democratic governors block bills for new nuclear power plants

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, left, and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, both Democrats, vetoed bills to allow construction of new nuclear power plants in their states over the past three months.

North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, left, and Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, right, both Democrats, vetoed bills to allow construction of new nuclear power plants in their states over the past three months.

In just the last three months, the Democratic governors of Illinois and North Carolina have vetoed bills to build new reactors in their states, warning that doing so would divert money and attention from a strategy of using renewable energy backed up, at least for now, with natural gas.

The first was Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose state generates more power from atomic fission than any other and who has championed subsidies to keep existing plants open. In August, the second-term governor vetoed a bill he said would “open the door to the proliferation of large-scale nuclear reactors that are so costly to build that they will cause exorbitant ratepayer-funded bailouts” and provide “no regulatory protections or updates to address the health and safety of Illinois residents who would live and work around these new reactors.”

Earlier this month, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper rejected a bill to allow utilities to build new nuclear reactors in addition to renewables like solar and wind to meet the state’s goals for carbon-free electricity.

Last week, the Republican majority in both houses of the legislature overrode the veto with the help of five Democrats, clearing the way for utility giant Duke Energy’s plans to build state-of-the-art nuclear reactors in a state that already uses nuclear power but still generates most of its electricity from natural gas and coal.

It’s a sudden turnabout after Democrats had begun to grow more comfortable with nuclear power. For years, the partisan politics of nuclear energy saw Democrats generally oppose nuclear energy — the nation’s most efficient and largest source of carbon-free electricity — while Republicans supported it. That dynamic has shifted in recent years as the Biden administration has sought to preserve and expand the country’s world-leading fleet of nuclear reactors in a bid to stem mounting blackouts and wean the grid off fossil fuels. As such, Democratic governors in states like California and Michigan have reversed their past opposition to nuclear power.

Pacific Gas and Electric's Diablo Canyon Power Plant, the only operating nuclear power plant in California, seen in June 2023 in Avila Beach.

Pacific Gas and Electric’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant, the only operating nuclear power plant in California, seen in June 2023 in Avila Beach.
Brian van der Brug via Getty Images

If there is an easy explanation for the two moves, it may lay in voter opinions. “Democrats still register in polls as far less excited about nuclear energy than they are about renewable power,” said Jackie Toth, deputy director of the Good Energy Collective, a progressive pro-nuclear group. “So Democratic governors in Democratic states are still finding it a little harder to support nuclear even from a climate and air-quality standpoint.”

Another part of the problem, she said, was the high price of completing the only new reactor built from scratch in the U.S. in a generation — the first of two 1,110-megawatt machines at the Alvin W. Vogtle Electric Generating Plant in northern Georgia, which came online in July after 14 years of billion-dollar delays.

Earlier this month, Georgia Power agreed to pay the Oglethorpe Power Corp. $413 million to settle a lawsuit accusing the utility giant that owns Plant Vogtle over the cost overruns. The settlement could help keep bills down for millions of electric cooperative customers in the Peach State.

Between overall inflation in the economy and rollercoastering prices for fuels like natural gas and oil, “you’re seeing political leaders today respond to constituents’ price sensitivity,” Toth said.

“Nuclear already had a reputation for going over budget and could be seen as a consumer risk without more price protections,” she said, noting that her group advocates for nuclear companies seeking new types of insurance and other policies to protect against cost overruns.

The rejections stand in contrast to moves by Republican governors to encourage more use of nuclear energy. Last year, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice lifted his state’s ban on constructing nuclear reactors. A month later, Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon signed legislation designed to make it easier for the Bill Gates-backed nuclear startup TerraPower to pursue its debut project of transforming a coal-fired power plant into a state-of-the-art nuclear facility. In August, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott hyped a proposal to build a novel type of small nuclear reactor at a Dow Chemical facility in his state.

Older fears of the mostly overplayed risks of radiation from spent fuel and operating facilities have motivated other Democratic governors to sign anti-nuclear bills.

Units 3, left, and 4 and their cooling towers stand at Georgia Power Co.'s Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant on Jan. 20 in Waynesboro, Georgia.

