One could be forgiven for thinking that the bad old days of Democratic Party obstruction of nuclear energy development, deployment, and operations were over. The Biden administration, like the Obama administration before it, has supported efforts to develop an innovative nuclear industry and today acknowledges that next-generation nuclear reactors will be needed for the United States to meet its climate targets. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm has repeatedly emphasized that advanced nuclear reactors will be necessary to achieve net zero emissions in the United States and globally. Congressional Democrats have joined bipartisan legislative coalitions that have committed billions to demonstrate new reactor technologies and have supported legislation directing the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to modernize its licensing rules to accommodate a new generation of reactors that are smaller, safer, and radically different from today’s large light water reactors.
But the recent nomination of Jeff Baran to a third term as commissioner at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission suggests that the Democratic Party’s about face on the nuclear question still has a way to go. If he is confirmed, Baran will be among the longest serving commissioners in NRC history. He is the last Democratic commissioner appointed under the leadership of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, an avowed opponent of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository who, for the better part of three decades, dominated Democratic policy-making on all questions related to nuclear energy.
Reid not only led the Democratic effort to stop the construction of the repository but effectively blocked most policy support for nuclear energy until an alternative federal waste disposal strategy, which the Department of Energy has yet to designate, could be identified. Opposition to Yucca Mountain was, and still is, a litmus test for Democratic nominees to the NRC.
Democrats appointed a string of anti-nuclear commissioners to the commission in recent decades. Baran’s first appointment to the commission followed that of Gregory Jaczko, whom Obama not only appointed to the commission but elevated to its chair. His opposition to nuclear energy was so extreme that he was removed from the commission after the other four commissioners, including his fellow Democrats, petitioned Congress to do so. Jaczko was followed by Allison Macfarlane, a less polarizing figure who nonetheless continued Democrat’s practice at the commission of opposing virtually all efforts to establish a functional regulatory framework that recognized nuclear energy’s proven record of reducing air pollution and cutting carbon emissions and that grounded safety regulations in modern understandings of radiological health risk.
Baran is cut from the same cloth. He came to the commission from the House Energy and Commerce committee, where he worked for Congressman Henry Waxman, a long-time nuclear opponent. As Congressional Democrats have become more pro-nuclear in recent years, Baran has paid lip service to the same. In his 2018 and 2023 confirmation hearings, he has offered statements suggesting support for advanced nuclear technology and openness to regulatory modernization. But his actual voting record on the commission tells a different story.
Baran has consistently voted against proposals to revise NRC rules to accommodate advanced reactor technology. He was the sole vote on the commission against changes to NRC siting rules that would allow small advanced reactors to be deployed at retiring coal plants and against changing emergency planning requirements to reflect reduced accident risk associated with advanced reactors. He was the sole vote against allowing the preparation of generic environmental impact statements for advanced reactors that are manufactured modularly and have little land or water use impact.
Baran has voted in favor of requiring emergency planning for vanishingly low probability accidents at nuclear facilities - those with an expected probability of occurring less than once every 10 million operating years. And he supported the NRC staff’s 1200-page draft framework for licensing advanced reactors, which largely cuts and pastes existing rules for licensing large light water reactors into the new framework for advanced reactors, despite virtually unanimous feedback from advanced reactor developers that the proposed framework is so unwieldy and burdensome that it will not be used.
Baran has repeatedly expressed the view, without evidence, that streamlining NRC licensing and regulations would inherently compromise nuclear safety. In keeping with that view, he has consistently voted for policies to increase the regulatory burden and oversight on existing nuclear reactors, which are already the most heavily regulated energy technology in the world and have an unrivaled record of safe operations.
In anticipation of questions about his voting record, Baran recently publicized a memo to his fellow commissioners affirming the need to improve regulatory efficiency and rationalize licensing of advanced reactors. But Baran’s long and well-documented record of voting against virtually every proposed change in NRC practices that might allow for such an outcome suggests that these assurances, like those that he gave to the same committee during his 2014 and 2018 confirmation hearings, should be taken with a grain of salt. When it comes time to stand up and vote for needed changes at the NRC, Baran is unlikely to be a constructive member of the commission.
The coming confirmation vote of the full Senate, then, marks a crucible for Senate Democrats. It is all fine and well to support nuclear energy in theory, pass legislation giving vague direction to the NRC to modernize itself, and spend other people’s money on future nuclear reactors that are unlikely to be commercialized in the absence of those reforms at the NRC. Quite something else to insist that the regulator change with the times, and the radically different technologies now ready for licensing.
Baran, along with a small minority of Democratic senators such as Ed Markey and Bernie Sanders, represents the last vestige of the Democratic Party’s obstructionist and anti-nuclear past. If Democrats are serious about nuclear’s critical role in America’s energy transition, then they will need ignore Baran’s vague reassurances regarding his support for advanced nuclear energy, reject his nomination, and insist that the Biden administration appoint a commissioner who is as serious about fixing the NRC as both the Biden administration and Congress say they are about commercializing a new generation of nuclear reactors to fight climate change and get America off of fossil fuels.