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GLASGOW, Scotland — In an interview at the U.N. Climate Change Conference, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm told Yahoo News on Friday that the Biden administration is “very bullish” on building new nuclear reactors in the United States.
“We are very bullish on these advanced nuclear reactors,” she said. “We have, in fact, invested a lot of money in the research and development of those. We are very supportive of that.”
Nuclear energy is controversial among environmental activists and experts because while it does not create the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change, it has the potential to trigger dangerous nuclear meltdowns and creates radioactive nuclear waste.
Most of the Biden administration’s effort to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and almost all the rhetoric at the climate change conference, also known as COP26, is about promoting other clean forms of energy, such as wind and solar power.
But Granholm noted that wind and solar are not yet capable of generating “baseload” capacity, meaning power that can be reliably ramped up to meet demand even when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.
“Half of the United States’ clean power now — when I say ‘clean’ I’m talking about net-zero carbon emissions — is through the nuclear fleet,” she observed. “If you look at the overall power, it’s about 20 percent. Globally, 29 percent of the clean power is nuclear.”
Granholm implied that there is no longer a significant risk of nuclear meltdowns like the infamous past incidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.
“These advanced nuclear reactors, and the existing fleet, are safe,” she said. “We have the gold standard of regulation in the United States.
“And they’re baseload power,” she continued. “The holy grail is to identify clean, baseload power. ... Nuclear is dispatchable, clean baseload power, so we want to be able to bring more on.”
Another objection from critics to building new nuclear power reactors is that doing so is more expensive than competing forms of energy, and that subsidies for it would be better spent on renewables. Granholm addressed that objection head-on, without even being asked about it. She argued that the emerging technology of small, modular reactors will be more affordable than the hulking behemoths of yore.
“Now, the kick is that it is expensive, nuclear is more expensive, and so we want to make sure that these smaller, modular reactors are less expensive,” Granholm said.
“There’ve been a number of them, a couple of them, that are on a sort of pilot demonstration mode,” she added. “For example, TerraPower in Wyoming put a small advanced reactor adjacent to a retired coal plant. And because the infrastructure is there to carry the power away, it made perfect sense. And those coal miners who were working at the plant now have a job at the new facility. So we’re excited about nuclear power.”
Earlier this year the Department of Energy announced investments in nuclear energy research and development, but it has really kicked into high gear in recent days, in order to bolster the U.S.’s claim to climate leadership around COP26.
This week it rolled out a series of new programs, including an initiative to improve the technology of clean energy trucks, another to bring down the cost of removing carbon from the atmosphere, and an effort to use U.S. research capacity to advise other nations on how to build a clean energy economy.
Granholm has spoken at a whirlwind series of events promoting these and other programs to combat climate change with foreign government ministers, business leaders and White House colleagues such as special presidential envoy for climate John Kerry, who is leading the U.S. negotiating team in Glasgow.
Kerry and Granholm have both referred frequently at their public appearances this week to President Biden’s Build Back Better agenda to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade on reducing American greenhouse gas emissions, largely through programs promoting clean energy.
Last month congressional Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asserted that the agenda would be passed in time to boost the prospects of reaching an ambitious global agreement to combat climate change in Glasgow.
But Congress hasn’t passed the budget reconciliation package that contains most of those provisions. Kerry told Yahoo News earlier this week that this doesn’t undermine the U.S. at the climate change conference. Granholm said only that she thinks the package will pass.
“Here, the countries who are at COP have uniformly expressed that they are so glad that the United States is committed to the goals that the president has said, including 100 percent clean electricity by 2035,” Granholm said. “They know the president is working really hard to get this through Congress.”
Granholm went on to note that the House of Representatives was expected to vote that night on the infrastructure bill, which is a companion to the larger budget legislation.
“The bottom line is that the president feels very confident that he has the votes in both the House and the Senate to get it through and we’re excited to implement [it],” she said.
Biden’s climate agenda works to overturn former President Donald Trump’s policies; likewise, the Trump administration undid some of the Obama administration’s executive actions on climate change.
“One can never be sure, right, that the policies you put in place won’t be amended by a future Congress,” Granholm conceded, when asked by Yahoo News how she would assure her foreign counterparts that the U.S. would remain committed to the long-term clean energy policies that the Biden administration is pursuing.
“However, if we are able to get the, for example, demonstration projects and the technologies that we’re talking about in the ground, ready to go, that’s much more difficult to uproot,” she continued.
“Our hair should be on fire because the planet is on fire, no matter what, but we will be accelerating the deployment of these technologies so that we can, in fact, get them in the ground, get the solar panels up, get the grid investments that are necessary to add the renewable energy capacity that we have to.
“We’re gonna do all of that on steroids,” she concluded.