Units 3, left, and 4 and their cooling towers stand at Georgia Power Co.’s Plant Vogtle nuclear power plant on Jan. 20 in Waynesboro, Georgia.
via Associated Press

In August, two days after Abbott’s event in Texas, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul approved legislation blocking the owner of the shuttered Indian Point Energy Center nuclear plant an hour north of New York City from releasing small volumes of wastewater into the Hudson River.

Such coolant water, containing a radioactive isotope of hydrogen called tritium, has been routinely diluted and flushed into waterways around the world for decades. Repeated studies have never shown the isotope to cause cancer in humans, particularly when released at volumes that are indistinguishable from the natural levels of tritium in the environment.

Amid fresh uproar over the now-closed facility discharging what’s known as tritiated water into the river as it had during its decades of operations, Hochul enacted legislation banning the releases from Indian Point. The law excluded the rest of the state’s nuclear plants and wastewater treatment facilities — which, by processing fluids from hospitals where radiological medicine is administered, tend to release far more radioactive materials into waterways than nuclear power plants — opened the door to potentially more risky methods of disposal.

The move came months after New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed a bill blocking construction of any nuclear-waste storage facilities in the state without state permission and until the federal government establishes a permanent repository.

The U.S. had been on the cusp of building the world’s first long-term disposal site for nuclear waste until 2009, when then-President Barack Obama cut funding to the Yucca Mountain project in Nevada. The move, a high political priority for then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, essentially froze the debate over how to deal with nuclear waste, since the Reagan-era law that set the project in motion established Yucca Mountain as the first such site. Until Congress changes the law, that designation prevents the federal government from starting work on an alternative site.

In this April 9, 2015, file photo, people walk into the south portal of Yucca Mountain during a congressional tour of the proposed radioactive waste dump near Mercury, Nev., 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

In this April 9, 2015, file photo, people walk into the south portal of Yucca Mountain during a congressional tour of the proposed radioactive waste dump near Mercury, Nev., 90 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
via Associated Press

But in Southwestern states like New Mexico, where the U.S. government tested atomic bombs and mined uranium with little regard for the health effects radioactive pollution had on the region’s large Indigenous populations, accusations of “nuclear colonialism” drummed up significant opposition to a proposed medium-term waste site. Grisham signed the law in March.

Nuclear waste is tightly controlled and generated in relatively minuscule volumes compared to the millions of tons of heat-trapping carbon and disease-causing particles fossil fuels pump into the atmosphere every day. All the radioactive spent fuel waste generated over the past 60 years in the U.S. would fit inside one Walmart Supercenter. Absent a permanent repository, the vast majority sits in short-term storage on site at nuclear power plants around the country.

That the Illinois and North Carolina governors vetoed the bills to support new nuclear reactors in their states without explicitly mentioning radioactive materials “suggests some progress in the conversation around nuclear waste storage in the United States,” Toth said.

“People understand that nuclear is one of the only technologies that knows exactly where all its waste output is,” she said. “I found it notable that it wasn’t explicitly mentioned” in the veto messages.

In April, the pollster Gallup found 55% of American adults “strongly” or “somewhat” favor the use of nuclear energy, a four-percentage-point rise from the previous year.

In August, 57% of Americans surveyed by the Pew Research Center said they favored building more nuclear power plants, up from 43% in 2020. Among Republicans and conservative-leaning U.S. adults, support was even higher, clocking in at 67%. Democratic support only reached 50%.

Recent federal legislation to boost the U.S. nuclear energy industry has generally been bipartisan. But on the national level, “both parties arguably have anti-nuclear biases embedded within their respective coalitions,” said Craig Piercy, executive director of the American Nuclear Society, a nonprofit of academics and industry officials that advocates for atomic research and energy in the public interest.

“For Republicans, it’s a reluctance to accept hard truths about climate change and decarbonization. For Democrats, it’s a lingering preference for ‘renewables’ even if it means higher energy prices and a less reliable energy grid in the future,” he said by email. “But let’s not bury the lead. In North Carolina, the argument wasn’t about whether or not to act on decarbonization, it was about how best to do it. That’s progress.”

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