Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: email@example.com
The opposition is still very high and very effective.
As climate-change legislation began winding its way through the U.S. Senate this fall, the outlines of a possible bipartisan deal came into focus. Republicans would accept limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, while Democrats would accept vast growth in the number of nuclear power plants. State governments, however, may stand in the way of such a compromise.
New nuclear plants generally can't be built without permission from both federal and state government. And nuclear power hasn't been faring so well in the legislatures lately. This year, half a dozen states rebuffed efforts to overturn longstanding bans on new reactors. As Michael Mariotte, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service, puts it, "The opposition to nuclear power at the state level and the grassroots level is still very high and very effective."
Supporters of nuclear power aren't discouraged. They note that bills overturning nuclear bans in some states, such as Kentucky and Minnesota, went further in the legislature than they have in the past. Plus, a number of states, particularly in the Southeast, are openly receptive to the idea of having more nuclear power reactors. Mike McGarey, director of state outreach for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry group, says, "New nuclear is going to go where it's wanted."
For new nuclear to go anywhere, though, it will need more than just legal authorization. Nuclear power plants are so expensive that they're almost impossible to finance privately. So states must decide whether utilities can charge ratepayers for the cost of the plants while they're being built. The nuclear industry's biggest legislative victory this year was passage of a bill in Georgia to allow just that. Another state-level debate hinges on whether nuclear counts as renewable energy in states that mandate a certain percentage of electricity to come from clean sources. And what to do with nuclear waste is a question that continues to vex policy makers at both the federal and state levels.
None of these decisions may matter much if Congress doesn't act to encourage nuclear power. On the other hand, what Congress decides may not matter either, if states decide they're not interested in encouraging nuclear, too.