Obama Energy Official Renews Call for Clean-Energy Standard

Deputy Energy Secretary Daniel Poneman on Tuesday renewed the administration's call for a clean-energy standard for electricity, an idea first brought up by President Obama during his 2011 State of the Union address.

Speaking at a Center for Strategic and International Studies forum on the future of nuclear energy, Poneman said that "nuclear has and can have an important and, if anything, a pivotal role to play in continuing the transformation of our energy economy," also citing the administration's efforts to "double down" on renewable energy.

"In that respect, it's worth noting "¦ a clean-energy standard," Poneman said. "The idea is obviously to create a market here at home for innovative clean-energy technologies, such as nuclear, and in so doing, to unleash the ingenuity of American entrepreneurs, American innovators, and help America win this global race for clean energy."

Obama first mentioned the idea of such a clean-energy standard in 2011, calling for 80 percent of the nation's electricity to be produced from clean sources by 2035.

Despite initial bipartisan support for the idea and draft legislation from Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Jeff Bingaman, the proposal couldn't gain traction in the upper chamber and eventually stalled.  As these talks dissipated, so did calls for a clean-energy standard from the administration.

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But Poneman's words on Tuesday signal that the administration hasn't given up on the proposal just yet — just as it hasn't given up on nuclear energy.

While other countries have shied away from nuclear power since last year's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident in Japan, U.S. officials like Poneman continue to tout nuclear energy as an integral part of America's energy future.

Just last week, the Japanese government signaled that it would work to phase out nuclear energy by the end of 2040, joining countries like Germany, France, Belgium, and Switzerland, which have vowed either to scale down or completely phase out nuclear energy in the wake of last year's events.

But Nuclear Regulatory Commission member Kristine Svinicki said on Tuesday that the United States needs to move past crisis mode and focus instead on a longer-term approach to nuclear safety.

"It is time to formally recognize that the event has passed the phase of immediate crisis. And, lessons learned, responses now need to prioritized with other ongoing matters no less important to safety and, in some cases, more so," Svinicki said.

Svinicki detailed the work she and her colleagues at the NRC have been doing to implement regulations at the 104 U.S. nuclear reactors based on lessons learned from last year's accident in Japan, though the work is not yet complete.

Speakers at the CSIS nuclear-energy forum on Tuesday cited the natural-gas boom as the biggest hurdle for the future of nuclear energy, as the vast resources and low cost of natural gas mean that the already-costly investment to build new nuclear reactors is even more of an obstacle.

Panelists also noted the languishing problem of storing the nation's spent-nuclear fuel. Obama's blue-ribbon panel, created after he shuttered the planned nuclear-waste resposity at Yucca Mountain in Nevada, offered a series of proposals for dealing with the problem of spent fuel, but lawmakers in Congress have yet to move forward.

Bingaman proposed legislation based on the presidential panel's recommendations this summer, but it is not expected to get traction in this Congress.

Still, Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., chairman of Environment and Public Works Clean Air and Nuclear Safety Subcommittee, said on Tuesday that he sees potential for the bill next year.

"I think Jeff in authoring this legislation laid down a marker," Carper said. "We'll find a way to get it done."