Politics & Policy

Hillary Takes the Nuclear-Energy Option

(Photo: Gage Skidmore)
She recognizes that public perceptions about nuclear power are becoming more positive.

Amid the avalanche of criticism aimed at Hillary Clinton in recent weeks about Pneumonia-gate, the Clinton Foundation, and her never-ending e-mail troubles, the Democratic nominee actually made an important policy statement, one that puts her directly at odds with America’s biggest environmental groups as well as her own party’s platform.

What did Clinton do? She endorsed nuclear energy.

In a candidate questionnaire published in the September 13 issue of Scientific American, she said that addressing climate change is “too important to limit the tools available in this fight. Nuclear power . . . is one of those tools.” She went on, pledging to make sure that the “climate benefits” of existing plants are “appropriately valued,” adding that she will “increase investment in the research, development and deployment of advanced nuclear power.”

Before going further, let’s be clear: When it comes to energy issues, the former secretary of state has been downright Clintonesque. As a U.S. senator, she was an ardent opponent of corn ethanol. But in 2007, during her first run for the presidency, she switched her position and began praising ethanol, particularly during campaign stops in Iowa. She has also straddled the fence on nuclear. In 2007, she said nuclear “has to be part of our energy solution.” A few months later, she said she was “agnostic” about nuclear energy. Then, in early 2008, during a Democratic primary debate in Las Vegas, she touted her “energy plan that does not rely on nuclear power.”

Nevertheless, Clinton has now come out in favor of nuclear. By doing so, she has broken with the orthodoxy of the anti-nuclear Left, a group that includes the New York Times editorial board, as well as the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, 350.org, the Union of Concerned Scientists, and many others. Recall that in June, Michael Brune, the executive director of the Sierra Club declared that his group “remains in firm opposition to dangerous nuclear power.”

Furthermore, Clinton is contradicting her own party. For four decades, the Democratic party has either ignored nuclear energy or stated outright opposition to it. In July, the party released its platform, which says climate change “poses a real and urgent threat to our economy, our national security, and our children’s health and futures.” But it doesn’t contain a single mention of nuclear energy. Indeed, you have to go all the way back to 1972 to find a positive statement in the party’s platforms about nuclear energy. According to a 2015 Gallup poll, voters who identify as Republican are twice as likely (47 percent to 24 percent) to support nuclear energy as are those who identify as Democrats.

For four decades, the Democratic party has either ignored nuclear energy or stated outright opposition to it.

Those poll numbers, as well as the Democratic party’s history, lead to an obvious question: Why has Clinton come out in favor of nuclear now?

There are several possible explanations. The first, and most obvious one, is that Clinton is simply being pragmatic. She’s watching how nuclear politics are playing out in her home state of New York. In July, the New York Independent System Operator, in a letter to the New York State Public Service Commission, said flatly that “retaining all existing nuclear generators is critical to the State’s carbon emission reduction requirements as well as maintaining electric system reliability.” In August, New York regulators adopted a clean-energy standard that includes subsidies for nuclear utilities so that they will keep their reactors operating.

Jessica Lovering, director of energy research at the Breakthrough Institute, an environmental-policy group, believes that Clinton understands that “the narrative about nuclear has changed in the public discourse.” Since the climate meeting in Paris last December, “there’s been a broader recognition of nuclear’s essential role in reducing emissions.”

But the hard reality is that the U.S. nuclear sector is withering. Over the past year or so, utilities from Massachusetts to California have announced plans to shutter seven reactors with a combined capacity of about 6.3 gigawatts. Another 15 to 20 reactors (representing another 15 to 20 gigawatts) may be closed prematurely over the next decade. For some perspective, the seven reactors now slated for closure are producing about 51 terawatt-hours of electricity per year. That’s more zero-carbon electricity than every solar-energy facility in the country.

The punchline here is obvious: It doesn’t matter whether you like Hillary Clinton or loathe her. Nor does it matter much whether you adhere to the orthodoxy on climate change. What matters is that finally — finally! — a leading Democrat has acknowledged that we need nuclear energy.

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