April 28, 2014
ASG Senior Advisor Browner discusses nuclear power with Greenwire
Climate concerns spurred Browner's conversion to industry advocate
April 28, 2014
by Hannah Northey and Jean Chemnick, E&E reporters
Former White House climate adviser Carol Browner said today that her views on nuclear power evolved as she came to believe that the United States would need every tool at its disposal to address the emerging threat of climate change.
"I used to be anti-nuke," Browner said at the National Press Club today. She added that she's had a "long journey" to a pro-nuke stance -- "one that I'm proud of."
The former U.S. EPA administrator is now in a chorus of White House and industry officials calling for market fixes to thwart premature reactor closures that they say threaten short-term climate change goals. Those goals, she said, cannot be met through renewable energy alone.
Browner spoke as part of a pro-nuclear panel hosted by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES). The panel included Pete Lyons, the Department of Energy's assistant secretary for nuclear energy, and Bill Mohl, president of Entergy Corp.'s wholesale commodities unit.
Browner has recently stepped up her pro-nuclear efforts, joining Nuclear Matters, a campaign partially funded by Exelon Corp. -- the country's largest reactor operator. Nuclear Matters aims to promote nuclear power as a carbon-free source of base-load power and spread the word about economic challenges facing the nuclear industry (Greenwire, April 22).
Browner told reporters today that much of her skepticism about nuclear power in earlier years stemmed from the event at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear plant, which suffered a partial meltdown in 1979. Since then, Browner said she has rethought her position during her tenure in the federal government and now believes the closure of existing reactors in the United States will trigger an uptick in greenhouse gas emissions.
Her involvement highlights growing industry-backed calls for state and regional market fixes to protect nuclear reactors in the absence of a national price on carbon emissions. Industry behemoths are pushing federal regulators to enact reforms in Eastern and Midwestern markets that they say would strengthen the reliability of electricity supplies and shore up their bottom lines (EnergyWire, April 21).
But unlike Exelon, which partially blames production tax credits for wind for hurting nuclear's bottom line, Browner said she supports the wind industry's tax incentives. Exelon's opposition to wind PTCs has drawn the ire of wind advocates and the attention of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Still, it's unclear what shape a solution to nuclear's woes might take.
Mohl pointed out that retiring 11 gigawatts of nuclear power in the Northeast could trigger a 40 percent increase in carbon dioxide levels in that region -- and a 60 percent increase in natural gas demand there.
"The punch line I'd like you to take away is that we just can't assume merchant nuclear plants will continue to operate," he said, adding that market reforms that grid operators are considering, as well as state policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, are critical. "The time is of the essence right now."
Lyons noted that former Exelon President and CEO John Rowe said during a 2010 interview with Bloomberg News that the price of natural gas would have to rise to $8 per million British thermal units and permits for emitting a ton of carbon dioxide would have to be $25 to make the power prices from new merchant reactors competitive with gas-fueled plants. Lyons added that those conditions do not currently exist.
"To be frank, we don't really know today what solutions will work," Lyons said.