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Politics

Congress Might Be on the Verge of Passing the Year’s First Climate Law

Turns out, nuclear energy is the rare point on which Democrats and Republicans can all agree.

Nuclear power.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Congress appears to be very close to passing the first climate law of 2024. But don’t look for the word ‘climate‘ in it.

On Wednesday, the House voted overwhelmingly to pass the Atomic Energy Advancement Act, a bill designed to update nuclear energy laws and regulations to better accommodate newer, advanced nuclear reactor designs.

Nuclear plants are the largest source of clean energy in the U.S. and building more of them is one of the rare climate solutions that Republicans and Democrats can agree on. Electricity demand is surging for the first time in decades, thanks in part to the boom in domestic manufacturing of electric vehicles, batteries, solar panels, and other devices needed for the energy transition. In addition to not producing greenhouse gas emissions, nuclear plants are uniquely equipped to help meet that demand because they are extremely reliable and can run at near-full capacity pretty much 24/7.

And yet nuclear technology is in an awkward phase in the U.S. Recent attempts to build old-school reactors have ended up years behind schedule and gone billions over budget. Meanwhile, there are lots of companies itching to deploy newer designs, but U.S. nuclear policy is geared toward the older tech and it’s not easy for newer ideas to break through.

The House bill aims to address this, first and foremost, by directing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal body that issues nuclear plant licenses, to update its mission statement. The new vision for the agency would be to operate “in a manner that is efficient and does not unnecessarily limit the potential of nuclear energy to improve the general welfare and the benefits of nuclear energy technology to society.” Though it’s not spelled out explicitly, that includes the climate benefits.

Republican Rep. Jeff Duncan of South Carolina, who was one of the bill’s lead sponsors, said in a statement that expanding U.S. nuclear “both here and abroad” is essential both to reducing emissions and to “building durable economic and strategic relationships around the world” — a reference, most likely, to the growing nuclear ambitions of China and Russia. But he was also motivated by challenges much closer to home.

“South Carolina is growing which means our power demand is increasing,” Duncan said. “My home state uses twice as much energy as we produce which is leading to a resource adequacy crisis in the state — while the Nation also sits on the precipice of an energy crisis. The good news for South Carolina is that we are blessed with expertise in nuclear technology.”

The bill comes on the heels of COP28, the United Nations Climate Conference held in December, wherethe Biden administration signed on to an international declaration to triple nuclear energy by 2050 in order to reduce emissions and keep global temperatures from climbing to catastrophic heights.

The change in mission statement is particularly important, Adam Stein, the director of the nuclear energy innovation program at the Breakthrough Institute told me. He said the NRC has a fairly broad mandate from Congress, but unlike other federal agencies that consider costs and benefits in their decision-making, the Commission currently focuses exclusively on safety. “The agency's self-imposed limitations prevent a comprehensive evaluation of its role in addressing crucial societal challenges such as climate change and clean energy adoption.” He said the amendment would empower the Commission to consider a wider array of factors, including public health, environmental protection, and national energy goals.

To live up to this new ethos, the Commission would have to establish practices for evaluating applications that enable faster and more predictable reviews. The bill directs the NRC to streamline environmental assessments, in line with the National Environmental Policy Act reforms Congress passed last summer, and establish nuclear-specific “categorical exclusions,” or actions that do not require environmental review. It also boosts the NRC's staffing capacity to process applications more efficiently.

The NRC would also have to develop an expedited process for applicants using previously licensed reactor designs and that plan to build on or adjacent to an existing nuclear plant. Today the process can take five years, and the Commission must limit it, in these cases, to 25 months max. The Commission would also have to lower the fees it charges companies to apply for licenses.

The bill contains other reforms, including directing the Commission to create a separate regulatory framework for fusion reactors. The Department of Energy would have to update export requirements to encourage the deployment of U.S. technologies abroad. The bill also creates a pilot project, directing the DOE to enter into a long-term power purchase agreement with a yet-to-be-built, first-of-a-kind nuclear plant by the end of 2028. Such an agreement would give the lucky developer the certainty they need to finance a riskier project.

Now, the legislation will head to the Senate, which will have to reconcile it with a bill passed last summer called the Advance Act that contained many — but not all — of the same policies and programs.

“I think when you compare those you'll see relatively broad agreement between the House and the Senate that something needs to be done here,” Evan Chapman, the U.S. federal policy director at Clean Air Task Force, told me.

Green

Emily Pontecorvo

Emily is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Previously she was a staff writer at the nonprofit climate journalism outlet Grist, where she covered all aspects of decarbonization, from clean energy to electrified buildings to carbon dioxide removal. Read More

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