Can the tea party go nuclear?

December 30, 2010

By Darius Dixon, Politico

Signs point to a nuclear power surge on Capitol Hill: A newly empowered House Republican majority and several influential senators ready to make a push for nuclear as a source of climate-friendly power.

But the tea party-led charge to cut spending and pull back the hand of government could stand in the way.

Although several tea party-supported winners in the House espoused an “all of the above” approach to energy policy that included nuclear energy during their campaigns, it remains to be seen how these new members will react to the sticker shock of new reactors and the massive role the federal government plays throughout the industry.

Nuclear power is where energy independence meets big government – the industry depends on subsidies, loan guarantees and other federal funds that are an easy target for those seeking to shave deficits and big government.

The bulk of the industry’s planned construction in the U.S. is propped up by multibillion-dollar federal loan guarantees. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 – passed by a Republican Congress and signed by President George W. Bush – created a pool of $18.5 billion in guarantees to promote low-emission energy sources, including nuclear.

But those loan guarantees are now drawing heavy fire from conservatives looking for places to cut federal spending obligations. Taxpayers for Common Sense, the Competitive Enterprise Institute and the National Taxpayers Union all have urged Congress to drop additional loan guarantee funds.

“We have to question those who consider themselves fiscal conservatives [while] supporting nuclear power which is, essentially, the most heavily subsidized form of power in a heavily subsidized industry,” Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said in an interview.

Ryan Hecker, a Houston lawyer who organized the tea-party-backed Contract From America, said the nuclear industry’s dependence on loan guarantees is the government’s own creation.

“There are billionaires out there that believe in nuclear energy,” said Hecker, who also supports expanding nuclear. “I honestly think one of the major problems is not just capital costs but that they’re on an unfair playing field.”

“In America, we’re about the free market,” he added. “I have a really really hard time believing that nuclear energy can only survive, and can only prosper, under a government-controlled industry.”

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