Japan Quake May Stall U.S. Nuclear-Power Expansion Plans

Renewable energy advocates are concerned that the unraveling nuclear crisis in Japan may prove to be a setback for U.S. clean energy policy. Efforts to stop and contain the meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station are intensifying as an attempt to pump ocean water into a crippled reactor temporarily failed yesterday, increasing the risk of the release of larger amounts of radioactive material. As nuclear fears grow, the anxiety could spell an end to the fragile truce between environmental advocates and nuclear power advocates -- the basis for the Obama administration's attempts to promote clean energy in the U.S.

"It's going to be more difficult to build a bipartisan consensus around clean energy," says Jesse Jenkins, director of energy and climate policy for the Breakthrough Institute. The Breakthrough Institute supports nuclear energy as part of the clean energy mix. During the state of the union speech, President Obama endorsed a goal of 80 percent of electricity produced by clean energy sources by 2035. He noted that this would include nuclear, wind, solar, and clean coal. By bringing together advocates for clean coal, nuclear and renewable energy sources like wind and solar, the administration hoped to build a bipartisan consensus.

Renewable energy advocates, already squeamish about this partnership, are having second thoughts. "This highlights one of the downsides, to put it mildly, of depending on nuclear energy for your energy supply," says Adam Browning, executive director of Vote Solar. Browning recalls that efforts to pull together a cap and trade climate bill and additional clean energy efforts collapsed following the Gulf oil spill. "In Florida," Browning says, "the oil industry had made an agreement that in return for the ability to expand offshore drilling off the coast, some portion of oil royalties would go to solar installations in Florida." After the BP disaster, Florida solar advocates withdrew from the deal. The efforts of Congressional leaders to fashion a clean energy and cap and trade compromise were also built on promises to support expanded offshore drilling. The BP disaster made expanding oil drilling politically untenable, one of many reasons why legislative leaders were unable to agree on a bill.

Greenpeace is collecting signatures on a new petition to stop "taxpayer-funded giveaways to the nuclear power industry." Greenpeace, founded in opposition to nuclear testing, is likely to intensify its opposition to nuclear power in the United States. Jenkins, of the Breakthrough Institute says, "there are very few scenarios where we get to the Obama clean energy goal without nuclear power."  According to Jenkins, nuclear energy provides about 20 percent of U.S. electricity and 80 percent of zero-carbon electricity. Greenpeace has published a roadmap that it says will reach the goal of meeting the world's energy needs without using oil, coal, or nuclear energy.

The early signals from legislative leaders have been cautious, with Senator Joe Lieberman, an advocate of nuclear power, calling for a temporary halt for new nuclear power plants. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suggested that policy-making should slow down in the midst of a crisis. "I don't think right after a major environmental catastrophe is a very good time to be making American domestic policy," he said on Fox News Sunday. Despite the legislative stall, solar stocks jumped today.

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Adam Werbach is the co-founder of sharing startup Yerdle, formerly the chief sustainability officer for Saatchi & Saatchi and the president of the Sierra Club. He is the author of Strategy for Sustainability: A Business ManifestoHe lives in San Francisco and Bolinas, California.

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