Nuclear should be considered part of clean energy standard, White House says

Image of two power plant cooling towers.

More details have emerged about the climate and energy priorities of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan, and they include support for nuclear power and carbon capture with sequestration (CCS).

In a press conference yesterday with reporters, White House climate adviser Gina McCarthy said the administration would seek to implement a clean energy standard that would encourage utilities to use greener power sources. She added that both nuclear and CCS would be included in the administration’s desired portfolio. The clean energy standard adds a climate dimension to the Biden administration’s recently announced infrastructure plan, seeking to put the US on a path to eliminating carbon pollution.

“We think a CES is appropriate and advisable, and we think the industry itself sees it as one of the most flexible and most effective tools,” McCarthy told reporters. “The CES is going to be fairly robust and it is going to be inclusive.”

Biden has called for 100 percent of America’s electricity to be generated by carbon-free sources by 2035. Nuclear power does not produce any carbon pollution, and many experts say it should be included in any net-zero plans because of its large existing generating capacity and its ability to provide large amounts of power consistently. But nuclear has been criticized by some environmentalists over its radioactive waste and concerns about meltdowns.

Typically, state standards do not include nuclear in their portfolios. Rather, they usually focus on renewable energy sources like wind, solar, and hydropower. McCarthy did not provide details about how far a CES would go in supporting nuclear power. It’s possible that the policy may only cover plants that are currently operating, but it may also extend to include new plants. The former is more likely than the latter, though, given the challenges and costs involved in building new nuclear capacity.

The other technology McCarthy mentioned, CCS, has long been proposed as a solution to fossil fuels’ carbon pollution problems. The technology captures carbon dioxide from power plant exhaust streams and sequesters it underground. Typically, the process involves some kind of amine-based solution that absorbs carbon dioxide from the exhaust. The solution is then heated to release the pure carbon dioxide so the gas can be easily transported for storage or utilization. The technology has been condemned for prolonging reliance on fossil fuels, and no commercial power plant in the US currently uses CCS. One existing pilot-scale plant, NRG’s Petra Nova, was shut down over cost concerns, and CCS was dropped from another, Southern’s Kemper Project, for similar reasons.

Though the Biden administration favors the clean energy standard, McCarthy said they aren’t ruling out a carbon tax or fee to get to net-zero. Such taxes are generally based on the amount of carbon pollution a fossil fuel produces when burned. Economists tend to favor carbon taxes for their simplicity, but they’ve proven to be politically fraught.

Five members of President Biden’s cabinet, including the secretaries for transportation, energy, labor, commerce, and housing and urban development, are meeting with members of Congress to begin the legislative process.