evacuation zones required around such plants, which would make them easier to site. So there could be [environmental justice] concerns if such plans ever go forward.
By the way, if you caught that thing about small modular reactors, that’s the technology Bill Gates is pursuing through his TerraPower venture, with an assist from — you guessed it — the US Department of Energy.
That’s part of a much broader effort to ditch large, centralized power plants in favor of smaller scale, distributed energy resources. The Energy Department is also in hot pursuit of small modular reactor technology through the company NuScale.
What’s that again about the Affordable Clean Energy plan bringing back all your coal jobs?