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NUCLEAR TOWNHALL NEWSMAKERS: MATT BENNETT AND JOSH FREED OF THIRD WAY

Nuclear Townhall
December 22, 2010

 


  Matt Bennett           Joshua Freed

Third Way was formed by a group of progressive Democrats in the aftermath of the 2004 Presidential election. The founders believed that “too often, our nation’s policy and political debates are defined by the rigid or outdated orthodoxies of both left and right” and that “this polarization leads to ideologically driven policies and political gridlock.”  The team included “a former Clinton White House deputy and Department of Housing and Urban Development chief of staff, former senior Senate and House policy aides, non-profit issue advocates and experts and campaign veterans” – not the kind of crew you’d expect to be embracing nuclear energy. Yet through carefully reasoned analysis and a penchant for shucking off ideological labels, Third Way has become one of nuclear’s biggest advocates in Washington. Two weeks ago, along with the Idaho National Laboratory, Third Way sponsored a “Nuclear Summit” that attempted to lay the groundwork for carrying the Nuclear Renaissance into the 212th Congress. Matt Bennett, co-founder and vice president for public affairs and Josh Freed, director of the Clean Energy Program, gave us their views on the current situation.
 
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  In pro-nuclear circles, you’re known as the progressive Democratic group that’s in favor of nuclear power. Looking at your website, however, it appears that you have a much broader agenda. How do you present yourself to other Democrats?  Do they think of you as “the pro-nuclear group?”
 
THIRD WAY:  No, we’re a multi-issue think tank. We care deeply about the future of nuclear energy, but we have program areas that include the Economy, National Security, Culture, Domestic Policy and, of course, Clean Energy. We advocate for private sector economic growth, a tough and smart security strategy, bold education and anti-poverty reforms, progress on divisive culture issues, and a clean energy revolution.
 
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL: After co-hosting this month’s Nuclear Summit in Washington, what was your overall impression of the mood within the nuclear industry?
 
THIRD WAY: They’re wary. There was great excitement about nuclear’s future before the sharp decline in natural gas prices. Now utilities – particular those in merchant markets – are taking a careful look at the financial implications of new nuclear. They are also watching to see how government policy – from the loan guarantee program to the NRC licensing process – plays out for the first movers.  
 
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  Press reports of the Summit concentrated on the possibility that nuclear might be included in some kind of omnibus “clean energy mandate” that Congress would impose on the whole country. Do you think that’s the right way to go?
 
THIRD WAY:  Absolutely. We have always argued that clean energy advocates – and we count ourselves among them – should recognize nuclear as clean. Indeed, nuclear is the mother of all clean energy sources. It can provide abundant baseload power without greenhouse gas emissions, and it’s a technology that we know how to build and deploy today. Any policy requiring utilities to have more clean energy sources in their portfolios should be built around that fact.
 
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  You were quite committed to cap-and-trade during the recent Congressional session. Now that doesn’t seem like a possibility. Is there anywhere we can go from here in putting a price on carbon?
 
THIRD WAY: It’s not at all clear what the new Republican majority in the House will want to do, but it’s fairly clear what they do NOT want to do and a price on carbon is one of those things. So while a carbon price or cap-and-trade systems are not politically viable now, we think there are other things – like a clean energy standard – that might pass muster, even in a Republican House.
 
NULEAR TOWNHALL:  In your analysis of cap-and-trade’s failure in The Washington Post you suggested that environmental groups had made every possible accommodation to various interest groups but still came up short. Yet they never really reconciled themselves to nuclear power, did they?  Or to put it more bluntly, couldn’t environmental groups have embraced nuclear power and admitted that it’s the only thing that can ever replace fossil fuels?  Wouldn’t the public have taken that more seriously than the fantasy world of running an industrial economy on windmills and solar collectors?
 
THIRD WAY: Without adopting your words about the “fantasy,” we do agree that one flaw in the campaign for the climate bill was the failure on the part of most of the outside advocates to accept a place for nuclear power. That was a mistake, for both political and substantive reasons. We’re not sure it was fatal, however. In the Senate, the bill’s chief advocates – Kerry, Graham and Lieberman – all embraced nuclear power and even Sen. Boxer had grudgingly agreed that it would be part of the mix. So while the outside groups should have come to that conclusion on their own, the Senators got there anyway and it still didn’t fly. Rejecting nuclear wasn’t what killed the bill – it collapsed under its own weight.
 
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, J. Wayne Leonard, CEO of Entergy, argued that substituting natural gas for coal would be the best way to deal with global warming. When the owner of Indian Point and Vermont Yankee starts arguing for natural gas, you get the feeling that nuclear isn’t going anywhere soon, don’t you?  What’s your take on increasing our reliance on natural gas?
 
THIRD WAY: There’s no question that utility executives, under pressure from boards and shareholders, are leaning toward the much cheaper alternatives at the moment. We think that they should be taking a longer view. The spot price of natural gas gives you a look – a guess, really – at the price of gas up to five years from now. With nuclear, a plant conceived today wouldn’t come on line for at least 10 years, but it would operate for another 60-120 years. It’s a huge mistake for the U.S. to be making 100-year decisions about energy based on today’s spot prices of a volatile commodity like natural gas. As John Dyson, the former Chairman of the New York State Power Authority, noted at the Nuclear Summit, the Niagara Falls hydro plant wasn’t economical when it was built but today it provides New York with power at less than half-a-cent per kWh.
 
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  Everybody is concerned with the idea that China, Korea and the rest of the world are soon going to be ahead of us in developing nuclear technology. Aside from the usual concerns of economic competitiveness, is there any other reason we should be worried about falling so far behind in nuclear? 
 
THIRD WAY: Yes – the nation that leads the world in the production of nuclear energy and the manufacturing of nuclear parts is also going to be the arbitrator of nuclear technology. Given the enormous geopolitical risks associated with this technology falling into the wrong hands, Americans should be demanding that this nation continue to lead the world in the development of civilian nuclear power and not cede that territory to other countries. China not only is our economic rival, it has a profoundly different view of the relative risks of nuclear proliferation – witness its actions toward North Korea and Iran. We want the U.S. to remain in the nuclear energy driver’s seat.
 
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  We recently talked with the owner of a small reactor company who told us that while people abroad greet him enthusiastically when they find he works in nuclear technology, he’s actually heard people in this country tell him they thought nuclear power was illegal in the U.S. Moving in the circles you do, are you ever surprised by a general lack of awareness about nuclear?
 
THIRD WAY: The general public’s lack of knowledge about nuclear energy is staggering. In focus groups, we’ve heard people say they know “nothing” about how nuclear energy is generated and others offer total misinformation. One man in a Virginia group we did in 2008 said that the Tennessee coal ash disaster was “nuclear waste.” Unfortunately, much of the public’s view of nuclear energy is formed by The Simpsons. For folks over 40, it’s The China Syndrome. An even bigger problem is that many in Congress are also ill- or under-informed about nuclear technology.
 
NUCLEAR TOWNHALL:  Thanks very much for your time and good luck with your efforts.
 
THIRD WAY:  Thank you – we appreciated the opportunity.

 

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